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World View

NASA Keeps Chinese Away From Aliens

If Martians landed on National Aeronautics and Space Administration property, Chinese nationals wouldn’t be part of the welcoming committee.

That’s one potential -- if far-fetched -- consequence of federal legislation and a March moratorium that bans people from China and a handful of other nations from being granted new access to NASA facilities. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s rationale for the moratorium was to protect the U.S. and its space technology from spies. This came in the wake of espionage allegations at a NASA facility that turned out to be false. (The downloaded secrets were actually, ahem, downloaded porn.)

An actual consequence of the U.S.’s actions is that Chinese students and researchers will not be allowed to attend a November conference on alien worlds at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. As a result, several prominent researchers are boycotting the conference.

This may not seem like the end of the world -- and of course, it isn’t (well, depending on how much you fear aliens). There are issues more important to the U.S.-China relationship than Chinese attendance at discussions of “Earth Analogues and Super-Earths” in facilities owned by the U.S. government. But in China -- a country that sends an ever-increasing number of students to U.S. colleges -- the moratorium is for many a symbol of discrimination and national humiliation. Others resort to a more pragmatic, even sympathetic view, asking, “Wouldn’t China do the same?”

The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper deserves credit for laying bare the struggles of exoplanet-seeking Chinese. In a Friday article that’s been translated, distributed and read across China’s Internet, the paper described an “extraordinary backlash” from U.S. researchers at news that NASA had turned down applications from Chinese nationals to attend the conference. Still, few in China have paid much attention to the efforts of non-Chinese to defend the Chinese right to participate.

Instead, the focus has been on the exclusion. Many users of Chinese social media are invoking the Chinese Exclusion Act, the deplorable 1882 law that placed a moratorium on immigration to the U.S. by ethnic Chinese workers. On Sunday, Deng Huabei, who works for MSN China, sent this tweet from his account on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service: “I hope the U.S. keeps a clear distance from McCarthyism and never implements another Chinese Exclusion Act,” he wrote. “Since science transcends national boundaries, the provision won’t work out anyway.”

Some microbloggers have been far more direct, and contemporary, in their explanations of the ban. Song Hongbin, a well-known commentator and author with a decidedly anti-American bent, vented Sunday on Sina Weibo: “We should sue NASA. No matter the reason given by NASA, the underlying reason for this ban is undoubtedly related to racial discrimination.” Others have struck even harsher blows, such as a Switzerland-based Chinese microblogger who conjured up a notorious sign that Shanghai’s 20th-century colonial overseers allegedly once posted outside of a park (and which probably did not exist). “It reminded me of an old sign,” she tweeted Sunday. “‘No dogs or Chinese allowed.’ This is a step backward.”

The online anger is certainly real, but -- like so much on the Internet -- it is also selective. The Guardian and Chinese netizens almost fully ignore the fact that the moratorium also applies to people from Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Admittedly, it’s unlikely that Eritrea and Sudan have that many exoplanet scientists rushing to attend this conference -- almost as likely as it is that people from those nations will perform widespread espionage at NASA facilities.

Chinese nationals, however, carry the burden of their country’s weak commitment to intellectual-property protection and strong commitment to espionage. Right or wrong, considerable suspicion surrounds the Chinese in relation to the U.S. government’s tools and facilities.

Curiously, the most eloquent defenses of such suspicions do not come from Bolden or the members of Congress who have tried to prevent the U.S. from collaborating with China on space science. Instead, they come from pragmatic Chinese microbloggers. On Monday, the online portal Tencent used the Guardian story to kick off discussion on the topic. It also featured a totally unscientific poll asking respondents how they felt about the moratorium. Almost one-third of the 56,000 respondents as of Tuesday morning said that it didn’t matter to them.

Many of the more than 5,000 comments on Tencent’s story approved of, or at least sympathized with, NASA’s actions. Such feelings were echoed on Sina Weibo.

“I believe it’s our bad record in regard to intellectual property that makes NASA overcautious,” explained one Tencent commenter. “Acquiring intellectual property costs time and money and even takes a toll on the environment. Proper protection of intellectual property makes inventors feel more secure. So, in light of China’s poor record on intellectual property protection, the act of NASA is reasonable.”

Another Tencent commenter showed a particularly pragmatic attitude: “NASA did nothing wrong. We didn’t allow American journalists to enter the court during Bo Xilai’s trial, did we? The aerospace industry involved many state secrets. Frankly speaking, America does not trust China and fears spies may take advantage of the meeting. China is not an American ally. Is it wrong to beware of China?”

From an American standpoint, such comments might sound refreshingly candid. Perhaps they are. Yet they are also indicative of how trans-Pacific suspicions undermine the spirit of cooperation necessary to carry the expensive international research collaborations that underlie so much of modern science. NASA’s ban only intensifies the ill will while ensuring that at least some of China’s top scientists and students will think twice about whether the U.S. is the right place for them to pursue an education and a career.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry that will be published in November.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.

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