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, Reuters reports.
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.
However, 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.
Law enforcement authorities are 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 Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons. China’s ambassador to the United States told Reuters the accusations were groundless and “very indecent,” Reuters adds.
“Why should anybody accuse them as spies? I think that this is extremely unfair for them,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai said.
Trump and Chinese President 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.
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, Reuters noted.
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.
Many Ivy League schools and other top research universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, have become so alarmed that they regularly share strategies to thwart the effort, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
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.”