Taking on China: Administration zeros in on spying, including student agents

by WorldTribune Staff, June 4, 2019

The United States hosted 360,000 students from China last year, according to the Institute of International Education, more than any other country.

Now amid increased technology espionage warnings from U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, policies are changing and Chinese students are feeling less welcome.

Last June, the U.S. State Department said it would limit the visas for Chinese students studying science and engineering.

U.S. officials have warned that the Chinese government uses many of these students as unconventional intelligence assets in an attempt to steal American secrets both from both the government and the private sector.

“Beijing’s ability to get at foreign technology and finances through its ultra sophisticated spying network is becoming a major threat to the U.S. and other Western societies,” WorldTribune.com columnist Sol Sanders noted.

In its 2017 National Security Strategy, the Trump administration said it would review visa procedures and consider restrictions on foreign science, technology, engineering and mathematics students from designated countries to ensure that intellectual property is not transferred to competitors.

Last June, the U.S. State Department said it would limit the visas for Chinese students studying science and engineering.

In December 2018, E.W. Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, told a Senate committee that Chinese spy services regard expatriate students and workers in the United States as potential assets.

“[The intelligence officials] think of them as — just simply an extension of their power, of their nation,” Priestap said. “Based on FBI interaction with some of those individuals, it really is a case-by-case basis. Some I think are not knowledgeable in the least and are completely unwitting of doing anything in furtherance of their government aims. And, others either through direct or other softly applied pressure understand that they have obligations to meet.”

Several Chinese graduate students and academics told Bloomberg News in recent weeks that they found the U.S. academic and job environment increasingly unfriendly.

Emory University dismissed two Chinese-American professors on May 16, and China’s Education Ministry issued a warning on June 3 on the risks of studying in the U.S. as student visa rejections soar.

The share of Chinese government-sponsored students refused visas increased to 13.5 percent in the first three months of this year, compared with 3.2 percent in the same period of 2018, according to new Chinese government data.

Annual student visa renewals, which previously took about three weeks, are now dragging on for months, according to several Chinese doctorate candidates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who asked not to be named over concerns their career prospects could be affected, told Bloomberg.

“One of the students said they were leaning toward returning home after graduation, worried that the scrutiny of Chinese scholars could continue for years,” Bloomberg noted.

The Chinese Education Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation and Exchange criticized what it said were groundless U.S. accusations of “non-traditional espionage activities.”

The ministry cautioned Chinese students about the risks of pursuing an American education only to be denied entry far into the process, a message that highlights a change in attitude in Beijing even if it won’t actively curb applications.

“Those in the U.S. who are blocking Chinese students and scholars have another agenda in mind: They are afraid that the Chinese will master advanced technology and that China will walk to the front,” the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, said in a recent commentary. “A precipitous drop in the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. would certainly send shock waves through the American education industry.”

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