As US-China relations near boiling point, Washington has started to “harass” Chinese students at airports by searching them for technology theft.
When Boston Logan International Airport’s announcement asked Keith Zhang to come to the boarding desk, he thought it was a regular boarding check.
But when he saw two armed officers waiting for him, his heart sank.
“They questioned me under the premise that I am here to steal technology,” Zhang – not his real name – told the BBC.
Zhang, a 26-year-old PhD student from China, was a visiting researcher at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island.
He had not expected to spend his last two hours on US soil being interrogated about his potential ties with the Chinese Communist Party.
His experience is not isolated and suggests the new cold war is heating up.
In July, Washington closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, calling it a “spy centre”.
Some of the students’ electronic devices were taken away for further examination and not returned for weeks.
“Taking away my laptop and phone for examination is nothing more than harassment,” Zhang says, adding that cloud technology makes such searches redundant.
However, a series of indictments against Chinese researchers suggest the suspicions of US authorities are not unfounded.
In August, Haizhou Hu, a 34-year-old Chinese visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, was arrested when he attempted to board a flight to China at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
The Department of Justice said “a routine screening” revealed that his laptop contained research-related software with military applications, which he was not authorised to possess.
US law enforcement agents have to get a warrant to search electronic devices, but airports are an exception. Border agents only need “reasonable suspicion” to search travellers’ electronic devices.
According to the South China Morning Post, US border agents carried out over 1,100 searches of Chinese nationals’ electronic devices in 2019, a 66% increase over 2018.
Sheena Greitens, associate professor of public affairs at University of Texas, Austin, expects scrutiny of Chinese nationals studying science and technology in the US to skyrocket, regardless of the outcome of the US election.
She says that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are likely to take the potential threat of illegal technology transfer between the US and China very seriously.
Though Zhang was impressed by the academic rigour in the US and enjoyed working with colleagues at Brown University, he says he won’t consider ever visiting the country again due to his airport experience.
“It was very scary,” he says.
Worrying over a gloomy future for US-China relations, Zhang has started encouraging his Chinese friends in the US to consider returning home.
“The new Cold War has started,” he says. “There’s no turning back, no matter who is going to be America’s next president.”