Anti-Asian Racism: A Hurdle for American Tech Innovation

Image Source: The Miami Foundation

Left ignored, anti-Asian racism in the U.S. may dampen new talents’ enthusiasm to immigrate, hurting American strength in technological innovation.

According to numbers reported by top-tier universities, more than 1,400 US-trained Chinese scientists and engineers abandoned their tenured positions, turning to China or elsewhere in 2021, up by 22% from the previous year. Some scientists cited anti-Asian hate crimes among other concerns, highlighting the often under-addressed racism issue in sustaining the American innovative talent base. As Washington is doubling down its efforts to compete with Beijing in emerging technologies, US policymakers should consider mitigating anti-Asian racism to maintain America’s appeal to STEM immigrants.

Anti-Asian racism in the U.S. was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump’s accusation of China spreading the pandemic with his “Chinese virus” tweet fueled anti-Asian racism, which has drastically become increasingly more violent. From the beginning of the outbreak in March 2020 through June 2021, more than 9,000 anti-Asian hate incidents werereported, including verbal harassment, physical assault, online harassment, and other forms of discrimination. Among all Asian ethnic groups, Chinese are the most frequent targets of anti-Asian racism spurred by the pandemic.

In the tech sector, anti-Asian racism has also been prevalent, barring Asian talents from reaching their potential. While more than half of Silicon Valley’s tech employees are Asians, fewer hold leadership positions – 25% at Meta and 27% at Apple. Despite companies’ advocacy for diversity, some industry insiders interviewed by the SCMP shared their stories of how racism at the workplace sets the ceiling for their promotion in ways such as identity-related negative comments in performance reviews. In particular, Asian workers on H-1B visas – a temporary work authorization for foreigners – often suffer from poorer economic opportunities in the tech industry. Realizing the potential limits in their career paths in the U.S., Asian STEM talents may recalibrate their immigration decisions.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Chinese policy initiatives regarding STEM talents further complicate the picture by adding another set of push and pull factors. On one hand, Washington has intensified its scrutiny of students and scholars of Chinese origin under the guise of preventing Beijing from stealing American technologies. For example, the China Initiative implemented by Trump – a controversial program that bluntly targeted scientists and engineers of Chinese descent for suspicious connections with the Chinese government – has spread fear among the impacted communities. Although the Biden Administration has announced an end to that program, that unease still persists amid continuingly tense US-China relations. On the other hand, Beijing has established a range of incentive programs to recruit foreign experts in science and technology. The flagship “Thousand Talents Program” launched in 2008, for example, has attracted more than 7,600 scientists and engineers to China in a decade. As Washington implements a new round of export controls to slow China’s advancement in artificial intelligence, creating and maintaining a high-quality talent pool for research and development will become more salient to Beijing, potentially leading to more aggressive measures to entice U.S.-trained professionals away from the American tech industry. 

Asian STEM talents have contributed significantly to US innovation, and Chinese students and scholars make up a crucial portion of the American scientific research community, which cannot be ignored. Looking back at history, a number of Asian-American scientists have been instrumental in many fields: from the Chinese-born physicist Chien-Shiung Wu whose research paved the way for atomic weapons, to Taiwanese-American Jerry Yang who co-founded the web services provider Yahoo!. Moreover, a 2020 report estimated that nearly one third of international STEM researchers at U.S. universities are from China. Another study by two economists also found that Chinese PhD students often produce better work than other students. Furthermore, Asian international students tend to have the highest stay rates at around 85% compared to 60% to 70% for students from allied European countries. Therefore, it would seriously harm U.S. scientific research if foreign-born students and professionals – including those from Asian countries – are hesitant to stay in or even come to the U.S. due to racism concerns. 

Racism has been persistent in US society, and now its importance to American technological power should lift it to a national security level. Moreover, since emerging technologies are increasingly critical in the US-China great power competition, talent management as a fundamental factor in technological advancements deserves more careful considerations from policymakers. 

Since his inauguration, President Biden has attempted to mitigate anti-Asian racism with new initiatives and funding to provide more services to protect Asian-Americans from hate crimes. However, a 339% surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 compared to 2020 indicates an urgent need for more investments in curbing anti-Asian hatred. In terms of STEM talents, the Biden Administration has extended the professional training period up to three years for international students majoring in STEM. Yet, the number of Chinese international students in the U.S. has plummeted by more than 50% in the first half of 2022 compared to previous years, and anti-Asian racism is among their top concerns.

The US government should take firmer steps and collaborate with universities and private sectors to arrest the trend. While chronic racism needs greater social efforts to raise awareness, on retaining the Asian talents in its workforce, however, the government can play a leading role to ease the barriers of entry and provide resources to support victims of racism at school and workplace. Most importantly, Washington should avoid making the same mistake in the 1950s when they deported Qian Xuesen, a world-class expert on jet propulsion and a Manhattan Project scientist, to China under unfounded suspicion driven by anti-Asian prejudice. Qian continued on to facilitate China’s missile program, which greatly modernized Chinese military capabilities. If Washington once again exaggerates its distrust in Asian-Americans and immigrants under racist claims, talents will continue to leave America to escape anti-Asian hatred. 

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