Troubling the Water

The story begins with water. ‘How do we make sure that that spigot remains open and free?’ an audience member asked during a panel discussion on scientific collaboration between the United States and China. He pointed out that the ‘very, very best students’ recruited from around the world are the ‘secret sauce’ that makes the US education system ‘the wonder of the world’, and rising tensions between the two superpowers could cut off this precious stream.

The moderator directed the question to me, the only China-born person on the stage. In this picture, I was a coveted droplet who left her birth country to soak into the sumptuous US creation. The metaphor, expressed in earnest with a hint of flattery, unsettled me.

I came to the United States in 2009 to pursue my PhD in physics. My profoundly personal journey cannot be distilled into a sketch of inanimate transfer. I often wonder whether a younger version of myself in China could aspire to a similar path today. Florida has enacted a new law that prohibits universities from hiring Chinese researchers without special approval from the authorities (Mervis 2023c). Several other states and the Republican-led House of Representatives have pursued legislation that restricts academic collaboration with Chinese institutions and scientists (Haime 2024). Many Chinese students face bans on entering the United States based on the institution from which they graduated or their field of study; those fortunate enough to secure a visa still risk lengthy interrogations by customs agents or even deportation (Kuo and Cadell 2024).

‘The border is a place of terror for many of us,’ says Gang Chen, an engineering professor at MIT who was falsely accused of secretly aiding China before prosecutors dropped the charges (Gewin 2024). In public discussions and private conversations, many of my American colleagues have expressed bewilderment or even feelings of betrayal at recent developments. The discriminatory measures are antithetical to the cosmopolitan ideal of science; they also appear to be a reversal of decades-old US policy that encouraged academic exchange with other countries despite differences in governance.

The United States and China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (STA), signed in 1979 and generally renewed every five years, is hanging by a second six-month extension as the two sides struggle to reach a deal (Hua 2024). Opponents of the STA argue that Beijing has violated the ‘basis’ of ‘reciprocity’ and that ‘the benefits of scientific cooperation have overwhelmingly flowed one way’—towards China to the detriment of the United States (Razdan 2024; Issa et al. 2023). The transactional logic belies a greater paradox: when the agreement was established in 1979 and in the many years after, both sides understood that Chinese scientists would be learning from the United States to try to catch up. Why is reciprocity pressed as a contractual obligation only with China’s rise, when the former student has become a peer?

The language of global commerce used to describe academic exchange obscures the fact that knowledge is local in its production and application. Institutions have a history and exist in a place. Scientists live and work in a bordered world. Knowledge does not move by its own will or by the laws of physics; it is embodied in products and people and enabled to move by human agency and a web of social and political forces. As water is extracted from wells and lakes and pumped through pipes and taps, knowledge flow relies on an infrastructure ‘saturated with’ and often in service of power (Krige 2022). As China ascends the global order and contests US hegemony, this shift in power relations disrupts the myth of American largesse in spreading knowledge around the world.

By erasing the local origin, political motivation, and social production of science, the totalising ideology of science as a universal truth that naturally transcends borders conceals the uneven structures of power that compel inquiry and facilitate or restrict scientific exchange. In the words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot: ‘The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots’ (1995: xxiii). To understand the present woes in scientific collaboration between the United States and China and to conceive of a better future, one must go back in time to trace the evolution of this transpacific relationship. The winding course maps a complex terrain shaped by the state and capital interests.

Imperial Beginnings

In 1872, 30 Chinese boys set sail for the United States on the first government-sponsored overseas education program in China, which was then ruled by the Qing Empire (Leibovitz and Miller 2011). Ninety more students joined in the following years. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 had promised the freedom of travel and equal access to education between the two countries. Reform-minded Qing officials believed that Chinese tradition was the core on which Western technology could be grafted for practical use (Kuhn 2002: 52). But Yung Wing, the progenitor of the education mission and the first Chinese graduate from a US university, harboured a grander ambition. The beneficiary of American missionaries, Yung echoed his mentors in hoping that ‘through western education China might be regenerated, become enlightened and powerful’ (2021: 27).

The transformative potential of a foreign education made it suspect to the Qing court. Facing conservative disapproval at home and racist backlash in the host country, the mission ended abruptly in 1881, the year before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States.

