Credit: Joan Wong
Asian scientists in the US are wondering if they are welcome in the wake of racist attacks on Asian people in the streets and government policies, including the China Initiative, that target scientists who work with Chinese colleagues. Several scientists have said they are changing their behavior because they worry whether they will be targeted even though they have done nothing wrong. These recent events are part of a longer pattern of discrimination against Asians living in the US. Some academics have started speaking out about the problems, many for the first time.
It was 2 days before Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, and Chunhua Tony Hu was on his way to his lab at New York University.
The path from the subway led the chemistry professor through the city’s famed Washington Square Park. Hu had crossed it hundreds of times since coming to NYU in 2008.
Hu was halfway across the park when a man approached him and tried to hand him a flyer, a common occurrence around the urban NYU campus. As usual, Hu politely shook him off.
But then the man got angry. He started yelling loudly, hurling curse words at Hu. “He said, ‘You go back to China,’ ” Hu remembers.
Hu stood frozen in place as the man continued yelling. Eventually, the man started walking away. As he did, he shaped his hands to look like a gun and feigned shooting at Hu. Later, Hu realized the man was wearing a red hat with the “Make America Great Again” logo popularized by former president Donald J. Trump.
Hu was so shaken he could barely speak. He kept wondering why this stranger picked him out. “I’m an Asian face,” Hu says. “He doesn’t know if I’m Chinese or not.”
Hu is one of an increasing number of Asian people in the US who have experienced such attacks. From March 2020 to February 2021, Asian people reported almost 3,800 hate incidents, including verbal and physical attacks, civil rights violations, and shunning, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, which works to address racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. That number likely represents a small fraction of the total incidents, since many are not reported to the group. While anti-Asian racism has been around for decades, Asians in the US say attacks have increased, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in April, a boost some attributed to Trump’s hateful rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic originating in China.
For Asian scientists, particularly those of East Asian descent, these assaults add to the feeling of being unwelcome in the US after the Trump administration implemented several policies that disproportionately affect Chinese researchers. The China Initiative, launched by the US Department of Justice in 2018, says its goal is to stop intellectual property theft by the Chinese government. While a few people have been charged with espionage, the initiative has affected scientists collaborating with researchers in China, with charges related to not disclosing payments, not paying appropriate taxes, or lying on visa applications. So far, the China Initiative has continued under the Biden administration. Other Trump efforts included visa restrictions that hampered travel for academics and students coming from China. Some have been overturned by the new administration, but at least one remains in effect.
Collectively, these events have created an atmosphere of fear among Asian faculty and students, who worry about being targeted for their race or immigrant background, even if they were born in the US or have been in the country long enough to become citizens.
“It’s discouraging. I cannot change my background. I cannot change how I look,” says Wenshe Ray Liu, a chemistry professor at Texas A&M University who came to the US in 2000 for graduate school. He’s been working to do his best science and benefit the country. But at the same time, Liu says, “I probably have been continuously viewed as a foreigner here.”
Many people hope that Biden will help turn things around. “The administration clearly recognizes the concerns that our community has been presenting with respect to the anti-Asian hate and violence over the last year,” says John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC, an advocacy group. But although the Biden administration has condemned racism and violence against Asian people, efforts to get the government to take action, such as by reexamining criminal charges against Asian scientists, have not succeeded yet.
Hu says that no one should be targeted because of their race. That’s why he ultimately decided to share his experiences.
Immediately after his assault in January, Hu told the campus police but few other people. “Asian people don’t like to talk about bad experiences about themselves. They hide it,” Hu says.
But then Hu heard about other incidents of anti-Asian hate, including six Asian women who were killed as part of a shooting spree in Atlanta on March 16. Hu sent an email to his friends and colleagues detailing his experience. They have been supportive, he says. Some of his Asian colleagues even told him about their own experiences of attacks, most of which they never reported.
Many people “don’t believe this happens here unless you have some friends or people you know who have this experience,” Hu says. “Probably if nothing happened to me, I would be with them.”
Long before Trump took office, Asian scientists working in the US faced issues of fitting in, whether they had been in the country a month, a decade, or their whole lives.
Song Lin, a chemistry professor at Cornell University, remembers when he began his job search several years ago and a professor told him that he should adopt an American-sounding name because a foreign name would hurt his chances of getting interviews. “I was a little surprised when I heard that,” Lin says.
Now, Lin thinks the professor, an immigrant himself, was trying to help. When people see an Asian name, they assume the person will have communication or cultural issues, he says. He suspects that these are implicit biases that most people aren’t aware of.
Qining Wang, a chemistry graduate student at Northwestern University, says that she and her family didn’t consider discrimination or anti-Asian violence when they decided she would come to the US from China for her undergraduate degree. But now it’s something she thinks about all the time.
