Over the past quarter century, hundreds of thousands of students from China have studied at American colleges and universities. More than 50,000 were enrolled last year alone. That Western-educated contingent is China's best hope for intensified economic reforms and, someday, a more open, democratic political system.
Students educated at colleges in the US (and who often subsequently live in US communities for several years) are exposed to the full range of Western political and economic values. And they take that experience back with them to China. One would be hard pressed to find a more lethal, cost-effective way of injecting the virus of freedom into China's body politic.
Unfortunately, that great experiment is now at risk. In recent months, US embassy personnel have tightened their scrutiny of visa applications. Thousands of Chinese students, some with full scholarships, are being denied admission to the US. During one 5-week period in the late spring, 41 percent of all applications were rejected.
The sudden upsurge of exclusionary practices has already provoked angry comment in China, not only from the Beijing government but from the Chinese public. The sense of outrage is heightened because denials are often made after a hasty and superficial examination. Some decisions have apparently been based on interviews lasting no more than five minutes.
The reason for the change in US policy is not entirely clear. The official reason is that too many students remain permanently in the US instead of returning to China. A greater effort is being made to scrutinize visa applications to screen out more students who want to emigrate to the US rather than merely study there.
It is true that many Chinese students, having experienced the unparalleled freedom and economic opportunity of the US, choose to stay -- although that percentage has been declining in recent years. For Americans who view such expatriates negatively -- believing that they "steal jobs" from US citizens -- a decision to remain in the US is a serious problem. That mistaken view has probably received new impetus from the dramatic slowing of the US economy in the past year. Concerns about competition from immigrants always flare during times of economic stagnation or recession.
That factor alone may explain the increased hostility of US Embassy personnel toward visa applicants. But there may be another reason as well. It is possible that the jaundiced attitude is payback for Beijing's mistreatment of US scholars in recent months. The prosecution of several Chinese-American professors on apparently frivolous charges of espionage has clearly annoyed Bush administration officials. Tightening the visa requirements could be one way of conveying a subtle but effective message of irritation to the Beijing government.
Whatever the motive, Washington's policy is short-sighted and damaging. Those Chinese students who remain in the US become contributors to the dynamic American economy. Only people who foolishly view immigrants as economic liabilities, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, would fret about a decision by some of China's best and brightest young people to stay in the US.
Those Chinese who return home are also valuable. They are the agents of change for China in the 21st century. If they are successful, China will become a more prosperous and more democratic country. That change, in turn, would make China an easier international neighbor with which to live. The US State Department should not jeopardize such a worthwhile prospect because of a foolish change in its visa policy.