Writing in 1905, Edmund J. James, the President of the University of Illinois, lamented that failure. Had the United States succeeded ‘in turning the current of Chinese students to this country’ and ‘keeping that current large’, James expounded in a letter to the White House, ‘we should today be controlling the development of China in that most satisfactory and subtle of all ways—through the intellectual and spiritual domination of its leaders’. Nevertheless, it was not too late: ‘The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will be the nation which … will reap the largest possible return in moral, intellectual, and commercial influence’ (James 1905).

China in James’s time was on ‘the verge of a revolution’, and it would not be the last. In the first half of the twentieth century, the US Government and private foundations helped provide an elite education for the selected few in China and offered technical support to the country with the aim of cultivating an ally and gaining an early foothold in a massive future market (Greene 2022). The communist victory in 1949, described by the American intelligentsia as ‘the loss of China’, shattered this plan. China’s entry into the Korean War cemented its enemy status. US authorities barred China-born scientists from returning to their native land for fear of technology transfer (Wang et al. 2013). The Iron Curtain also closed the waterways. Crossing was forbidden.

Science during the Cold War

The Cold War reordered US society and reshaped its research enterprise. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1950, Manhattan Project alumni and member of the Atomic Energy Commission Henry D. Smyth (1951) described scientists as assets of war who must be ‘stockpiled’ and ‘rationed’. When domestic production fell short, authorities looked overseas (Zulueta 2004). Geraldine Fitch (1956), the wife and daughter-in-law of American missionaries in China, exalted Chinese refugee scientists who fled the communist takeover to Hong Kong as ‘brains at a bargain’, who could be resettled ‘in the free world at the amazingly low per capita cost of $91’.

In the battle over hearts and minds, the US Government and affiliated organisations launched a concerted effort to define an idea of science as pure, objective, and free from political intervention—unlike the state-directed and ideologically driven Soviet science (Wolfe 2018). By this logic, if social problems such as poverty and food insecurity could be tackled through technical means with US assistance, the peoples of the developing world would be less likely to fall for communist propaganda and seek structural change that threatened American interests (Schmalzer 2016: 3).

With science portrayed as separate from politics, scientific exchange also lost its missionary zeal and became an instrument of diplomacy. In a 1971 congressional address entitled ‘U.S. Foreign Policy in a Technological Age’, secretary of state William P. Rogers proclaimed that activities to ‘promote scientific progress’ should be insulated ‘from the vagaries of international politics’ (Rogers 1971: 9). He went on to explain that ‘[b]ecause the problems dealt with by science usually have a low specific gravity in political terms, scientific cooperation is often possible where political cooperation is not’ (Rogers 1971: 15).

Science in Mao Zedong’s China was unapologetically political (Schmalzer 2016). With a common faith in the power of science and its transnational appeal, and adopting terms similar to their Western counterparts’ such as ‘progress’ and ‘objectivity’, communist leaders pushed for a radically different vision of proletarian mass science. From agriculture to medicine, the Chinese Government also promoted its findings abroad as proof of its ideological superiority. The emphasis on self-reliance and indigenous methods grew out of the Chinese Communist Party’s revolutionary roots; it also reflected a practical necessity, as the country confronted both isolation from the West and simmering hostilities with the Soviet Union (Schmalzer 2014).

Shared concern about Soviet aggression sparked the thaw between China and the United States. ‘Your handshake came over the vastest ocean in the world—25 years of no communication,’ premier Zhou Enlai uttered these iconic words to president Richard Nixon in 1972 (Nixon Foundation 2013). The resulting Shanghai Communiqué placed science and technology first—before ‘culture, sports, and journalism’—on the list of areas in which ‘people-to-people contacts and exchanges’ would be ‘mutually beneficial’ (Wilson Center 1972).

