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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

Comments on: This Land is Not Your Land

"To demonize people from another country is a precipice for war." Unfortunately this is happening on both sides of the Pacific with ever greater fervor. The potential for misunderstanding and flashpoints of conflict in such a situation, especially when so many do not appear to want to listen, begs for the light of awareness, knowledge, and communication. Politics and notions of national self can never be avoided. It is our natures, as it was for Yangyang Cheng's mother whose sense of worth suffered when what she knew to be true was questioned. Both China and America deserve criticism for certain actions taken and inactions not, for beliefs they harbor, and for policies they promote. By the same token, both countries deserve praise for certain other actions taken and inactions not, for beliefs they hold, and for policies they promote. In so many ways, we are much more alike than either wants to admit. We are far, far from a time when wars will cease and when safety and security and community may become truly global in scope (the United Federation of Planets comes to mind). Until then, fostering relations, or at least keeping them on life support, may be the only way to forestall a descent to a place even further distrustful and dangerous than the world as it is today.

Andrew Singer


Originally published on SUPChina by Yangyang Cheng

Whom, or what, do borders and the military protect? As COVID-19 alters the world as we know it, and governments exploit the crisis to amass power, Yangyang Cheng argues that we must rethink safety versus security, and reimagine community beyond the confines of a state.

“Tell him that China is the third largest country in the world, bigger than the United States,” my mother prodded me.

It was 2002. The young man seated in front of us had just finished college in the U.S., and was spending the year teaching English in my hometown. Few foreigners lived in the central Chinese city at the time, their presence both a curiosity and, as far as my education-obsessed mother was concerned, an opportunity for me to practice the alien tongue I was beginning to acquire. A mutual friend had introduced us, and my mother was determined to make the most out of the encounter.

At 12 years old, I had little to talk about with someone twice my age. The conversation consisted mostly of my mother raising questions in Chinese, him responding in English, and I interpreting for both. When every biographical detail had been asked and answered, my mother brought up a comparison of our homelands.

My mother is an elementary school teacher. It was in her class that I first learned the ranking of countries by territorial size, Russia, Canada, and China in the top three, followed by the United States and Brazil. China was also several times more populous than the U.S., but the one-child policy had taught us that having too many people was a burden. The order by land mass presented one of the few occasions where my birth country came out ahead of the richest and most powerful nation on earth, a source of perpetual pride for my mother.

The young man frowned and looked down for a moment, “I don’t think that’s correct.” When he lifted his head back up, there was a smile on his face, “We have Puerto Rico. We also have the Virgin Islands. We are definitely bigger than China.”

I dutifully translated the last sentence into Chinese, not knowing what Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands are. “They are bigger than us too?” A profound sadness rippled through my mother’s voice, weighing down its pitch.

“He said so,” I shrugged. My pronounced indifference was intentional. I believed my mother’s grievance reflected an embarrassing backwardness, a parochial mindset based on flag and country; the contrast in our reactions was proof of my enlightenment.

It was before the age of smartphones and the ubiquity of Google. Disappointed as she was, my mother did not question the young man’s claim. Maybe she trusted him because he had been to university and she had not. Maybe she trusted him because he was male and American and she was neither.

I left China in the summer of 2009 for graduate school in the U.S., where I live and work. As my birth country and my adopted home are locked in a great power struggle, the existing tensions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am reminded of the episode from 18 years ago. The difference in area size between China and the U.S. has no tangible bearing on my mother’s life, but the belief that she comes from the third largest country in the world was important to her sense of self. For a Chinese person of her generation, who grew up with war and famine fresh in the nation’s memory, being robbed of that confidence invoked a greater loss, rooted in historical trauma and anxieties about the future.

I have since learned about Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, why they are considered both American and not. I read up on the history behind the maps, on how the U.S. and China had acquired their respective sizes. The knowledge haunts me. I do not know how anyone can embrace their country’s geographical expansiveness as mere bragging right: If they need such an affirmation of their identity, they must also own the bloody record of imperial conquest.