Wang regularly gets asked “where do I really come from,” she says. “When people ask that, I don’t know where their question is coming from,” she says—do they want to know where she lives now or where she grew up? And why do they want to know?
In the lab, she’s mostly had good experiences, but she is always worried about stereotypes about Asians. For example, when she’s presenting her research, she’s mindful that Chinese scientists have been accused of fabricating data. So Wang triple checks everything because she is worried people might make assumptions about any innocent mistakes.
And now she’s also afraid of being targeted on campus for being Asian, as some other Northwestern students have been. At the beginning of the pandemic, Wang felt that she couldn’t wear a mask for fear of the attention it might bring, even though she knew it would help keep her safe.
“I do feel like I have to repress my identity in a sense,” she says.
But those feelings of not quite belonging haven’t kept budding scientists from coming to the US from Asia and then staying to make a life and career here. Like many chemists before him, Texas A&M’s Liu first came to the US for its powerful research enterprise.
“Certainly the US at that time was probably the most advanced country in science,” Liu says. “I came here just purely for that reason, because I want to be working on cutting-edge science.”
Initially, Liu planned to return home after getting his PhD. But as he spent more time in the US, he realized that academic freedom is what made its science success possible. “I think this is the best place one can really do creative science,” says Liu, who has become a US citizen.
But Liu’s feelings have changed in the past few years, as he has seen more scientists of Chinese origin caught up in China Initiative investigations and prosecutions.
The situation hit particularly close to home for Liu when a Texas A&M chemistry graduate student from China was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She had gone to a university connected to the Chinese military as an undergraduate, Liu says, but knew nothing about military plans.
“This kind of targeting has been widespread,” Liu says. “I really started to worry. The situation tends to really affect me, affect my research too.”
Liu, a biological chemist who works in drug discovery, used to regularly send samples to anyone who asked for them, with university approval. Now he doesn’t send anyone anything. And he’s curtailed his international collaborations. “I don’t want someone to use a magnifier to check on me later on,” he says.
Lin is also holding back. In the past couple of years, he’s had an ongoing collaboration with a Chinese colleague. He has been open about the relationship with his university and funding agencies. But he paused the collaboration for a few months last year until he got explicit permission to continue from his agency program director, even though no money was exchanged. “It’s almost like walking on eggshells,” he says.
The federal government is attempting to clarify the rules about international collaborations, and Lin appreciates those efforts. “It’s always good to be transparent whenever there’s a potential conflict of interest, a collaboration, if I get paid to do some consulting, things like that,” he says.
Before he starts any new collaborations in Asia, Lin will look for potential colleagues in the US who might draw less scrutiny. “On one hand, it’s not fair to think that way because it’s really about the scientific match; it’s not about nationality,” he says. “But at the same time, just because of the environment, I have to start thinking about that as well.”
For Liu, the scrutiny has also changed his recruiting. Liu used to encourage Chinese scientists to come to the US because he thought it was the best place to do research. “But now, when I talk to Chinese students and postdocs, I just can’t tell them this anymore.”
Proportion of doctoral scientists and engineers in the US in 2019 who were born in Asia. Of those, 54.3% were naturalized US citizens, and 43.2% were permanent or temporary residents
Proportion of US science and engineering doctoral recipients in 2019 who were on a visa at graduation and were still in the US 10 years later, commonly called the “stay rate”
Proportion of US chemistry doctoral degrees awarded in 2018 to temporary visa holder
Proportion of US chemistry doctoral degrees awarded in 2018 to citizens and permanent residents who identified as Asian
Decrease in the total number of international students in the US from the 2018–19 to the 2019–20 school year, the first decrease since 2005-6
Sources: National Science Foundation; Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2020 Report on International Educational Exchange.
Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that Asian scientists’ concerns about being targeted for their race predate the pandemic. After the physical attacks on Asian people throughout the US in the past year, “some of the concern and anger has now turned to fear,” Wakimoto says.
While no UCLA faculty have come to Wakimoto to say they are leaving, he wouldn’t be surprised if they start doing so if anti-Asian bias continues. “At some point, you reach a sort of a breaking point, and you say enough is enough. The US is just no longer a welcoming environment,” he says.
In the past, Liu turned down a job opportunity outside the US. “I decided to stay here because I love the environment in the US and also love the environment in Texas,” he says. “But right now, if I get an opportunity again to move out of the US, I would seriously consider it.”
That’s the choice that Christine Keiko Luscombe, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Washington, made earlier this year. She will be leaving the US this fall to join the faculty of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.
Luscombe, who is half Japanese and half White, was raised in Japan and considers herself culturally Japanese. When Trump banned people from traveling to the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries, she began “to feel that foreigners were not loved,” she says. That feeling grew as she saw Chinese students and other researchers subjected to visa bans and the China Initiative.
The political response to the pandemic only heightened her concerns. While Japan has its own issues with racism and sexism, Luscombe says that public health directives like wearing a mask would never become a political issue. “There’s just a general level of politeness that exists in Japan, just respect for each other.”
