Fearing Espionage, US Weighs Tighter Rules on Chinese Students

November 29, 2018 Updated: November 29, 2018

WASHINGTON— 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.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader 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.

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.

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.

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.”

By Patricia Zengerle & Matt Spetalnick