The White House has issued a proclamation, suspending and limiting entry of Chinese students and researchers if the individual “either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy.’” The document goes on to list a range of exceptions and gives members of the executive branch wide discretion in enforcement. Nevertheless, the obtuse language in the opening section, taken at face value, can be interpreted as an effective ban on Chinese students, since no institution in the Leninist state has the freedom to refuse support of Beijing’s “military-civil fusion strategy.”

The proclamation’s murky phrasing is, of course, intentional: to create a climate of uncertainty and stir up racial hostilities. It was not a coincidence that two days before the executive order, a handful of Republican lawmakers unveiled a bill calling for a total prohibition of Chinese graduate students majoring in science or engineering. The purpose, they say, is to protect “the American research enterprise” and “American ingenuity.”

The executive proclamation and the legislative proposal have been met with broad pushback. The racist connotation in excluding a group of people based on national origin is rightfully denounced. The usual criticism goes beyond the moral argument to point out that the restrictions are also counterproductive, that they will hurt “American ingenuity” by pushing away Chinese talent.

It speaks to a paucity in the public discourse that people on opposite sides of the issue deploy the same language. I cringe each time I hear the word used in this context: “American.” I wonder if the people who say it reflexively have ever pondered its meaning. As a Chinese citizen, I am not American; my presence in this country is a constant reminder of this fact. Because I am employed at an American university, my labor is considered American; I am contributing to “the American research enterprise.” I work in fundamental science as part of an international collaboration: The fruit of my research does not belong to any country or government; it belongs to humanity, as all scientific knowledge should.

I wonder if the people who say “American” reflexively have ever pondered its meaning.

American, the adjective, does not describe any particular characteristic but an ownership, the state of being claimed. The basis for such possession is the map itself: What is created within its borders becomes American; however, the consideration does not extend to the people who do the creating. The country’s insatiable appetite is justified by its self-righteousness, that the world is a better place with America at the helm. I can think of many people in many places, including America itself, who beg to differ, but they are not the ones writing America’s policies. For those who are, it is not so much that the world needs American leadership — or that there should be a hierarchy of nations at all — but that their own purpose in life desperately depends on believing the world does.

Whatever the country is competing for, and whether or not it deserves to win, many counting exercises have been conducted to evaluate “American competitiveness.” On the topic of science and technology, figures are tabulated and charts are drawn, describing the amount of funding, the number of researchers, how many papers published, how many start-ups founded, how many conference talks given, how many patents filed and received. The statistics are compared against those of other countries, in particular China.

I recognize the usefulness of these analyses and respect the people who produce them. What concerns me is the premise they rely on and the notions they reinforce, in their conspicuously simple presentation, that knowledge can be sliced up by borders and judged by size, that science is a force for good and the more the merrier, that there is a singular direction for human progress, the path of which must be accelerated.

None of these are true. It’s self-deceiving to assume they are. How was the research performed? Who will benefit from the outcome? What are the potential harms? These questions should be the starting point in assessing the developments in science and technology, especially when the disciplines have, more often than not, served the interests of the powerful while aggravating structural inequalities. That the color code representing one’s country occupies a taller bar or the biggest slice in a pie chart, based on some arbitrary metric of quantifying the unquantifiable, is little cause for celebration.

Over the past few years, as the federal government has dialed up its scrutiny of U.S.-based scientists with connections to China, be they professional or familial, many scientists of Chinese origin have returned to their country of birth, where opportunities abound for cutting-edge research. Their stories, when reported in the U.S., are routinely framed as “America’s loss.”

I understand the sentiment of regret, but that does not excuse the problematic rhetoric. Foreign scientists who leave the U.S. are not “America’s loss”; they or their work are not for America to claim in the first place. Diversity, including geographical diversity, is crucial for the healthy development of science. What does make America poorer is its arrogant insistence on hegemony, its racism and xenophobia.

People depart their homelands to escape violence or oppression, to pursue further education, to seek employment, or out of wanderlust, a taste for adventure. The personal stories are erased in the narrative of empire, where foreign countries exist for resource extraction, where foreign bodies are reduced to a brain, a pair of hands, a set of skills, some form of value that is assessed and bartered, welcomed when it serves the state’s interests, rejected when the government sets a different agenda.

