Chinese espionage against American universities has helped China make leaps and bounds in science and technology that would have taken the country decades to achieve if the methods had not been stolen. Now a state-owned Chinese company is trying to buy a bankrupt music college located a stone’s throw from Princeton University, promising its board of directors a huge cash infusion and much-needed campus improvements.
The two issues cast a light on both how and why the Chinese government has managed to become a critical revenue source for many U.S. universities, and whether the growing influx of Chinese college students threatens U.S. national security.
The White House believes the threat is real and just one part of China’s broader effort to steal technologies that it has designated to be national priorities. To thwart the Chinese, administration officials are preparing new vetting procedures and restrictions for Chinese students on top of tough measures they already have put in force.
“Every Chinese student who China sends here has to go through a party and government approval process,” one senior U.S. official told Reuters. “You may not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who’s coming here is untethered from the state.”
At stake is about $14 billion of tuition and other fees spawned annually by the 360,000 Chinese nationals who attend U.S. schools, money that would evaporate if these students studied elsewhere. Leaders of many top-tier U.S. and public universities have banded together to stop the White House from taking actions that would disrupt the cash flow — and academic talent, they argue — that Chinese students provide. Among them are Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Illinois-Urbana. Some academic association lobbyists have even accused the White House of using Chinese students as a pawn in the growing rivalry and trade war between the U.S. and China.
All the parties agree that academic espionage is a problem, and a dossier of Chinese involvement exists. Recently publicized cases have involved former students from Louisiana State University, Duke University and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
This year, FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed to the Senate that agents across the country are seeing “non-traditional collectors” of intelligence, “especially in the academic setting.” In May, Republican Senator Ted Cruz introduced the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018. A House version of the bill was introduced in September by Florida Republican Francis Rooney. Both bills were driven by alarm over China’s aggressive efforts to steal technology from U.S. universities.
In June, the State Department shortened the length of visas for Chinese graduate students studying aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing to one year from five. According to Reuters, any new measures would be designed to prevent espionage, but not scare away talented Chinese students. Administration officials said they will carefully consider how their actions could harm any universities financially or stifle their technological innovation.
White House hardliner Stephen Miller lobbied President Trump for an all-out ban on student visas for all Chinese nationals, according to a report to the Financial Times. But Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor who is now ambassador to China, helped persuade Trump not to go that far. Branstad reportedly warned the president that a ban would harm universities nationwide — not just the elite universities many Republicans view as excessively liberal.
The ideas under consideration include checking student phone records and scouring personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media for red flags about a potential student’s intentions while in the United States, including any links to Chinese government organizations. U.S. law enforcement is also expected to train academic officials on how to detect spying and cyber theft, as they now do with federal employees.
While there is much public opining from university officials about academic freedom, losing big money is what the universities running the full-press lobby effort fear most. MIT president L. Rafael Reif, and Andrew Hamilton, the president of New York University, are among several elite university officials who published opinion columns warning people of the burgeoning threat to their Chinese students. Reif said that universities understand the peril of espionage is real, but any new policies need to “protect the value of openness that has made American universities wellsprings of discovery and powerhouses of innovation.”
For their part, Chinese officials are incensed by the White House actions and the accusation that their government is running a wholesale operation to spy and steal from U.S. universities. China’s ambassador to the United States called the accusations “very indecent,” maintaining China’s company line that Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons.
“Why should anybody accuse them as spies? I think that this is extremely unfair for them,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai said.