Driven by a desire to experience college life in America, 19-year-old Vivian recently took a train for four hours from central China to the southern city of Guangzhou, the nearest place where she could take a visa interview at a U.S. Consulate. Her plan hit turbulence the moment she arrived.
"What is your major?" Vivian recalled the visa officer asking her. "The next thing was that I would have to go through a background check."
A student at a university in Wuhan, who asked to be identified only by her English name, Vivian had won a place at summer school at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world's leading engineering schools. But being a Chinese student majoring in a subject as sensitive as aerospace engineering opened her up to scrutiny.
"Chinese graduate students in my major are often subjected to additional screenings, but this is the first time I heard anyone taking summer school [being] required to go through such a process," she said. "I was not even applying to study aerospace [engineering] in the U.S.; I just wanted to take a two-month computer course."
It took a month of waiting and a letter of guarantee from the university that she would not be allowed to enter any laboratories before the consulate finally granted her a visa. She was one of the lucky ones; one of her schoolmates, who planned to study automation, was turned down.
More than 360,000 Chinese students enrolled at American colleges in the 2017-18 academic year -- up from just 100,000 a decade ago. These students, and the universities that host them, now find themselves in the crossfire of the U.S.'s trade war with China. Since last year, Washington has tightened visa rules and intensified scrutiny on research collaborations between the two countries. At the same time, allegations of spying and intellectual property theft leveled by the administration against Chinese students and researchers have contributed to a hostile environment that threatens to undo years of progress.
"The U.S.'s tighter visa controls have sent a signal to Chinese students that we are not welcomed here," said Lavender Jiang, a 20-year-old Chinese who studies electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "It makes me feel bad, as if someone shut the door in my face."
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