After Nixon’s ice-breaking trip, a small but growing number of American scientists visited China. Switching from an earlier preference for leftist scholars and antiwar activists, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for the Western establishment elite (Millwood 2020). This gesture hinted at a more fundamental shift under way in China. Decades of political fanaticism had left the country in a shambles and exhausted the public’s faith in communism. Science was no longer hailed as a vehicle for proletarian revolution. Instead, a new generation of technocrats, who took charge after Mao’s death in 1976, embraced the ‘bourgeois’ science the Communist Party had denounced as they steered China towards modernisation and a market economy (Greenhalgh 2008). The alignment of priorities for research and development affirmed many Western scientists’ belief in the universality of their pursuit. For Chinese scientists who had endured waves of brutal persecution, the notion of a depoliticised science was a welcoming refuge from authoritarian control.

When Washington and Beijing formally established relations in 1979, the first major agreement signed by US president Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was the STA. A significant breakthrough had taken place the year before. Woken by a 3 am phone call from his science advisor in China, who relayed Deng’s request that 5,000 Chinese students be permitted to study in the United States, an irritated Carter replied: ‘Tell him to send a hundred thousand.’

‘Within five years, we had a hundred thousand Chinese students with us,’ Carter said as he recounted the story during a speech in 2013 (Carter 2013).

The Corporate University

In a 1986 report, the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China assessed the first six years of exchange since the resumption of diplomatic ties. It laid out three perceptions of China in the United States: ‘a Third World nation at a comparatively low technical level’, ‘a potential economic competitor’, or ‘a strategic military power’ (National Research Council 1986).

‘China, of course, has all of these dimensions,’ the report read. It cited Edmund James’s 1905 letter, written at a time when the American elite thought China was ‘malleable’, and went on to raise a series of prescient questions about US involvement in China’s development, including security interests, the impact of Chinese exports on Western industries, and the ‘proper’ relationship between academia and business. On concerns about technology transfer, the report emphasised the distinction between universities and ‘government and private research laboratories’: while the last two had legitimate needs to protect classified and proprietary information, the former ‘should remain as open as possible’.

This position was consistent with official policy, issued in 1985 as the National Security Decision Directive 189, that ‘to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research remain unrestricted’ (NSDDs 1985). The administrative separation of fundamental versus classified work eludes the nature of the latter and normalises its harms. In the 1960s and 1970s, antiwar activists on campus successfully pressured major universities to cut research ties with weapons developers. Most US universities no longer conduct classified research on campus. Yet, the decision by school administrators to divest themselves of weapons laboratories instead of converting them into civilian research centres meant that the harmful work still went on in formally separate entities (Leslie 1994). The focus on classification also omits commercial factors that have had a broader impact on higher education in the United States since the 1980s.

For years after World War II, results from publicly funded work in the United States generally stayed in the public domain. This changed with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that allows and, indeed, encourages universities to patent research products and license them for profit. The US Supreme Court ruled in the same year in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that life forms ‘made by man’ can be patented. Everything from seeds to pathogens could be considered intellectual property, and the burgeoning field of molecular biology became a particularly lucrative discipline (Lieberwitz 2005). Universities, including public systems in California and Texas, now rival the largest private corporations in the annual number of patent applications, and regularly sue one another for exclusive access to knowledge (WIPO 2023).

Beyond statutory limitations, the privatisation and commodification of academic research have redefined the purpose and priorities of science and shifted its general perception. No longer seen as a public good that is created to be shared, scientific knowledge is increasingly cast as private property that can be owned, stolen, and traded under a price tag. The mechanisms of quantification and commercialisation also work to depoliticise. Uprooted from its social context and stripped of political connotations, information is atomised and converted into the most coveted, pristine form: capital that can flow seamlessly in the marketplace of ideas.

The desire to capitalise on scientific development was shared on both sides of the Pacific. Speaking in China in the mid-1980s, Chinese American physicist Tsung-Dao Lee came up with a set of metaphors: ‘Basic research is pure like water, applied research births the fish, and product development is the fish market; all three are essential’ (1999: 74). Despite continued disputes over security and human rights, China’s integration into the global market became the primary stabilising force in its relationship with the West (Hung 2022). After the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, many academic associations in the United States halted collaborations with China. Some scientists called for a sustained boycott, but the engines of capital had little patience for moral deliberation. Lobbying from US businesses helped restore bilateral relations. A report in Science asked: ‘Will Profits Override Political Protests?’ (Marshall 1993).

