Chinese-American students fire back at Republican Senate nominee’s ‘disrespectful’ claim that they’re pawns in a vast communist plot

  • Bryant “Corky” Messner, the Republican candidate for US Senate in New Hampshire, made controversial remarks about Chinese students in video footage obtained by Insider.
  • Messner suggested encouraging Chinese students to study the liberal arts instead of “hard sciences,” or to outright ban them from studying in the US.
  • Several Chinese and Chinese-American college students in New Hampshire criticised his remarks, telling Insider that it was “dangerous rhetoric for people who look like me or people who have family or friends who are Chinese.”
  • Asked for comment about the responses, Messner, who won his party’s primary on Tuesday, walked back his previous remarks.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A Republican US Senate nominee is coming under sharp criticism for accusing the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in the US of stealing American intellectual property and saying they should be banned from studying “hard sciences.”

Bryant “Corky” Messner, a Trump-endorsed candidate in New Hampshire, previously referred to the US-China trade tensions and has taken aim at Chinese students, who he broadly alleged were agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); and that they were receiving a US education only to return to China on behalf of the government.

Messner is up against Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was previously elected for two terms. The Senate election in New Hampshire will be held on November 3.

“I think one of the things we ought to do … is say to the students, those students, ‘You’re welcome to study here, but you must study economics, the American constitution, freedom,'” Messner said during the GOP meeting in July, according to video footage obtained by Insider. “Not study the hard sciences, computer science, physics, chemistry, and not give them that kind of education. Let’s educate them in freedom and individual liberty.

Bryant ‘Corky’ Messner Amanda Biundo/Corky for Senate Campaign via AP

“They’re exerting their influence throughout the world and it is time for us to be serious about the Chinese Communist Party. Yes, sir,” Messner said, adding that the US had unwittingly become “the research and development arm” for China.

In a separate controversial recording, Messner also suggested outright banning students from China.

“We also have to, I think, not allow Chinese students to attend American universities, because they come here and they become educated, and they go back with our intellectual property,” Messner said in May, according to HuffPost.

A student-run organisation from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire said in a statement to Insider it was “deeply disheartened” by Messner’s remarks.

“We wholeheartedly believe that banning a targeted group of students from studying certain subjects is blatant discrimination,” the Dartmouth Chinese Culture Society said. “Education in the hard sciences is not a private good restricted for particular ethnicities or nationalities. Rather, it should be open for everyone to pursue.”

“While we acknowledge that learning about American values is important, we disagree with Mr. Messner’s statement that Chinese students can only study economics, the American Constitution, and freedom,” the organisation added. “Politicizing the hard sciences not only undermines students’ individual interests and passions, but also interferes with the development of scientific research for the well-being of everyone.”

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‘That’s just not how human beings work’

Five Chinese and Chinese-American students majoring in different fields at New Hampshire universities criticised Messner’s comments, telling Insider his rhetoric is concerning. All of the students spoke anonymously citing privacy concerns and the potential for retribution from their universities or the CCP.

“I don’t think education and knowledge should be kept on guard or seen as private where only certain people are allowed to have access while other people are not,” a native Chinese student told Insider. “People come to American colleges to learn, to study, and further their knowledge.”

The student, a computer science major, explained that she came to the US for the sole purpose of attending her university. Although she did not experience any overt racism during her time in the US, she adds that Messner’s rhetoric contributes to the current tension with her country.

“It definitely contributes to this anti-Chinese sentiment that has been bubbling in America for quite sometime,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”

Another university student who immigrated from China roughly a decade ago acknowledged that Messner’s concern for intellectual slippage back to Beijing had some merit, but noted that his solution to the issue was overly broad and would implicate those who had no ties to the CCP.

“I understand his concern, it is valid,” the student said to Insider. “However, I also think that not every international student should be objectified and seen as a weapon for research, because that’s just not how human beings work, obviously. Simplifying students and human beings into weapons and arms for research really objectifies us.”