Immigrant scientists like myself are not precious stones or rare minerals. The emphasis on “best and brightest” fortifies the myth of meritocracy, promulgating an elitist and ableist worldview that sees scientific talent as innate and exceptional. The underrepresentation in science from marginalized communities stems from historical injustice and socioeconomic hurdles, not from a perceived lack of intelligence or curiosity.

Diversity, including geographical diversity, is crucial for the healthy development of science. What makes America poorer is its arrogant insistence on hegemony, its racism and xenophobia.

While politicians and pundits are obsessed with the number of researchers, their nationality, and their country of employment, what should have been the center of attention is the work they do and whether it is ethical. For those who rightfully oppose racial profiling of Chinese scientists, the most frequently cited example is that of Qián Xuésēn 钱学森. Born and raised in China, Qian came to the U.S. for graduate studies in 1935, and co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. Accused of harboring Communist sympathies during the McCarthy-era, he was denied U.S. citizenship, stripped of his security clearance, and placed under house arrest. Qian returned to China in 1955, where he led its nuclear and space program that successfully developed the atomic bomb and ballistic missiles.

In China, Qian’s life is remembered as one of patriotic devotion and unabiding heroism. The simplistic narrative unsettles me, as there is no reflection on the nature of Qian’s work: He designed weapons of mass destruction; it was morally indefensible regardless of the motivation.

China’s authoritarian politics constrains the domestic discourse on ethics, at least in public. Nevertheless, here in the U.S., a country that prides itself on moral superiority, the lesson of Qian Xuesen is not that, first of all, racism is wrong, full-stop, and second, academia is complicit in the military-industrial complex and must reckon with its responsibility. As if missiles become less deadly when shrouded by the aura of democracy, the professed dismay in the U.S. appears to say: “Had we not treated him badly, Qian could have stayed and built more weapons for us!”

At the end of May, a reporter calls to ask if I have any thoughts on the recent expulsion of graduate students with explicit ties to the Chinese military. The U.S. government has announced plans to cancel their visas, a move that impacts thousands of Chinese students.

“This is such a fraught issue,” I respond. I have an inkling that what I want to say is not what he’s hoping to hear, not because he has any personal bias, but because the topic, as it has been covered over the years, almost always centers state interests: Journalists want to know which country is winning, the U.S. or China, but the portrayal of science as a tool of national greatness obscures more than it informs.

A young person in China joins the military for a variety of reasons: out of patriotism and a desire to serve, for the stipend and social benefits, as a pathway for career advancement or a chance to leave home, in search of camaraderie, structure, and discipline; in other words, for the same reasons as their American counterparts. It is contrary to my moral principles to work for the military or any violent branch of a state, but critique of an institution should not be used as judgment against an individual.

Even during the Cold War, groups of Soviet scientists came to work in the U.S., along with their Communist Party minders, I tell the reporter; that collaboration proved constructive to peace. Soldiers are also people. To demonize people from another country is a precipice for war, I say.

Using military affiliation as a criteria to determine the nature of one’s research might make a catchy talking point, but it is based on a misunderstanding of how science works. The data, methodology, and results from unclassified research are, by definition, shared. The security risks from new technology come from the science itself, not the scientists or their titles. Assigning the potential for harm only to military personnel creates a false dichotomy that absolves the scientific community of its obligation to self-regulate.

There have been cases where Chinese scientists hid their military affiliation to study in the U.S., I add. But the deception itself is not indicative of the type of research they were pursuing, and individual wrongdoing should not be the basis for a sweeping policy.

The reporter is patient and generous with his time. What you just explained is very important, he says, but what would you say to someone in the White House who does not want Chinese students to come and learn the technology for quantum-navigated nuclear submarines?

I am slightly amused by the specificity, the combination of “quantum” and “nuclear.” The words describe fundamental conditions in nature. Their meaning should have been neutral. Yet in our skewed imagination, they have become symbols of science’s revolutionary capabilities and its destructive potential. While much of quantum technology remains in infancy, the spotlight from policy circles has been on its dual-use applications. Instead of taking a moral stance against military use, researchers in both the U.S. and China have entertained the possibility to attract government funding. Lessons from the nuclear age appear unlearned.