The STA was renewed in 1991 with added provisions on intellectual property protection (US Department of State 2001). The emphasis on procedural fairness conceals structural injustices. Under a rules-based liberal order, individuals are discreet rights-bearers detached from community and devoid of history, hence equal before the law. But who wrote the laws and to whose benefit? In its early days, the United States was an unabashed thief of advanced technologies and skilled labour from Europe (Andreas 2013). The US Government strengthened intellectual property protection once the country reached a certain level of prosperity and exported its rules as it topped the global economic order. Since 1995, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) has forced all member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) into a transnational intellectual property regime that disproportionately favours US businesses and burdens the developing world (Sell 2003). The game is rigged, and the house always wins.

Tensions between the United States and China boiled over again in the late 1990s, partly centred on fears of leaked nuclear and space technologies and fuelled by a Republican-led House of Representatives at war with the Clinton administration. A lengthy congressional investigation produced the Cox Report, which accused academic exchanges with China at US national laboratories of being conduits for espionage, and Taiwanese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was charged with stealing nuclear secrets for China (Stober and Hoffman 2001). Scholars have thoroughly refuted the Cox Report’s claims (Johnston et al 1999). Lee—never convicted of spying—eventually won a US$1.6 million settlement in a civil suit against the US Government and the press. The vindication on legal and technical grounds nevertheless left the underlying political motivations unchallenged. Asian Americans rallied in support of Lee. By defending themselves as loyal citizens against racist suspicion, few questioned what loyalty entails, whom citizenship excludes, and what nuclear weapons actually protect.

Great Power Rivalry

The election of George W. Bush tamed the partisan rancour and China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 marked the highpoint of globalisation. Yet, unlike what Thomas L. Friedman extolled in his cleverly titled 2005 book The World Is Flat, the market is not an equalising force. Capitalism subsists on a hierarchy; value is extracted from an ever-expanding periphery to satiate the core.

The year Friedman’s volume was published, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a study at the urging of congress. Completed with ‘an unusual degree of urgency’, the resulting report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, sounded the alarm on the United States’ shrinking edge in science and technology, while ‘our competitive advantage, our success in global markets, our economic growth, and our standard of living all depend on maintaining a leading position’ (National Academies 2007: 218).

A follow-up study five years later bore a more ominous subtitle when assessing the strength of the ‘gathering storm’: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. The committee reached the unanimous view that ‘our nation’s outlook has worsened’ (National Academies 2010: 4). The initial report had made general references to several developed and developing countries, but a single competitor stood out in 2010: China.

More than a decade has passed since the ‘Category 5’ forecast. China now ranks first among Republicans and independents as the United States’ top foe, and second after Russia for Democrats (Saad 2024). In 2023, President Joe Biden declared a national emergency against the threat of ‘advancement by countries of concern in sensitive technologies and products’. The only ‘country of concern’ listed is the People’s Republic of China (The White House 2023).

The United States in Yung Wing’s and Edmund James’s times was an emerging power vying with European empires for influence. The cataclysms of the twentieth century catapulted the country to the pinnacle of global politics. This inherently unjust and unsustainable position has been normalised by so many whose personal fortunes, professional prospects, and sense of self depend on US hegemony that any change is seen as upsetting the cosmic order. Speaking at Harvard University in February, Congressman Mike Gallagher railed against China’s ambition to be ‘the sun’. As he put it, ‘we would like to see a situation in which they are Jupiter’, while the United States and its allies remain ‘the centre of gravity’ (Harvard IOP 2024).

Gallagher, a Republican, was joined on stage by Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, as the two headed the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. Containing the United States’ greatest rival is one of the few areas of bipartisanship in US politics, though the two sides take a different approach. As reported in Science, Democrats ‘think the best way for the United States to prevail is to run faster’ through more research funding, while Republicans, worried about federal spending, favour ‘hobbling China’ by denying it access to US-controlled technologies and tightening capital investment in China’s development (Mervis 2023a).

The seemingly contradictory positions of pushing sanctions and upholding free trade stem from a shared ethos, in which the freedom of the market means the freedom to exploit and the freedom to monopolise. The Chinese Government has regularly denied market freedoms to foreign and domestic entities alike, to secure key industries and maintain authoritarian rule. The country’s new anti-espionage legislation further limits the flow of data overseas (Wong and Strumpf 2023), and the revised state secrets law places additional emphasis on safeguarding science and technology (Xinhua 2024).