While personal factors were part of her decision to leave the US, it was spurred by “the growing amount of racism,” she says. “It was always there, but it just became a lot more visible.”
As some Asian faculty in the US consider whether to stay, international students and other faculty who in the past might have immigrated to the US may be choosing to go elsewhere, where they feel more welcome.
The number of international students coming to the US declined significantly during the Trump administration, even before the pandemic halted international travel, according to data from the US Department of State. Students from China and India make up the largest numbers coming to the US.
Historically, most international students stayed after getting their degrees, says Patrick Gaule, an economist at the University of Bath who has studied chemistry graduate students. In a recent survey that has not yet been published, Gaule found that the percentage of international students who wanted to stay in the US dipped during the Trump administration. After the 2020 election, it bounced back a bit, but it’s too early to tell if things will return to the pre-Trump status quo.
Wang, the Northwestern graduate student, says that current immigration policies make it difficult for students to stay even if they want to. “After our graduation, we have to find a job within 3 months that has to be within our discipline,” she says. Wang is interested in exploring careers outside research. “I don’t have that chance in the US.”
Some not considering career changes are also choosing to leave. One of those is a former postdoctoral researcher from an Ivy League chemistry department who recently decided to return to China for an academic position. For personal reasons, the former postdoc asked C&EN not to use his name.
Many factors led to his return to China, the former postdoc says. The difficulty of traveling and getting visas for family was one factor. Another was China’s vast increase in funding and other support for science in the 10 years since he left to get his PhD in the US.
The political difficulties under the Trump administration and the China Initiative also contributed, he says. While he never felt discriminated against in the US, “seeing the situation over the past year, it can be suffocating for scientific collaboration,” he says. He hopes “conversations and mutual understanding among the international scientific community will help us tackle the challenges we humans are facing together.”
Losing some students to other countries and having others not stay after training may ultimately weaken the scientific ecosystem in the US. For example, Gaule has found that the publication rate of Chinese chemistry students in the US matches or exceeds that of top students who are US citizens or permanent residents. That’s likely because intense competition within China means that only the best students can get into school in the US. “The people who do make it into the US are really highly, highly selected,” Gaule says.
In Biden’s immigration proposal earlier this year, he acknowledged that it is in the country’s best interest to retain scientists who have trained in the US, often at US expense. He proposed making it easier for science PhDs in many fields, including chemistry, to get permanent residency. Universities would like to expand Biden’s proposals to include MDs, PhDs in biology, and other critical areas of need.
In the wake of the China Initiative and attacks on Asian people, more Asian scientists in the US are starting to speak out about racism, many for the first time, says Yang from Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC.
“The wider fear of anti-Asian discrimination has helped to galvanize the academic community—the Asian American academic community—because they see that direct tie,” he says. “There are more academics and professors who previously weren’t as civically engaged.”
That activism among Asian academics and the broader research community is evident in the case of Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is being prosecuted under the China Initiative. He was charged with fraud for failing to disclose his interactions with China, failing to report a foreign bank account, and filing a false statement on a tax return.
His colleagues quickly responded, with about 200 MIT faculty signing a letter of support. They say some of the charges are a misunderstanding because Chen was following normal research practices that scientists perform every day, including writing reference letters for students and working on joint projects sanctioned by the university. The letter concludes, “We are all Gang Chen.”
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, spoke out in support of Chen in a letter to the MIT community, and the university is paying to defend him in court, something few if any other universities are doing. In the letter, Reif acknowledges the difficulties for the larger Asian community.
“Finally, to our Chinese and Chinese American community . . . I have heard from many of you about your experiences with a growing atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion in our society, an atmosphere that can make daily life and daily work difficult, painful and exhausting,” Reif writes. “I would therefore like to state clearly, as I have before, that you are essential and integral members of our MIT community.”
Marinda Wu, a former president of the American Chemical Society, was born in the US and says that Asian people are discriminated against no matter how long they live here. “You could be first generation or 10th generation,” she says (ACS publishes C&EN).
Wu is working with the Chinese American Chemical Society to determine how the society can advocate against discrimination. “I’m not an activist, but I do think now that it’s important to stand up and speak up,” she says.
NYU’s Hu says that he previously stayed out of politics, but after the verbal attack on him, he has become more aware of anti-Asian discrimination and the need for him to speak up. He attended a rally, where he met many other people who have been assaulted like he was, and worse. “Many of the incidents, the bystanders didn’t help. They look. It’s not OK.”
Hu remains worried about another attack. He minimizes his time outside. He bought a whistle to carry with him, as well as an armband camera that he turns on every time he begins his commute.
“I don’t feel safe anymore,” Hu says.
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This story was updated on May 14, 2021, to correct John Yang's affiliation from executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice to executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC.