If all attempts to cooperate fail and bans are inevitable, at least the US will show the Chinese people and Chinese entrepreneurs that it is open to Chinese products, services and innovations, yet the CPC remains the unbreakable barrier to cooperation. Explaining to the Chinese people that the problem is simply the lack of an independent judiciary that limits the CPC’s overreaching control, not the rise of China as an innovative economy, might generate doubt towards the party, instead of anti-Americanism. Instead of uniting China’s elites and people together by targeting Chinese innovation, the Biden administration should focus on identifying the different interests between political, economic and intellectual elites, or between the leadership and the people and try to use them, not to bring regime change, but whatever degree of liberalization is possible.
When it comes to the issue of espionage, the Biden administration needs to rethink things. Espionage is a real threat, but attracting global and Chinese talent is vital. With every Chinese student that decides to study and then remain in America, the US becomes stronger and the PRC loses an opportunity and there is a transfer of power, however small, from China to the US. Out of the 350.000 Chinese students in the US, there are more who want to remain in America than there are PRC spies. Measures such as limiting visas for some Chinese students to one year are counterproductive and do nothing to address the real issue of espionage. The goal should be to encourage and attract Chinese talent, while carefully looking, at an individual level, for potential spies. It is vital that ethnic Chinese people in the US, whether American citizens or not, do not feel discriminated and there isn’t a climate of distrust which makes life difficult and might drive some away from the US.
Just as important, there should be opportunities for graduates to remain in the US, instead of moving back to China. Their stay in the US is also a good opportunity to learn more about democracy, rule of law and other political concepts, instead of just seeing them on TV in an imperfect form. It would be wise for US universities to provide courses in critical thinking and debunking disinformation and introductory courses on politics or political philosophy to all students, citizens or not, in all fields. As a bonus, it will also help with the domestic problem of disinformation and “fake news”, building long-term resilience among American voters to assaults on democracy and truth.
In the same sphere of discrimination is the one that comes from the broader public. Racism and violence against Asian-Americans are already on the rise. In the past three years, unfavorable public opinion on China rose from 47% to 66%. Many people simply associate Chinese-Americans with China. The more distrust and hatred of China will grow, the more discrimination and racism Chinese-Americans will have to endure. In fact, all Asian-Americans risk becoming victims of hate crimes, because many non-Asians, especially the ones likely to commit such hate crimes, fail to differentiate between people of different Asian ethnicities. How can this be avoided?
One critical way is not to create the general climate of hatred against China in the first place. Aggressive or illegal actions by the PRC need to be confronted, but there is no need to create the narrative of an invisible, pervasive, existential threat. All too often, China is seen as a monolith, instead of a hugely diverse country with 1.4 billion different individuals. Words matter, so politicians and officials have a duty to use them responsibly. If they tell the public that any Chinese student or any Chinese citizen might be a spy or a party propagandist, then the public will become distrustful of any Chinese, or “Chinese-looking” person. That is why the approach of warning that everything Chinese, from students to tourists, from companies to apps, might be a threat because the CPC might control it, is dangerous and needs to be abandoned. The Biden administration will have to chose every word carefully, because many in the general public do not differentiate between the current leadership in Beijing, the CPC, the PRC, China or the Chinese people. That is a simple fact that should constrain rhetoric and actions.