After a semester online, Wang Ziwei looked forward to meeting classmates returning to campus at Washington University in St. Louis.
But the 23-year-old finance student said the United States revoked his student visa on security grounds.
Wang is among at least 500 students the Chinese government says have been rejected under a policy issued by then-President Donald Trump to block Beijing from obtaining U.S. technology with possible military uses.
Students say the policy is applied too broadly and fume at what they say is an accusation they are spies.
“The whole thing is nonsense,” Wang said. “What do we finance students have to do with the military?”
The policy blocks visas for people affiliated with the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, or universities deemed by Washington to be part of military modernization efforts.
U.S. officials say they believe thousands of Chinese students and researchers participate in programs that encourage them to transfer medical, computer and other sensitive information to China, sometimes unknowingly.
Chinese officials appealed to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to drop the visa restrictions when she visited in July, according to a Shanghai news outlet.
The policy is necessary to “protect U.S. national security interests” in response to “some abuses of the visa process” and is “narrowly targeted,” the U.S. embassy in Beijing said.
More than 85,000 visas for Chinese students have been approved in the past four months, according to the embassy, which says, “The numbers show clearly that the United States stands ready to issue visas to all those who are qualified — including Chinese students and scholars.”
China is the biggest source of foreign students in the United States. The number fell 20% in 2020 from the previous year but at 380,000 was nearly double that of second-ranked India.
An engineer at a state-owned aircraft manufacturer said he was turned down for a visa to accompany his wife, a visiting scholar in California studying pediatric cancer. The engineer, who would give only his surname Huang, has undergraduate and graduate degrees from China’s Harbin Institute of Technology, one of seven schools Chinese news reports say are associated with visa rejections because they’re affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
“That I graduated from this school means I am a spy? “ Huang said. “What’s the difference between this and racism?”
His wife’s fellowship was for two to three years, but she will cut that to one, “sacrificing her career” to avoid being away from their two children for too long, Huang said.
Rejection letters received by several students cited Trump’s order but gave no details. Some students said they got rejections immediately after being asked which university they attended.
Wang, the finance student, said he obtained a visa, but the U.S. embassy called later and said it was revoked.
Wang graduated from the Beijing Institute of Technology, another university associated with visa rejections due to its connection with the industry ministry. Others include Beijing Aerospace University, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Harbin Engineering University and Northwestern Polytechnical University. Graduates of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications also say they’ve been rejected.
Five Chinese scientists at universities in California and Indiana were charged last year with lying about possible military connections on visa applications. Those charges were dropped in July after the Justice Department said an FBI report indicated such offenses often had no connection to technology theft.
The Chinese government complained in August three students who had visas were refused entry into the United States in Houston after military training photos were found in their phones.
At Washington University, a “handful of student visas” were affected, according to Kurt Dirks, vice chancellor for international affairs, who said the students can start the semester online, wait until next year or, if they continue to face visa problems, complete their program online.
Monica Ma, 23, said she was turned down for a U.S. visa to complete a master’s degree in information management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The graduate of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications said she spent a year in Australia working on her degree but needs to attend classes in person at Carnegie Mellon because they no longer are taught online.
Ma has postponed her attendance for classes until next year in hopes she can obtain a visa by then.
Li Quanyi, an electrical engineering student from Guiyang, said he was accepted by Columbia University but didn’t get a visa. Li graduated from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.
Li has moved to Hong Kong and is happy there.
“I am not going even if the rule changes,” Li said. “The United States rejected me, and I am not going.”