Cybersecurity

American Universities Are Next Battlefront for U.S.-China Tech Debate

The federal government is grappling with how to develop policies to curb Chinese economic espionage at American universities without falling into racial or ethnic profiling.

lock sign, security lines around a globe

The White House and Congress as well as military and intelligence officials have voiced increasing concerns over the extent of Chinese espionage on U.S. government agencies, private companies and universities.

At a Dec. 12 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, laid out his view of how the Chinese government explores all available legal and illegal avenues in support of their economic agenda.

"They use cyber-enabled theft to take what they want, supply chain manipulation to spy on what they want and work in or around legal structures to buy what they want," said Krebs. "In some cases, if they can't buy it, they steal it."

Businesses and research universities have become increasingly concerned that Beijing is directing Chinese nationals who study or work in the U.S. to steal technology or trade secrets and return home. A Hoover Institute study found that a record 350,000 Chinese nationals studied at U.S. universities last year, many in STEM fields. The report also argues that China targets universities and exploits "both their openness and naiveté" to facilitate theft of intellectual property.

Counterintelligence officials have warned that Beijing is pursuing a deliberate policy of fostering economic espionage from their students who study abroad.

"What I've seen is that the Chinese government, in particular intelligence or security services, will utilize, lean on those students and in effect say 'If you want your tuition paid, if you want to continue the opportunity that we're affording you to continue your education … in the U.S., well then you better not come home empty handed,'" said Bill Priestap, assistant director of the counterintelligence division at the FBI.

The U.S. has already significantly shortened visas and weighed a series of harsh restrictions for Chinese graduate students studying in technology or STEM fields. Last month, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering additional vetting for Chinese students hoping to study in the U.S., including access to their personal e-mail and social media accounts.

The Hoover study notes that even as the Chinese government has promoted the growth of educational partnerships between American universities and educational and cultural organizations like the Confucius Institute, it also "restricts access to American scholars and researchers seeking to study politically sensitive areas" in China.
The topic is fraught with complexity. One the one hand, research universities have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in stolen intellectual property and U.S. officials say there is substantial evidence that foreign governments (China in particular) are pushing or pressuring students abroad to return home with trade secrets.

Those concerns have tracked with what Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Institute, called a recent "generational shift" regarding where Chinese students go after graduating.

"In the past many of them tended to stay here [in the U.S.] … but more and more of those students seem to be going home," Cheng told Congress in September. "Whether that's due to economic opportunities at home or due to pressure [from Beijing] is much less clear."

However, others have expressed concern that in a rush to get ahead of the problem, the U.S. may be heading down a disturbing path of treating all Chinese students or employees as potential threats.

In April, a group of 100 Chinese Americans wrote a public letter stating that they support "fair and appropriate investigation, prosecution, and punishment of espionage that is based on the evidence and not on profiling or suspicion based on race, ethnicity, or national origin" and warned against "stoking fears through broad-brush stereotyping of any group of people."

Cheng echoed that concern in his testimony to Congress.

"I do want to emphasize that there is a danger here of course in viewing every Chinese student as an agent," said Cheng. "That we do not want to go to a point where we are simply concluding based on ethnicity or national origin that people are [suspect]."

In September, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA officer, stated in an interview that he believes current U.S. laws do a good job of threading the needle between taking counterintelligence threats from foreign nationals seriously and promoting American values of inclusiveness.

"When you apply for a visa you have to provide certain background information and there's a due diligence check," said Hurd. "If you're applying for a job as a contractor or with the government, you have to do an extensive background check. All of those processes are ways to deal with and try to identify top counterintelligence threats."

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