Chinese Regime Keeps Close Tabs on Overseas Scholars, Leaked Document Shows

November 6, 2020 Updated: November 11, 2020

As the United States ramps up efforts to curb Chinese infiltration of American campuses, a leaked document sheds light on the amount of control the Chinese regime exercises over its scholars who study abroad.

The document, obtained by The Epoch Times from a trusted source, concerns a professor from Yunnan Province in southwestern China, who requested authorities to allow an extension of her stay in the United States for two plant biology research programs at New York’s Cornell University—with the expectation that she report regularly to the local Chinese consulate.

The person’s name has been withheld to protect her privacy.

About 370,000 Chinese students and researchers were studying in the United States as of January, making up a third of the roughly 1.1 million foreign student body, according to U.S. government data (pdf). Around 130,000 of these students are in the STEM (science, tech, engineering, mathematics) fields at the graduate or postdoctoral level.

The professor, who teaches at the College of Agronomy and Biotechnology at Yunnan Agricultural University, received funding in August 2018 from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) through a “special western region talent development program,” which sponsors hundreds of Chinese researchers and scholars to study abroad.

The CSC is a government-controlled agency directly under the Ministry of Education. One of the qualifications for CSC scholarship recipients is to “support leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Under the professor’s contract with the CSC, funding would last through January 2021. But she wished to stay for one year longer in the United States, citing stalled lab research progress as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

She promised to “strictly follow relevant regulations and regularly submit quarterly reports on research progress to the consulate,” in a letter dated Sept. 29 from her university to Yunnan’s education bureau. Such arrangements, the university stated, would allow her further academic engagement at Cornell and “lay a good foundation” for research collaboration between the two sides.

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A screenshot of the letter from Yunnan Agricultural University on Sept. 29, 2020. (Provided to The Epoch Times)

It is unclear whether Yunnan authorities approved the request. Cornell University did not return a request for comment.

Commenting on the letter, Chen Yonglin, a diplomat-turned-whistleblower formerly stationed at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, said that Chinese-sponsored researchers are under the Chinese consulates’ control and “came overseas with tasks at hand.” Since defecting in 2005, Chen has exposed the Chinese regime’s infiltration tactics in the West.

“Once they arrive, they would need to register with the local consulate and periodically undergo political study at the consulate about [Party leader] Xi Jinping’s speech and the Party’s policies,” he said in an interview. “They are the most reliable people for the Chinese government—even more so than ordinary international students.”

Through the short-term scholar programs, the researchers gain easy access to advanced technologies, and their function is to “steal when the occasion allows,” said Chen.

“They are basically informants, agents of the Chinese Communist Party,” he added.

The CSC grant covers virtually all expenses during the program, from flights, lodging, transportation, phone bills, to social activities. Those who traveled abroad on government money must sign a contract with the CSC. They would have to pay back the full amount of the grant plus additional fines if they breach the terms, such as by behaving in ways that “harm the national interests and national image,” or engaging in activities unrelated to academic studies that create “negative impact,” a 2018 CSC handbook stated. As part of the agreement, scholars also must return to China upon completing the program for a mandatory two-year “service.”

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Signs are seen at the Chinese consulate after the United States ordered China to close its doors in Houston, Texas, on July 22, 2020. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

“The so-called government-sponsored scholars are required to hand over their findings,” Chen said. “[They report] how much they learned, the research accomplishments, what they managed to steal, and after going back, they might receive a promotion or receive new research funding.”

A number of recent espionage cases prosecuted by U.S. authorities involve researchers funded by the CSC.

Wang Xin, a Chinese military officer who hid his ties with the Chinese military, was tasked to “observe the layout of the UCSF [University of California–San Francisco] lab” where he was studying, and replicate it in China, according to prosecutors. Hu Haizhou, a CSC-sponsored University of Virginia researcher, was charged with stealing advanced “bio-inspired” computer code. Tang Juan is allegedly a Chinese military officer who hid her identity while doing research at the University of California, Davis. She fled to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being questioned by FBI agents and was arrested in July on visa fraud charges.

Amid souring U.S.-China relations, the University of North Texas recently terminated a CSC-funded program and told 15 Chinese visiting scholars at its campus to return home.

President Donald Trump in late May issued a proclamation to limit Beijing’s ability to co-opt Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars by halting visa issuances for military-linked researchers, citing concerns of intellectual property theft. In implementing the proclamation, the State Department also revoked over 1,000 Chinese nationals’ visas as of September.

Luo Ya contributed to this report.

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