SAN FRANCISCO (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A group of students in China have one thing in common - they have been denied visas to pursue postgraduate studies in the United States due to a Presidential Proclamation issued in May last year.
Issued by former president Donald Trump, Presidential Proclamation 10043 bans entry to Chinese students and researchers deemed "security threats" for alleged links to the Chinese military.
A handwritten note on a student's visa refusal sheet obtained by China Daily reads: "Per Presidential Proclamation 10043, because of attendance at Harbin Institute of Technology, we are unable to issue your visa at this time."
Other refusals stated: "Today's decision cannot be appealed."
Having been denied an F-2 visa twice - first in September at the US consulate in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, and again in May at the US Embassy in Beijing - an applicant calling himself "Mr Xiao" said he believed this was because he attended Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang province as an undergraduate.
He did not intend to study in the US but wanted to join his wife, who is a postdoctoral researcher at a cancer institute near Los Angeles. The couple have two children, aged three and five.
"The F-2 visa does not allow the holder to study or work full-time in the US. How could a homemaker engage in espionage?" Mr Xiao said.
However, he did not have the chance to voice this view to consular officials, as the refusal sheet was printed the moment he answered the question, "Where did you graduate from?"
Students who have had a similar experience described their visa interviews as "instant denial". They all attended certain Chinese universities.
It is not clear which educational institutions are covered by the proclamation, and the US State Department has indicated that the list of entities will not be made public.
Since US embassies and consulates worldwide resumed processing student visas in early May, Chinese students have shared their "10043" refusal experiences in several WeChat groups.
The students mainly attended leading science universities, including Harbin Engineering University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beihang University, and Beijing Institute of Technology.
Mr Xiao said: "New cases are reported in the groups almost daily. One student had his visa revoked because he went to a high school affiliated to Northwestern Polytechnical University."
Another student, believing that only matriculated status at blacklisted entities would be considered, included a short-term exchange programme at Harbin Institute of Technology in his visa application, which was refused because of this.
Another student, who wanted to be named only as Kerry, received his visa refusal last week. He attended the Harbin institute seven years ago.
The student, who has received a doctoral offer for an electronic engineering programme with a full scholarship from the University of California-Davis, said he is the only candidate for the programme. A letter was prepared for his visa application, requesting consular officials grant him a visa so he could start his research in autumn. Kerry's tutor also provided a letter, promising that he would monitor all his research activities.
Still, a visa officer rejected his application after confirming that the university Kerry had attended as an undergraduate.
"I gave up other universities' offers for this programme. Otherwise, I would be at Kyoto University in Japan now and graduate next year," he said.
The presidential proclamation applies not only to students from the listed entities but also to scholars who receive funding from the China Scholarship Council.
Kerry said more than 2,000 students could have been denied visas, as there are five "10043 students" WeChat groups and each has reached the maximum number of 500 people.
An analysis in February by the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University in Washington suggests that the presidential proclamation could cover 11 civilian Chinese universities on the US Commerce Department's export control list.
The analysis estimates that 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese students could be blocked each year, representing one-fifth of the annual new Chinese enrolments in US Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduate programmes.
Some 85 per cent of Chinese students studying for philosophy doctorates, along with fewer than 50 per cent of Chinese master's students at US universities are studying in Stem fields.
The proportion of students studying for philosophy doctorates in US Stem programmes among graduates from universities on the entity list is 95 per cent, according to the analysis.
The number of applicants denied visas could be much higher, as the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology's analysis points out that, due to a lack of data, there is no projection for the number of researchers who have been affected.
The authors of the analysis also acknowledge that the scope of the presidential proclamation is unclear, as it leaves several of the key terms and concepts undefined. For instance, it does not specify the criteria that will be used to judge which entities or fields are related to "Military-Civil Fusion strategy".
In a letter sent on May 26 to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Professor Wendy Wolford, vice-provost for international affairs at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said she has heard "a troubling series of recent visa denials", particularly in China, because of "unclear, localised interpretations" of Proclamation 10043.
"Consular officials are interpreting policies in an uneven and unpredictable manner that is creating tremendous uncertainty and confusion for international students and their US universities," Prof Wolford said.
On June 10, Mr Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, acting on behalf of more than 40 higher education organisations, requested a briefing from the State Department for a better understanding of the implications of Proclamation 10043 for international students and scholars. No update has been reported.
Mr Xiao said Chinese students now need to clear two hurdles to study in the US. The first is the consular official who determines visa eligibility, and the second is the Customs and Border Protection officer who determines admissibility at a port of entry, he said.
The Customs and Border Protection has stepped up airport screenings of Chinese researchers. Mr Xiao said his wife was detained at Los Angeles International Airport for five hours and questioned about her research as well as his.
He said: "They told her my work is very important to the US and that if I wanted to enter the US, I must work for the US. My wife was so scared that she called me immediately after walking outside the airport. Her first words were, 'Don't come to the US, you'll be arrested'.
"I was shocked when I first heard that we were viewed as spies. I have never had connections with the military and do not qualify to approach the military."
Mr Xiao added that he is worried about his wife's safety in the US, as it is a "dangerous sign" that Chinese researchers are being targeted.
Kerry said he now has two options: attend online classes for the autumn semester while waiting out the proclamation, or pursue philosophy doctorate studies in other countries. He is unlikely to go with the first option, though, as he will not get the scholarship if he cannot be in the US. Without the scholarship, he cannot afford tuition and living expenses of about US$55,000 (S$74,200) a year.
"I feel so helpless as a foreign student. We have become an easy target for the US government to score political points," he said.
Other students are taking legal action against Proclamation 10043. They have set up a website to promote awareness of the proclamation and are seeking support. In recent days, a GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly US$70,000.
A member of the campaign's core volunteer team, using the pseudonym Xiao Liu, said: "After consulting several lawyers, we were told we would need US$1 million for the lawsuit."
He enrolled in the computer science postgraduate programme at New York University last year, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he has been attending online classes and has yet to apply for a visa.
Xiao Lu is a graduate of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, which is also on the entity list. He said he knew of no student from his university being granted a visa for postgraduate study in the US, including non-Stem majors.
"The whole Chinese student community faces rising racism. We need to make our voices heard through this lawsuit," he said. "We know it will be a long process, and we are prepared for this fight."