As President Trump ponders restrictions on Chinese tech company Huawei, the FBI is warning American universities about espionage by Chinese researchers and academics. The FBI now advises research universities to track and observe Chinese students and faculty for signs of intellectual property theft. In the last year, the federal government has voided or re-evaluated the visas of 30 Chinese academics for this crime.
In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray commented on China’s intelligence operation. China, Wray said, has ‘pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation any way it can, from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations’. Last year, Wray told a Senate hearing that the PRC gathers valuable research from US universities by using ‘nontraditional collectors,’ including professors, scientists, and students.
For focusing on Chinese students and faculty, the FBI has been accused of prejudice. ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey has argued that it is unfair to ‘cast an entire group of students, professors, and scientists as a threat to our country based simply on where they come from’. After the visa cancellations, Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, argued that the government had singled out ‘an entire ethnic group of people’ on suspicion of espionage.
These comments may be well-intentioned, but they ignore a clear pattern of Chinese interference on American college campuses. The National Institutes of Health, a government agency that funds public health research at US universities, found the Chinese government has developed ‘systematic programs to unduly influence and capitalize on US-conducted research’, with Chinese scholars divulging exclusive research to Chinese intelligence.
The Chinese government also uses cyber attacks to steal research on military technology from American universities. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese hackers had targeted research on maritime technology at several universities, including Penn State, the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, and MIT.
Aside from espionage in research, the PRC seeks to influence campus discussions about China through student organizations. The federal government has long been suspicious of Confucius Institutes, with many universities opting to shut down the PRC-funded operations, but other student organizations are also influenced by the Chinese government.
A recent Hoover Institution publication notes that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) takes directives from the Chinese government, and develops relationships with China’s consulates. When campus events focus on Tibet, Taiwan, or other sensitive issues for the Chinese government, campus CSSAs contact PRC representatives, who then urge the given university to shut down the sensitive discussions.
In 2017, the University of California San Diego received requests from the campus CSSA and China’s consulate in Los Angeles to rescind an invitation to the Dalai Lama. When rebuffed, the PRC prohibited future scholarship funds for Chinese students studying at UCSD.
More alarmingly, CSSAs have informed the PRC when Chinese students speak out against the Chinese government. In some instances, the Chinese government has issued warnings to the families of dissident students. Through a network of student organizations, the PRC intimidates Chinese students from discussing their lives under an authoritarian regime, even in an academic environment that should protect and encourage such speech.
China understands that universities are essential to America’s military and economic supremacy. So Chinese authorities try to exploit valuable American research, and repress speech that runs counter to Chinese interests in the United States. Of course, the thousands of Chinese students at our universities shouldn’t automatically be treated as potential spies. Many deserve our sympathy, for living in fear of the PRC’s retaliation if they are perceived as criticizing the government. Still, with credible and repeated reports of interference and intellectual property theft on campus, the FBI shouldn’t handicap its own operations for fear of appearing prejudicial.