IU student Zhao Kaikai was arrested in July by the FBI under the charge of visa fraud. It has been three months, and we have yet to see IU take steps to protect its international students, especially those who are in dire need of institutional protection.
Kaikai arrived in Bloomington in January, 2019, as a newly admitted Ph.D. student in computer science. Little did he know that a year and a half later, aspects of his educational background, his life as an international student and his familial relations would become incriminating evidence in a federal case against him.
The FBI’s visa fraud case rests heavily upon their claim that Kaikai provided a false answer to the question “Have you ever served in the military?” in his F-1 visa application. Kaikai had studied at Aviation University Air Force, National University of Defense Technology and Naval Aeronautical University. All three are military institutions. But unlike in the United States, Chinese military universities also take in “civilian undergraduate and graduate students.” These students do not have military statuses (jūnjí, 军籍).
They are not appointed on active duty upon graduation but can freely search for jobs like graduates of regular universities. Neither are they recipients of military assistance and welfare programs. Kaikai attended these institutions as a civilian student.
The FBI’s charges largely ignored this important difference. Colored by anti-China assumptions that Chinese researchers are potential spies, the FBI interpreted aspects of Kaikai’s life as an international student as suspicious activities. In Kaikai’s bail hearing, an FBI agent argued Kaikai posed a risk of flight because “he was living out of an open suitcase.” In reality, Kaikai was between leases and staying at a friend’s place — like many of us who had to move during the summer.
Court filings indicate the FBI argued Kaikai had little ties to the Bloomington community and the U.S. in general, which said he usually worked until early morning hours at IU laboratories. However, for many international graduate workers, teaching and research consume the majority of their time. In a working environment where they are not only constantly multitasking but now laboring under nearly impossible conditions, it is a luxury to engage in Bloomington’s communal life. Like many of us, this is precisely Kaikai’s case.
When xenophobic immigration policies rule, international students’ routine life can easily become incriminating evidence in a hasty effort to establish a case for espionage. Fear-mongering, dog-whistling and ethnocentrism — when they are endorsed by the government and gain the upper hand in a community’s political landscape — endanger citizens and noncitizens alike, who suffer from uncertainty and sometimes even direct confrontation with state violence.
But some of us are more likely to be targeted than others. In the U.S., this is vindicated by the long history of racial violence against Black people. Now, with the yellow peril narrative peaking again in the American public sphere, East Asian international students are thrown into a crisis beyond their control.
Diversity and inclusion have been an important part of the IU administration’s self-image. Cultural events, inclusion panels and other forms of activities intended to demonstrate or advocate for diversity frequent our campus. As important as these activities are, what international students need most is institutional protection.
IU has benefited greatly from international students’ participation in Bloomington’s learning and teaching communities. But so far, we have yet to see IU attempt to protect Kaikai or others who might be confronted with similar calamities. IU needs to act.
Simon Luo is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a member of the Graduate Workers Coalition.
Huixin Tian is a Ph.D. candidate in information and library sciences and a member of the Graduate Workers Coalition.
Editor’s note: The quoted passage was obtained from a Chinese-language site and translated by the column’s authors.