Critics of US–China scientific exchange have pointed to Beijing’s protectionist stance and dictatorial regression as breaking the promise of ‘reciprocity’ (Razdan 2024). The proposed responses from the US side, however, are alarmingly like the restrictions put in place by the Chinese State. US lawmakers and tech executives routinely decry China’s use of new technologies to strengthen its military, expand state surveillance, and commit human rights abuses, while doubling down on similar developments and applications at home and with allied countries (AI Now Institute 2023). What they really care about, then, is not how science is used but who uses it. What they hope to protect are not the safety and wellbeing of humanity but their own privileges and power. By denying the Chinese people agency, they project their greed and bloodlust on to a faceless other. The national border offers a convenient demarcation and the contours of an enemy. The epithet of ‘communism’ erases the role of global capital as a contributor to and beneficiary of repression in China and elsewhere. The banner of liberal democracy is waved as a shield to excuse similar behaviour from the home team as justified and necessary to defeat the other side.

我们是科学的主人, 1978, July, Landsberger collection

Freedom is a Constant Struggle

In the race for supremacy, answering ‘to what end’ is less important than the construct of a race itself. Competition rhymes with capitalism’s need for expansion and accumulation. The presence of a perpetual rival reconfigures society and reproduces the power relations that have set the race in motion. Emergency mobilisations during World War II hardened into a permanent national security apparatus at the onset of the Cold War, and quickly grew in the shadows of the Soviet Union. Competition with Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s enlarged the concept of ‘national security’ to incorporate ‘economic security’, in which a less prosperous opponent is a less threatening one (Daniels and Krige 2022). Since the 9/11 attacks, the US Government has habitually weaponised the global financial system and the digital infrastructure at its disposal to prevent adversaries from accessing critical resources (Farrell and Newman 2023). Having claimed everything from the military and law enforcement to civilian establishments such as industry and finance as tools in its arsenal, the national security state is clawing at unruly academia with a new formula: research security.

During his final days in office, president Donald Trump issued a memorandum. Kept in effect by his successor, the National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 demands actions to protect US Government–funded research from ‘foreign government interference and exploitation’ (The White House 2021). Once again, the only foreign government named in the memo is the People’s Republic of China. The US CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 devotes numerous sections to research security mandates. It requires funding agencies to maintain dedicated offices, bolster security protocols targeting ‘country of risk’, and provide relevant training to academic institutions and personnel.

Research security offices and staff are the latest additions to a ballooning bureaucracy at US universities. The drain on faculty time and administrative resources also exacerbates institutional disparity, meaning wealthier schools can better afford the cost of compliance, leading to more grants and opportunities.

Much more than a nuisance of extra paperwork, the advent of ‘research security’ is an affront to academic freedom. The reporting mechanisms normalise official monitoring of research activity. The risk assessments focus almost exclusively on country of origin and its relationship with the US Government: ‘foreign’ means suspect; transnational ties are condemned or redeemed by geopolitical interests. On its website, the National Science Foundation (NSF) celebrates the launch of its research security training modules as ‘a major first step in reconciling the needs of the research, law enforcement and intelligence communities’. At a recent roundtable, the NSF’s chief research security officer described the goal as shifting ‘from a culture of compliance to a culture of research security that is just as accepted [as] … lab safety culture’ (National Academies 2024). This stunning statement reveals the deeply political mission couched in depoliticised, managerial language: if the risks of working with colleagues from a country the US Government does not like are as intrinsic as those from handling corrosive chemicals, a scientist has no choice but to accept the rules of the state as though they are the laws of nature.

The NSF chief described the role of her office as helping researchers access funding: to mitigate the risks to ‘get to yes’. This was echoed at the same roundtable by the chief compliance officer of the University of California system, who said ‘the goal is to create a glide path to yes’. But what lies beyond that path? Are other paths available? The disciplinary power of ‘research security’ not only limits with whom a US-based scientist can work; it also affects what kind of science is favoured, how it is done, and to whose benefit. When knowledge is treated as commerce, the mechanisms of trade policy also creep into science policy: ‘small yard, high fence’. The belief that scientific advancements can be kept safe behind lock and key like family jewels mistakes a dynamic, social, and political process for an inanimate object. The very attempt to draw a border and put up a wall shifts the underlying conditions on which knowledge production relies. It poisons the water and forecloses alternative flowering.