I tell the reporter that I do not know how to answer his question. China should not develop quantum-navigated nuclear submarines. Neither should the U.S or any other country. There are no winners in an arms race. Does national identity rely on the construct of a foreign enemy? I do not know if the people who view every new technology as a future weapon ever stop to picture the faces of fellow human beings whom the weapons might target, if they can look into those eyes and see a reflection of themselves.

Whom, or what, do violent organs of the state protect? I can hear sirens outside my window as I talk to the journalist. Protests have erupted across the U.S. over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the latest names in a long list of Black people murdered by the police. The knowledge hovers above our conversation, casting a long, dark shadow across the word “America,” dispelling any illusion of the higher moral ground the country assumes.

The 31st anniversary of June Fourth is only a few days away: The last time the People’s Liberation Army went to war, it was in the nation’s capital against its own people. I do not know what motivates Chinese scientists, or scientists anywhere, to develop more machinery to kill. What I do know is that the world will be a much safer place when war ceases to be a solution to politics and the military becomes obsolete.

The president has signed a new executive order. Effective on June 22, a wide range of work visas to the U.S. are suspended till the end of this year. The change had been rumored for weeks. Maybe the anticipation blunted the shock. Maybe I’ve grown numb after months in quarantine. When the order was announced on Monday afternoon, it felt almost like closure. It was only after dinner, when I was doing the dishes, that I started sobbing uncontrollably over the kitchen sink. I grieve not so much for my own future but for the state of the world.

My phone lights up with messages from concerned friends. I am grateful. I tell them not to worry. “I’m all right, circumstances considering,” which appears to be the standard response to “How are you doing?” these days. I have the privileges of my current status and a degreed education. I have been extraordinarily fortunate at many turns in my life. Being alive during a pandemic is by itself a blessing.

As academia, industry, and professional organizations voice their opposition to the latest ban, I hope the familiar trope of immigrant excellence can be resisted, however well-meaning it may be. For migration to be recognized as a human right, migrants must be valued equally for their humanity alone, not placed on a scale by the cruel logic of capitalism.

The notions of competition and scarcity are what gave the administration cover for its xenophobic policy, which claims to be protecting American workers from job loss due to COVID-19. In times of crisis, the powerful exploit fear to amass more power, but what is truly frightening is a world where the people give in to their worst instincts. Borders, once closed, present a challenge to reopen. A surveillance state, once established, won’t dismantle itself. Freedom, once lost, might take generations to regain.

The novel coronavirus came from nature. Its presence among our species is a result of human activity, a reminder of our disruptive power and our ultimate vulnerability. All the bullets and guns, fighter jets and missiles, tanks and submarines: None of them have been able to protect us from a subcellular pathogen.

Nations, like the human body, are porous entities. No individual can survive as an island. No country can enclose itself inside a bubble to escape a deadly virus. No state can build a wall around a piece of knowledge and claim it as its own. As the pandemic alters the world as we know it, what this moment presents is an opportunity to imagine a new one, to rethink what is essential and what keeps us safe, to rebuild community beyond the confines of a state, to repurpose labor and production for equity and resilience, not exploitation and excess; to reorient scientific research and technological development toward collective survival and thriving, not disparity and destruction.

I’ve been having a recurring dream lately, where I’m back in China and struggling to find a way across the Pacific. Once I was sitting beneath a buzzing ceiling fan to take standardized tests for graduate school admission in the U.S. Another time I was waiting for my visa interview at the consulate in Shanghai. One particularly stressful instance involved me dashing down the airport terminal to board the last flight out, before the borders closed down again. I would wake up in a cold sweat and sometimes in tears, and slowly recall the fact that I was still living in the U.S.

However I try to rationalize, telling myself that my humanity is greater than the rules of a state, an intense unease has clung to my subconscious: I feel suspended between two countries, the ground beneath me chipping away. My mother says one needs to jiē dì qì 接地气, be connected with the essence of the land. I suppose she is right: My head is in the clouds. I thought I was a bird, capable of flight. Instead I’m a plant, torn from my roots.

But my vulnerability is also my power. I sense the earth swell, the plates shift. I listen for the echo in the faultlines, a new order in the making. I burn the flags of war. I watch the ashes fall. The fire illuminates a path. I journey to the edge of nationhood. The only border is where the land meets the sea.


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