I was walking my dog earlier this month when a woman drove by, yelling, “Go back to your country!”
‘Go back to your country’ isn’t just racist – it’s shortsighted
Having knocked about many parts of the globe, I’m well equipped to let fly with a ripe riposte. Such exchanges, accompanied with suitably expressive hand gestures, are a thing of the moment and then usually easily forgotten.
But this particular insult, at this particular time, is lethal. It stuns, it poisons, and it is unforgettable.
We now have in the United States a President who has likened some immigrants to “animals,” rapists and thieves from “shithole” countries, and whose racist zeal has triggered America’s ugliest instincts. Since Trump took office, acts of hate have been on the rise, with over 300 hate incidents specifically targeting blacks, Muslims and immigrants, according to the ACLU.
Now the Trump administration, under the guise of IP protection, is mulling strict measures to block Chinese citizens from university research in areas that have potential military value, according to the New York Times.
Now, there’s much any country can and should do to energetically stay competitive. History is full of examples of nations that have risen or fallen by their ability – or lack thereof – to grasp the next big thing. There would be no “great” in Great Britain if Englishmen hadn’t figured out how to determine latitude and longitude, paving the way to major navigational feats and a colonial empire.
But this anti-Chinese researcher move – if implemented – smells more like xenophobia than prudence, and is part of a collection of short-sighted measures designed to drive away tech talent. It’s the cudgel, not the scalpel.
While it’s unclear if this anti-Chinese move would prevent espionage, it will almost certainly make it more difficult for US universities and companies to develop cutting-edge technology, according to the MIT Technology Review.
The Trump administration is bent on dismantling America’s soft power allure: the power that attracts people from all over the world to want to live, work and study here. It is soft power that made America a nation of immigrants, and it is immigrants who have won more than a third of America’s Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics.
This power doesn’t spring from nothing. It is rooted in a civil society, in free speech, in the easy exchange of ideas and rules that protect regular folk from the predations of the powerful. This is now under threat, and threatens America’s competitive edge in technology far more than a rivalry with China.
Right now, Asian-Americans – more specifically, Chinese-Americans – are more likely to be targeted in government crackdowns on industrial espionage that any other ethnic group. (More than 60% of defendants charged with economic espionage are Asian, according to a study by the Committee of 100. Those with Chinese names who are found guilty typically get twice the sentence time than those with Western names.)
Recent high-profile espionage cases of Asian-American scientists Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li and Haiping Su have been likened to witch-hunts, with prosecutors unable to prove their most serious charges. Nonetheless, these scientists suffered significant financial and reputational damage simply fighting the legal proceedings. (Despite being found innocent of spying charges three years ago, hydrologist Sherry Chen only just this month won the right to be reinstated in her job.)
We would do well to remember the McCarthy era, when, under the Red Scare hysteria, authorities stripped Jet Propulsion Lab founder Qian Xuesen of his security clearance and placed him under house arrest for years. Qian finally quit the US in disgust and went to China, where he founded the country’s space program.
We should also remember that 21% of cancer researchers at America’s top institutes were born in China.
“Go back to your country!”
What if they do?
Mei Fong is a columnist at Inkstone. She is a fellow at DC-based think-tank New America Foundation and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.