How Embarassing!

By Mark Trodden | August 17, 2005 3:40 am

Well, here I am in China, being treated wonderfully by gracious and polite hosts and learning first hand about some of the wonderful science being done by Chinese researchers. Today, for example, I heard a very nice talk by Ping He, who described a large-scale computational project to understand the distribution of the dark baryons in the universe. It is impressive work.

To come to China to take part in this exciting exchange of ideas and approaches, I needed to obtain a Chinese visa. I did this through a company, a representative of which walks your application to the embassy and gets it processed. The entire procedure took about a week, most of which was taken up by my passport being FedExed to the company and back to me. It was, obviously, very easy.

So you can imagine how embarrassing it is to read, in The New York Times, about how hard it can be for Chinese researchers to get their visas to visit the United States. Those of us in academia have been dealing with this problem for the last three or four years, encountering long delays in getting visas for excellent graduate students, for postdocs, for faculty and for visitors to conferences.

However, this particular story is even more embarassing because it concerns Xiaoyun Wang, a Chinese mathematician, who last year

…shook up the insular world of code breakers by exposing a new vulnerability in a crucial American standard for data encryption. On Monday, she was scheduled to explain her discovery in a keynote address to an international group of researchers meeting in California.

But a stand-in had to take her place, because she was not able to enter the country. Indeed, only one of nine Chinese researchers who sought to enter the country for the conference received a visa in time to attend.

In other words, Dr. Wang’s visit was undoubtedly going to help us with national security, as well as representing the free exchange of scientific knowledge that we should expect and which provides important common ground between the two countries.

The Times continues:

The visa snag angered organizers of the annual meeting of the International Cryptology Conference, who argued that restrictions originally created to prevent the transfer of advanced technologies from the United States are now having the opposite effect.

“It’s not a question of them stealing our jobs,” said Stuart Haber, a Hewlett-Packard computer security expert who is program chairman for the meeting, Crypto 2005, being held this week in Santa Barbara. “We need to learn from them, but we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

And we should be hopping mad about it!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Politics, Science and Politics
  • Wolfgang

    So the terrorists are indeed achieving their goals?
    But I have to say, while most other countries follow outdated ideologies such as “evolution”, only the US supports true scientific breakthrough, such as ID, on the highest level. So, there is no reason to worry.

  • Sean

    For years we’ve been making it more and more difficult for smart and technically-trained people from other countries to live and work in the U.S. Making it hard for them to even visit is just part of the natural progression.

  • Simon DeDeo

    According to [high-ranking unnamed source :)], Princeton’s grad school applications (across all departments) from Chinese students declined from 3,000 to 1,000 in the last two years, mostly due to visa problems. There was some time-lag after 9/11, but the word is finally out on the Chinese street, apparently. A lot of applicants are shifting over to Canada or Europe in response.

    The Universities are understandably upset, but they don’t have much political power. The hope is that the tech companies, who are also suffering, will get involved more actively. (When they’re not outsourcing, I guess.)

  • Andreas


    What a hypocrisy. Demanding freedom of thought and unhindered exchange of scientific knowledge (a knowledge-of course-conform and limited to mainstream western science) for a small elite in a country where by far most citizens, and among them truly free minds outside of western academia, suffer from censorship, administrative arbitrariness and corruption, religous and political prosecution executed under a totalitarian regime. Where is your protest and your disgust when it comes to the very societal elements of humanity? How embarassing.

  • Mark

    My protest about that might come in another post, with a different topic. This post was about the free exchange of scientific ideas, which I think is an important topic.

  • Quantoken


    There is no need for you to put pressure on Mark to say something politically correct judged by the western main stream, because clearly the only thing you know about China you probably read from the main stream media which based their judgement on information several decades old, and doesn’t actually match today’s reality.

    As Mark is in China now, visiting the very campus where I grew up, I am sure he will be making his observations and form his opinions accordingly. I encourage you to talk to the average Chinese on various issues see what they think about. I assure you no topic is too sensitive for them to be talked about, as long as you are a sincere and willing listener. Ask them about Taiwan, about Tibet, or about religions, and you will be surprised to learn how willing, or even eager, the Chinese will be to tell a westerner what they think.

    And of course, how do you even hope to have even a glimpse of a country of 1.3 billion people, undergoing a tremendous amount of changes and transformations, in just a one week’s visit! Even to expariates who stayed outside for a few years, this country is quickly becoming unrecognizable in so many ways.


  • V H Satheesh Kumar

    This needs to be addressed immediately. Similar thing happened in our university too recently. One of my prof.(PhD from Chicago) had got sabbatical leave and was supposed to visit one prestigious American university, when she went for visa, not just the officials behaved rudely they denied her visa along with other 2 scientists one of whom was a director of Indian Institute of Science. Because of this mess she had to waste her leave and had to bear the embarrassment! Its good if US visa officials take measures in the interest of their national security but one should be logical enough to differentiate between Terrorsits and Physicists!!

  • Samantha

    On a related note: I found out about a year ago that, since 9/11, our Chinese graduate students now go for very long periods (years) without going home to visit ther families. After 9/11, too many enrolled students trying to come back to their studies after a vacation were permanently prevented from re-entering this country by US customs officials. Thus, the remaining students are too afraid to go home.

    I simply don’t think it is relevant whether China is an oppressive regime or not, it is just so dreadfully sad to have a weeping student in your office who is longing to go home but can’t. Particularly since I, a British citizen, continue to be able to travel freely even though one of my fellow countrymen [Richard Reed] tried to bring down an aircraft with a shoe bomb.

    I was so upset by this that I have both talked to officials at USC and tried to phone round the offices of politicians, but to not much avail. As Simon DeDeo (#3) notes, all we can hope is that the trend is reversed before everyone decides to stop coming.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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