“International students bring so much value to America and they actually contribute so much to students’s intellectual growth,” the student added. “America also has international students studying abroad overseas, and I haven’t really heard of any other country saying, ‘American students are stealing our information.'”

Ucla campus college dorm
A freshman attending the University of California, Los Angeles moves into her dorm, September 25, 2014. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A Chinese-American student who was born and raised in the US characterised Messner’s comments as a slippery slope, in that his scrutiny could reasonably extend beyond Chinese natives and include Chinese-Americans, particularly those who still had family members overseas: “Where do you draw the line with our connection with China? I’m a Chinese-American, but I identify more ‘American’ because I grew up here.”

“It’s just labelling all people who may look Chinese as someone who may have alternative motives for a good education,” the Chinese-American student told Insider. “Which is, I think, dangerous and kind of disrespectful to Chinese students trying to learn and improve the world — they just happen to be doing it in America.

“As a Chinese-American, I would never want my motives for receiving an education to be questioned,” she added. “Just because I’m Chinese-American, is he saying that it makes me dangerous because of that connection to China? It’s disrespectful and it could be a dangerous rhetoric for people who look like me or people who have family or friends who are Chinese.”

Another Chinese-American college student in New Hampshire said Messner was conflating two different categories of Chinese students — one “that wants an education with an ultimate goal of settling down in the US,” and another who received a US-based education and “heads back to China to work.”

“I think it’s wrong to simply put those two groups together,” he told Insider. “If you’re coming here to study with a goal of finding a job here, that’s literally just opposite of what he’s saying.”

Asked for comment about the response from the students in New Hampshire, Messner, who won his party’s primary on Tuesday, walked back his previous remarks.

“We cannot allow Chinese students to be blamed for their government’s actions,” Messner told Insider in a statement. “The Chinese Communist government’s professed goals to use any means to gain access to American research and technology, including through academic contacts, pose a threat to our national security, but I oppose discriminating against or targeting students from China.”

“International students add so much to campus diversity and American-born students can learn so much about the world through them,” Messner added.

Companies' race to make antibody kits
Scientists work with samples taken for testing for the coronavirus on May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Brain-drain allegations

Messner’s remarks draw upon allegations made by the Trump administration. The president and federal agencies frequently assert that Chinese academics illegally obtain trade secrets and research in the US-based colleges and corporations before returning to China.

The FBI warned universities to monitor visiting scholars and students from China, and a US Senate report found that the CCP compels some overseas researchers to make secret agreements that may violate scientific codes. Although Chinese academics in the US have been charged by federal investigators in recent months, there is no evidence to support claims that a Beijing-sponsored campaign is a widespread occurrence.

Around 370,000 students from China studied in the US during the 2018-2019 academic year. The University of Southern California hosts the most number of college-level students from China, followed by schools within the University of California system — such as UCLA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The Trump administration on Wednesday took steps to combat a CCP goal to “remake the world order in its own authoritarian image” and blocked the visas of over 1,000 Chinese students and researchers that were considered “high-risk.”

Donald Trump Xi Jinping
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/File Photo

A State Department official said in a statement that the blocked visas only represented a small portion of Chinese students and researchers, and that it was primarily directed against those with ties to the Chinese military.

“We are blocking visas for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research,” Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a speech on Wednesday.

“From intellectual property theft and stealing trade secrets that rob from American innovators, to harvesting personal data to turn a profit, shattering the privacy of Americans of all ages, to exporting unjust business practices in the form of state backed enterprises that harm American entrepreneurs, to hacking attempts to penetrate and compromise American organisations conducting COVID research, to abusing student visas to exploit American academia, the actions of China may be unabating, but they are not unthwartable,” Wolf added.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in a statement to reporters accused the policy of infringing on students’s rights.

“It is outright political persecution and racial discrimination, and seriously violated the human rights of Chinese students studying there,” Zhao said in the statement, adding that China “reserves the right to make a further response on this issue.”