Exclusive: Fearing espionage, US imposes stricter rules on Chinese students


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions imposed on Chinese students in the United States because of growing concerns over espionage, US officials said. and members of Congress.

In June, the US State Department reduced the number of visas issued to Chinese graduate students in aeronautics, robotics, and advanced manufacturing to five. US officials said the goal was to reduce the risk of espionage and theft of intellectual property in areas vital to national security.

But now, the Trump administration is looking into whether Chinese students should be subject to additional scrutiny before attending an American school. Ideas under consideration, which had not been previously reported, include checking students' phone records and viewing personal accounts on Chinese and US social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about intentions. Students in the United States, including affiliations with government organizations and three congressional and university sources told Reuters.

US law enforcement should also train university officials to detect spying and cybercrime that it provides to government officials, a senior US official said.

"Every Chinese student sent by China here has to go through a process of approval by the party and the government," a senior US official told Reuters. "You may not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who comes here is immune to the state. "

The White House declined to comment on new student restrictions to the study. Asked about the attention given to the additional verification, a State Department official said, "The department helps to ensure that people who receive US 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. The Chinese ambassador to the United States told Reuters that the accusations were unfounded and "very indecent".

"Why should anyone accuse them of spying? I think this is extremely unfair to them, "said Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

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

A closer look at Chinese students would be part of a larger effort to confront Beijing about what Washington views as the use of sometimes illicit methods to gain rapid technological advances, one of which national priorities of China. The world's two largest economies are also engaged in a trade war and increasingly disagree on diplomatic and economic issues.

Any change would seek to strike a balance between preventing possible spying and not scaring talented students in a way detrimental to universities or compromising technological innovation, officials said. .

But that's what the universities are most afraid of – Ivy League universities at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, public schools like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They spent much of the year 2018 lobbying against what they see as a vast administrative effort to repress Chinese students with the visa change this summer and the fear of new restrictions.

It is an economic activity of about $ 14 billion, the bulk of which comes from the 360,000 Chinese nationals who attend American schools. This amount could be eroded if these students looked elsewhere for higher education abroad.

Many schools in the Ivy League and other major research universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, are so alarmed that they regularly share strategies for counteract this effort, according to three people close to the debates.

US authorities see many reasons for further investigation, citing cases of alleged espionage or espionage recently reported, linked to former students at Louisiana State University and Duke University. from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

FBI director Christopher Wray said at a hearing before the Senate this year that his agents across the country were meeting with "non-traditional (intelligence) collectors, especially in academia."


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

But the new measures would stop long before such a ban, according to several sources. Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor who became ambassador to China, helped convince Trump to reject Miller's idea at a meeting at the Oval Office in the spring, said a source from the United States. # 39; administration. Branstad argued that a ban would hurt schools across the United States, not just at the elite universities that many Republicans consider to be excessively liberal.

US representative Judy Chu of California warned that the administration may be out of date.

"Our national security concerns must be taken seriously, but I am extremely concerned about the stereotypes and scapegoats of Chinese students and professors," Chu, a Democrat who chairs the American Congress-Pacific-Asia caucus.

Already preoccupied with the restrictions, the universities have organized a pressure campaign centered on the White House, the State Department and Congress and held numerous meetings with the FBI, according to lobbyists, officials of the United States. University and congressional advisers.

Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, told Reuters that Chinese students could become "pawns" in the US-China rivalry.

slideshow (11 Images)

The President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif, and Andrew Hamilton, the President of the University of New York, are among the most important personalities of the university who have recently published chronicles of opinion about the growing threat to their Chinese students.

Reif said academic institutions recognize the threat of espionage, but any new policy must "protect the value of transparency that has made US universities sources of discoveries and drivers of innovation" .

(For a chart on "US Universities Mobilize China for Growth", click on tmsnrt.rs/2DCJ8ek)

Report by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; additional reports by David Brunnstrom; edited by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin

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