The FBI is urging American universities to monitor students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, amid fears of China snooping on US academia.
NPR reports that officials from the intelligence agency have told at least 10 member schools of the Association of American Universities since 2018 to keep an eye on Chinese academics with links to certain entities.
Universities are also to check that Chinese students are not stealing research with potential defense applications and sending it home.
The FBI is encouraging American research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions (stock image of FBI headquarters)
But administrators have pushed back on the FBI’s non-mandatory advice because they are skeptical of the threat posed by foreign students.
‘We are being asked what processes are in place to know what labs they are working at or what information they are being exposed to,’ Fred Cate, vice president of research at Indiana University, told NPR.
‘It’s not a question of just looking for suspicious behavior — it’s actually really targeting specific countries and the people from those countries.’
Cate also criticized the fact that universities would have to manually run checks on students.
‘You’re really looking at compliance systems that have to be rolled out on a department-by-department basis and person-by-person level to see if you’re sticking research data in an envelope and mailing it to China,’ Cate said.
While the FBI does not rule out monitoring students from other countries, its focus is on Chinese students in science, technology, engineering and math in particular.
FBI officials have told at least 10 member schools of the Association of American Universities, which include Stanford (stock image), since 2018 to keep an eye on Chinese academics with links to certain entities
It comes amid growing suspicion in Washington of espionage and cybersecurity threats from rival China, which aims to become a scientific power by 2049.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a February 2018 congressional hearing that China is ‘exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it’.
He also told the Council on Foreign Relations in April: ‘The Chinese intelligence services strategically use every tool at their disposal — including state-owned businesses, students, researchers and ostensibly private companies — to systematically steal information and intellectual property.’
FBI Director Christopher Wray (pictured) told a February 2018 congressional hearing that China is ‘exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have’
Intelligence officers have also briefed hundreds of American CEOs, investors and think tank experts on ‘what [China] they’re trying to collect on, what they’re interested in our campuses,’ William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told NPR.
The Trump administration has long accused China of stealing American technology, a key factor behind the trade war between the two countries, and has been cracking down on what it deems intellectual property theft by Chinese scientists working in U.S. research institutions.
At least 30 Chinese professors, many of whom specialize in the social sciences and government policy, have had their visas to the U.S. canceled or put in administrative review in the past year, The New York Times reported in April.
‘They may feel we know too much about the United States,’ one of the Chinese scholars whose visa was canceled, Lu Xiang, told The NYT.
Last year, the Trump administration also began restricting visas for graduate students studying in science and technology fields.
In May, Republicans introduced laws that would deny visas to researchers linked to Chinese military institutions.
For decades, the U.S. believed allowing Chinese people to study in the U.S. and learn about its values was beneficial to both nations.
But now the growing Chinese footprint in American academia is raising concerns.
The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, warned research institutions last year that ‘foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers’.
The biomedical research agency is investigating grant recipients for not disclosing collaboration or funding from China and for sharing material with Chinese researchers.
This March, U.S. intelligence officials told around 70 college administrators of the American Council on Education to avoid research funding from Chinese firms like Huawei, NPR reports.
Universities including MIT, Stanford and Illinois have already cut off research collaborations with Huawei.
A bipartisan Senate investigative committee released a report in February that found a large percentage of U.S. universities had violated the law by hiding its foreign funding sources, according to Daily Caller.
‘Since 2006, the Subcommittee determined China directly provided over $158 million in funding to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes,’ the report said.
But several university presidents have issued statements reaffirming their commitment to Chinese researchers and students.
Last month, Yale University’s president, Peter Salovey, said he wanted to ‘urge federal agencies to clarify concerns they have about international academic exchanges. The AAU has encouraged agencies to use the tools already in place, such as export controls, while affirming the principle of open academic exchange for basic research’.
More than 340,000 Chinese students were studying in the U.S. last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.