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Is Microsoft Research Asia quietly helping to expand a US crackdown on Chinese students with military ties?

  • Mike Pearl

Universities that once supplied interns for Microsoft Research Asia now appear to be cut off.

If Microsoft Research Asia’s choice of interns is any indication, it looks like one of Microsoft’s biggest overseas operations is being influenced by a Trump-era immigration policy.

Over five thousand miles from the Redmond headquarters of Microsoft Research is its second most important lab: its sister facility in Beijing. Nestled among other universities and research institutes in the city’s Haidian District, Microsoft Research Asia has long been a major AI hub for both academia and the AI industry. It houses, to cite one example, the Microsoft Research Theory Center, where some of the industry’s most pioneering AI theorizing is carried out.

Last month, the news that Microsoft Research Asia appeared to be snubbing interns from certain elite Chinese universities went viral in China, and then came to U.S. shores via the Substack of Jeffrey Ding, an AI researcher at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies. This could merely be an issue affecting the resumes of a small collection of Chinese university students, but more likely, it’s one lingering effect of a 2020 proclamation from President Donald Trump, barring certain students from entering the U.S.

“[China’s] acquisition of sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property to modernize its military is a threat to our Nation’s long-term economic vitality and the safety and security of the American people,” the proclamation says. The idea at the time was to cut off a theoretical pipeline of sensitive technological intelligence from U.S. research institutes to the Chinese military.

Elizabeth Bowditch, a former instructor in “cultural awareness” at the Defense Language Institute in California told Voice of America — the U.S. government’s semi-official news outlet — at the time, “The upshot is that the U.S. will no longer be able to benefit from the contributions Chinese students make at American universities and that will be a huge loss to scientific and innovation and research.”

Now two years later, according to Ding’s translation of a Qbit AI article, “Microsoft Research Asia has stopped recruiting students from ‘Seven Sons of National Defense’ universities,” as well as certain other schools. The “Seven Sons of National Defense” are elite, mostly technology-focused universities: Beihang University, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University,and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Though the trend seems to have roots in policies stretching back to perhaps as early as 2019, this would seem to dovetail with Trump’s 2020 ban, which was also aimed at Chinese grad students hoping to attend U.S. schools if they attended one of the “Seven Sons.” Though Ding points out that the connection is not so cut-and-dried. The list of ineligible schools seems to include institutions of higher learning that were taken off the ban list in October of 2020, and whose connections to the Chinese military are tenuous — he compared them to Johns Hopkins or CalTech.

It seems that students from these universities already in internships at Microsoft Research Asia “will probably have to leave,” according to Ding — which would be a pretty dramatic turn of events.

Though Ding also highlights an opinionated student from one of these colleges who commented on the viral Chinese story that they don’t really care.

While Microsoft Research Asia was once one of the central pillars of the Chinese AI Universe, “At present, the company that attracted the most graduates is Huawei, followed by military units and state-owned enterprises,” the blithe commenter wrote.

“Going to work in U.S.-funded companies is one option,” the commenter added, “but it is not that there is no place to work without them.”