Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday wrote to the presidents of 26 research colleges and universities in his state, warning them to guard against espionage efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“I write to bring your attention to a thorny issue that threatens to compromise our nation’s security as well as the integrity of the research and development enterprise in Florida,” Rubio said in the letter, noting that the Chinese regime is taking advantage of research collaboration and educational exchange to “covertly advance a malign agenda.”
According to Rubio, much of the technology and knowledge the CCP tries to obtain from American research institutions is unclassified, but being unclassified doesn’t mean it is unimportant.
“The CCP quietly seeks to acquire cutting-edge U.S. technology and the knowledge that will give birth to the technology of the future,” the senator explained. “The CCP believes that access to such knowledge will accelerate the buildup of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the CCP’s armed wing, and propel China’s state-directed economy ahead of the United States and into the technological frontier where leadership of the global economy of the 21st century will be contested.”
“For this reason, we cannot approach academic exchange with institutions or individuals from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) with stars in our eyes,” he wrote.
Rubio then pointed to several cases of the CCP “successfully penetrating” Florida’s research institutions that have been uncovered in recent years. In 2017, the University of Central Florida (UCF) fired an electrical engineering professor who was simultaneously employed by a PLA-affiliated university in Chengdu, China, where he set up a lab similar to his own in Florida. In 2018, a 19-year veteran professor at UCF fled the United States when university officials sought to ask him about his simultaneous employment at a Chinese school.
In a more recent case, the U.S Justice Department in February 2021 indicted former University of Florida professor Yang Lin for defrauding the federal government of $1.75 million in grant funding. A Chinese national, Yang was accused of fraudulently obtaining the federal grant money to develop an imaging informatics technology while concealing a company he founded in China to profit from that research, as well as his participation in the Chinese regime’s talent recruitment initiative through a PLA-affiliated Chinese university.
While acknowledging that “China itself is not the problem,” Rubio emphasized that Chinese nationals “face enormous political pressure to advance the CCP’s goals through their professional activities with international partners,” and as a result, academic exchange with entities and individuals from China “deserves much greater scrutiny” than collaboration with those of other countries.
“I respectfully urge you to carefully review and monitor existing research relationships with the PRC under your purview, and to keep these concerns in mind as you consider any future collaboration and the national security implications thereof,” he wrote in conclusion.
Rubio’s warning is in line with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s campaign to protect state secrets from Beijing’s espionage. In July 2021, the Republican governor signed into law two bills, with one increasing penalties for stealing a trade secret to benefit a foreign government, and the other requiring universities and colleges in his state to disclose large amount of foreign donations and implement extra screening of foreign applicants for research positions.
“All we are doing today is saying enough is enough,” DeSantis said last year. “We have to start fighting back. Florida is doing that.”