Many western countries are limiting China’s activities amid growing tension. The UK Foreign Office rejected a record number of academics in 2022, considerably more than recorded in the past years. The rejection of applications was based on national security grounds.
Most rejected applications are from scientists and postgraduate students who have been or want to work in the UK. These academics face opposition based on perceived ties to China. The government has been hardening its stance on scientific ties with China due to the threat of growing espionage.
Rejecting academics is not the only way the government deals with the threat from China. Major research centers are quietly shut down as accusations fly about regarding attempts by Chinese companies to hack into government databases. The Imperial College had to shut down operations at two research facilities where collaborations with Chinese aerospace and defense companies occur.
The accusation from a government minister, George Freeman, to the MPs at the House of Commons was directed at China’s leading genomics company, BGI Group. The minister accused the company of regularly trying to hack into the NHS’s genetic database. Despite this, BGI Group got the covid testing contract in 2021.
The US, the UK, and Australia have embarked on a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar deal to combat China’s growing military influence. The Ankus deal will enable the three countries to build a combined fleet of elite nuclear-powered submarines. China has responded by calling the plan a path of error and danger.
The UK has committed to its stance by hardening the process of accepting applications from academics with ties to China, whether Chinese or of other nationalities. While these rejected applications are not always from Chinese citizens, most of them are. The Foreign Office did not give a breakdown by nationality, but leading universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College supplied data that implied that most with clearance issues are Chinese nationals.
Some agree with the government as they consider the threat from China to be immense. However, many leading scientists criticize the policy for depriving universities of being able to recruit the best talent from abroad. They understand the need to protect national security but do not believe research projects should suffer due to a lack of personnel.
The Foreign Office’s Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) was introduced in 2007 to vet people from countries subject to immigration control. These foreign nationals are subjected to clearance to work on dual-use research and sensitive subjects.
ATAS initially focused on weapons of mass destruction but was expanded in 2020 to cover all advanced conventional military technologies. The expansion covers much of physics, computer science, and engineering. Another addition in 2021 covers researchers and postgraduate students as part of those who need this clearance. The numbers then rose gradually from 128 in 2020 to 951 in 2021 and 1,104 in 2022.
Most of these applicants are believed to be scientists looking to move to the UK to take up offers of fellowships or research degrees. Some have already held similar positions in the UK for years and may have to leave after their clearance application was declined. Some experts worry that the increasing strictness may prevent the UK from achieving its goal of becoming a science superpower.
Geopolitical tensions have always affected nationals working in foreign countries. Chinese scientists are caught in these tensions between their government and most of the Western world. The refusal rate is still pretty low, around 2%, but many worries as the numbers keep climbing over the years.