On the growing list of ‘critical and emerging technologies’ published by the White House, the broad, vaguely defined, and often overlapping fields of research include everything from clean energy to artificial intelligence, from biotechnologies to quantum information (Ambrose 2024). The perceived threats are often based not on present capabilities but on a remote theoretical possibility hyped by speculative capital. The future-oriented discourse overlooks existing harms and narrows the public imagination. An unforgiving outlook in which any technology can become a weapon—or become a commodity wielded as a weapon in economic warfare—is presented not as a scenario to be resisted with collective action but as destiny, where the only option is to kill or be killed.

The rules of national security do not just determine what can or cannot move across borders. They also reproduce the injustices embodied by the border. It is not a coincidence that the US state and federal legislatures that have pursued prohibitions on academic exchanges with China have also tried to police gender, outlaw abortion, ban books, limit teachings on racism, and halt diversity and inclusion efforts at universities. These exclusionary measures emanate from a shared world view and advance a common aim: to uphold the United States’ position at the imperial core while preserving the myth of its innocence. The nation being secured is a white supremacist patriarchy. In this context, ‘China threat’ is another politically expedient catchphrase, like ‘Critical Race Theory’ or ‘wokeness’, coopted by powerful interests to encroach on the academy and manipulate scholarly inquiry.

Since the dawn of the modern university, academic freedom has been a generational struggle against the church, the state, and corporate forces. The heightened scrutiny of collaborations with Chinese counterparts has kindled a moment of political awakening for many US-based scientists—in particular, immigrants from China who are much like me. In their admirable, burgeoning advocacy, many have nevertheless resorted to the same state-centric, elitist language as their detractors. Both groups expound on US exceptionalism, immigrant excellence, and techno-utopianism. The only differences are how to best advance US interests and whether exchanges with China amount to a net gain or loss. For these scientists, the goal of political engagement is not to seize political agency in their work but to shield their work from the consequences of politics. In yearning for a return to a past ‘normal’ before present tensions, the scientists are yielding the future to the state’s terms.

The duty of the academy is not to simply understand the world as it is and align with existing powers; it is to interrogate power and imagine alternatives to exploitation and domination. To fulfil this obligation, scientists must recognise and embrace their identity as political actors and organise and leverage their power as knowledge workers in charge of the means of production. In the US National Institute of Health’s sweeping investigation into Chinese ties, more than 100 scientists, most of whom were tenured faculty, lost their jobs. Only one researcher was able to have her termination reversed thanks to her union’s collective bargaining agreement (Mervis 2023b). Beyond protecting one’s employment, the goal of labour organising is also to determine the terms and purpose of one’s labour: how the work is done and what it is for.

Scientific exchange, like science itself, is not unconditional or the more, the merrier. To pretend that science exists in a borderless world is to deny political reality and commit the same fallacy as those who believe a state can have monopoly over knowledge. The task, then, is to commit to the constant struggle, to not become cynical or complacent with power, to be deeply rooted in place and in touch with the local, and to forgo the confines of sovereignty and open one’s eyes to the water. Waves from distant shores bring whispers that a better world is possible—one where the ocean is not a battlefield and fish are not a commodity.

Featured Image: Protesters gather outside of the Reitz Union on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 to protest legislation blocking international students from Florida colleges and universities. Photo by Armand Raichandani | The Independent Florida Alligator

 

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Yangyang Cheng

Yangyang Cheng is a Research Scholar in Law and a Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, where her work focuses on the development of science and technology in China and US‒China relations. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, MIT Technology Review, and WIRED, and have received several awards from the Society of Publishers in Asia, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She is a co-host, writer, and producer of the narrative podcast series Dissident at the Doorstep, from Crooked Media. Born and raised in China, Cheng received her PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School for the Gifted Young. Before joining Yale, she worked on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for more than a decade, most recently at Cornell University, and as an LHC Physics Center Distinguished Researcher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

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