November 29, 2018 / 12:07 PM / 17 days ago

Exclusive: Fearing espionage, U.S. weighs tighter rules on Chinese students

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on Chinese students in the United States over growing espionage concerns, U.S. officials and congressional sources said.

    In June, the U.S. State Department shortened the length of visas for Chinese graduate students studying aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing to one year from five. U.S. officials said the goal was to curb the risk of spying and theft of intellectual property in areas vital to national security.

But now the Trump administration is weighing whether to subject Chinese students to additional vetting before they attend a U.S. school. The ideas under consideration, previously unreported, include checks of student phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about students’ intentions in the United States, including affiliations with government organizations, a U.S. official and three congressional and university sources told Reuters.

U.S. law enforcement is also expected to provide training to academic officials on how to detect spying and cyber theft that it provides to people in government, a senior U.S. official said.

“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.”

The White House declined comment on the new student restrictions under review. Asked what consideration was being given to additional vetting, a State Department official said: “The department helps to ensure that those who receive U.S. visas are eligible and pose no risk to national interests.”

    The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons. China’s ambassador to the United States told Reuters the accusations were groundless and “very indecent.”

“Why should anybody accuse them as spies? I think that this is extremely unfair for them,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai said.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet at a G20 summit in Argentina this week.

Greater scrutiny of Chinese students would be part of a broader effort to confront Beijing over what Washington sees as the use of sometimes illicit methods for acquiring rapid technological advances that China has made a national priority. The world’s two biggest economies also are in a trade war and increasingly at odds over diplomatic and economic issues.

Any changes would seek to strike a balance between preventing possible espionage while not scaring away talented students in a way that would harm universities financially or undercut technological innovation, administration officials said.

But that is exactly what universities - ranging from the Ivy League’s Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities to state-funded schools such as University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - fear most. They have spent much of 2018 lobbying against what they see as a broad effort by the administration to crack down on Chinese students with the change in visas this summer and a fear of more restrictions to come.

At stake is about $14 billion of economic activity, most of it tuition and other fees generated annually from the 360,000 Chinese nationals who attend U.S. schools, that could erode if these students look elsewhere for higher education abroad.

Many Ivy League schools and other top research universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, have become so alarmed that they regularly share strategies to thwart the effort, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

U.S. authorities see ample reason for closer scrutiny, pointing to recently publicized cases of espionage, or alleged espionage, linked to former students from Louisiana State University and Duke University and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

   FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate hearing this year that his agents across the country are seeing “non-traditional collectors (of intelligence), especially in the academic setting.”

STOP SHORT OF A BAN

White House adviser Stephen Miller proposed a ban early this year on student visas for all Chinese nationals, according a report to the Financial Times, and confirmed by Reuters.

But the new measures would stop well short of such a ban, according to multiple sources. Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor who is now ambassador to China, helped convince Trump to reject the Miller idea during a meeting in the Oval Office in the spring, one administration source said. Branstad argued that a ban would hurt schools across the United States, not just the elite universities many Republicans view as excessively liberal.

U.S. Representative Judy Chu of California warned the administration was at risk of overreach.

    “Our national security concerns need to be taken seriously, but I am extremely concerned about the stereotyping and scapegoating of Chinese students and professors,” Chu, a Democrat who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a telephone interview.

Already worried about restrictions, universities have mounted a pressure campaign focused on the White House, State Department and Congress and held multiple meetings with the FBI, according to lobbyists, university officials and congressional aides.

    Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, told Reuters that Chinese students risked becoming “pawns” in the U.S.-China rivalry. 

Slideshow (11 Images)

MIT president L. Rafael Reif, and Andrew Hamilton, the president of New York University, are among several top university officials who published opinion columns recently addressing the perceived growing threat to their Chinese students.

Reif said that academic institutions recognize the threat of espionage, but any new policy needs to “protect the value of openness that has made American universities wellsprings of discovery and powerhouses of innovation.”

(For a graphic on 'U.S. colleges tap China for growth' click tmsnrt.rs/2DCJ8ek)

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin

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