This piece is published as part of our new Immigration Idea Incubator, which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!
China’s recent comparative advances across several emerging technology fields are unsurprising yet troubling.
The narrative of the current technology competition, as outlined by the Biden administration, holds that the trajectory of emerging technologies initially held promise for the development and furtherance of liberal democracy. However, this narrative has been co-opted by our authoritarian competitors and now stands at a critical crossroads where it is unclear whether pluralistic democracies or one-party states will determine how humans shape the next wave of technology and how it shapes us in return.
While the U.S. has historically held a technological advantage, given its more fertile environment for innovation, China has rapidly matched and surpassed it in several emerging technology areas in recent years. According to a comprehensive Australian Strategic Policy Institute study, China currently leads the U.S. in 37 of 44 critical technology fields.
China has a significant advantage in publications, which in the context of this study are measured as journal articles, proceedings papers, and data papers published in publicly accessible scientific journals. From there, the top 10% quality measure is taken from analyzing which papers were the most heavily cited within the past five years, either in other research papers or in new patents.
High-quality papers have an outsized influence on technological advantage: 80% of the .01% most highly-cited research papers are referenced in patents for new technologies. The chart below shows China’s lead in five of these fields.
Comparison of Chinese and American Technological Innovations
These advancements are partly due to China’s quiet effort to attract top-tier talent in emerging technology sectors. As one prong of this approach, China has established several high-tech hubs and innovation centers, such as the Shenzhen Greater Bay Area and Beijing’s Zhongguancun. These hubs boast state-of-the-art facilities and serve as magnets for leading companies and institutions that may otherwise consider locations in Western nations.
China has also streamlined its immigration and visa processes to attract global talent. Initiatives like the Qiming Plan offer expedited visas and residency permits to top scientists and experts, making China a more accessible and attractive destination for international technology experts.
While specific data tracking these approaches’ success is mainly unavailable, some sources report that thousands of researchers have submitted applications under the Qiming Plan, and applicants who are younger and trained at prestigious U.S. universities have higher selection rates.
On the other hand, the U.S. is facing significant challenges in retaining international talent in these crucial fields. One obstacle in the U.S. is the difficulty international students and researchers face in acquiring H-1B visas and obtaining permanent residency. The complex and uncertain visa process often discourages international talent from remaining in the U.S. post-education.
According to a report by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), 70% of full-time graduate students in select AI-related fields in the U.S. are international students. However, the challenging path to long-term residency often leads these students to pursue their careers elsewhere, representing a significant loss of highly skilled individuals and a drain on U.S. intellectual and innovative AI capacity.
Losing this talent compromises America’s ability to stay at the forefront of cutting-edge research and application, with broad implications for our economic and national security interests.
A Proposed Solution
At present, there is a shortage of talent in AI and emerging tech in the U.S. A study by McKinsey of 3.5 million job postings in tech fields found that within positions that required skills that were in the greatest demand, there were only half as many qualified applicants. This is because the sector is growing and evolving rapidly, outpacing our domestic capacity to produce enough skilled workers to fill vital roles.
As mentioned above, one solution is implementing policies that allow us to retain higher rates of international workers trained in our universities. Beyond this, however, the U.S. should create a new visa category specifically designed for AI talent from select NATO & Five Eyes allies. This would be a step towards retaining the critical mass of skilled professionals essential for maintaining the U.S.’s competitive edge in AI and fostering deeper cooperation in emerging technologies with allied nations — a necessary step given recent changes to China’s recruitment strategies.
The proposed new visa program would have specific requirements and mechanisms tailored to attract and retain top-tier AI talent from select NATO & Five Eyes allies.
Central to the eligibility criteria for this visa would be an advanced educational requirement, setting a higher standard than the traditional high-skilled H-1B visa. Applicants must hold a Master’s degree in AI or closely related fields from recognized universities. This advanced degree prerequisite ensures that the visa attracts individuals with a deep and specialized understanding of AI, thus contributing significantly to U.S. technological prowess.
In addition to educational qualifications, applicants must demonstrate proven expertise in AI, evidenced by their contributions to the field, such as significant research, publications, or work experience in leading tech companies. This focus on high-level expertise ensures the U.S. attracts educated individuals capable of driving innovation and technological advancement.
Deepening cooperation with our allies in the realm of critical and emerging technologies in this way will yield both practical and political benefits.
Practically, this would dramatically expand the share of highly skilled professionals in our talent pool. According to a study conducted by researchers at Tufts University, the U.S. is currently home to 10 of the top 50 global AI hubs. When countries in NATO and the Quad are factored in, the U.S.-aligned advantage expands to 33 out of 50.
Our semiconductor industry would see similar benefits. According to one analysis, about 5,000 international students are expected to graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in the semiconductor field this year alone. This policy would help retain more of these graduates with minimal security risk.
Politically, this would also help deprive China of top researchers in critical fields. In his book Chip War, Chris Miller identifies “visa and travel restrictions” in combination with revamped Chinese strategies to attract and retain talent as threats to America’s traditional advantage in attracting global talent. This would be an initial step in realigning our immigration system and strategic interests.
Conditioning our immigration policy this way also encourages allies to coordinate with our security priorities more closely in the future to gain access to exclusive technological knowledge that their nationals can then transfer back home for commercial benefits.
Given the gravity of the outcomes at stake, the U.S. should begin–but not end–a realigned approach to national security through immigration policy via the adoption of this proposed, AI-talent-focused visa.