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Techies caught up in US-China trade war: in a messy divorce it’s the kids who suffer

When you break up with a long term partner it’s very difficult to remain on speaking terms with those once plucky nephews or nieces of your now ex-partner. You should keep them in your life because they are funny, smart and interesting. More importantly, although they are related to your ex, they are independent individuals.

No matter how much people are judged on collective identities these days, you are better than this. In fact, pushing them away will hurt you in the long run. Your ex has treated you badly for years. Don’t retaliate on those terms. Take the high road. It will actually benefit you.

Donald Trump Xi Jinping

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua.

I have previously compared the US-China trade conflict to a break-up, a conscious uncoupling of two interdependent and exceedingly moody former lovers.

Now, Chinese techies are becoming embroiled in the split. That’s sad for them and could also be bad for the American economy. More than that, it is unbecoming of the United States and its values.

The trade conflict has created a lot of problems for Chinese scientists and engineers. American universities have heightened their scrutiny of research proposals from Chinese institutions and academics, even restricting collaboration in sensitive cases.

Visa applications for Chinese scientists are now mired in red tape, which suddenly makes their own byzantine bureaucracy seem benevolent. Visas for Chinese graduate students specialising in fields such as robotics or artificial intelligence have often been shortened or even cancelled.

It’s not just academia. After President Donald Trump signed the Export Control Reform Act last year, the US put in place new policies to restrict Chinese investment in American high-tech companies and it is becoming increasingly clear that companies will try to err on the side of caution in complying with the tighter restrictions.

Misguided regulation of an already tight job market will hurt the American economy, as government interference so often does.

stock finance market bank banking financial

Photo: GovHK.

Frustrations about studying and working in the US could push many Chinese scientists and engineers to answer Beijing’s siren call to return to the motherland. The Communist Party of China has long tried to entice talent to return to the mainland and bring the China Dream closer to reality.

They call these Chinese “sea turtles,” because these creatures return to the ground of their birth. It has proven difficult to lure the turtles, who know the birthing ground is actually a Socialist censorship monoculture, but suddenly China is not looking that bad anymore.

That is not because China has become less rigid in enforcing “correct” Socialist thought. Far from it. Westerners in Mainland China are used to constant suspicion, which has only got worse under Xi Jinping, an orthodox believer in the Marxist creed. China has not increased its pull factor, but the US has started to push more.

It even seems to have a racist element to it. In a letter to Science – a peer-reviewed academic journal – in March, associations representing Chinese-American scientists said they now fear being singled out and racially profiled in the so-called land of the free.

Indeed, degrading “purity interviews” are now a likely prospect on both sides of the Pacific. The tech world will suffer for it and it will hurt the US more than China. The biggest damage will be to American values.


Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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Techies caught up in US-China trade war: in a messy divorce it's the kids who suffer