12 April 2019

Countering the “student spies”. American legislative initiatives.

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Image source: Mediafax

The more or less recent American legislative initiatives aim at limiting students’ access, especially the Chinese ones, in researching top fields, financed with federal funds, developed across the further education institutions. The espionage over the American academic studies, as well as the one developed through research partnerships between the Chinese companies and the American universities are seen as threats against the US national security and are also the reason of some legislative proposals aiming at limiting foreign students’ access to sensitive information and government’s increased control in accessing study programs. In the same circumstances, some opinions are asking for certain foreign academic institutions to be forced to enlist themselves in the Justice Department and to reveal their relation with that particular government and the funding resources. They are going even further and, through Senate’s report, Confucius institutes are being accused for being strictly controlled by Beijing and for being a threat against the academic liberty, hereof recommending some measures to counter this phenomena up to closing the institutes.

The espionage prevention measures across American academies  

“The United States enemies are exploiting the vulnerabilities of an academic system. The academic environment is exclusively an environment of non-exclusive thinking, which makes enemies get advantages from the access to sensitive research funded with federal funds, developed across the academic institutions”.

In the following paragraphs, it is listed who these enemies are, as stated in a recent Republican initiative, the so-called “Act to protect our universities”, belonging to Congressman Jim Banks:

  • More than 300,000 Chinese nationals who annually attend U.S. universities or find employment at U.S. national laboratories, innovation centers, incubators, and think tanks and who could be manipulated to serve Beijing’s strategic and military ambitions;
  • International students who could be pressured or stimulated by their country to reveal technology or to use sensitive information.

In order to support the idea Congressman Jim Banks’s legislative act is based on, the increased foreign interference in the American educational system, it is mentioned FBI’s director perspective, Christopher Wray: there are Chinese students who are unconventionally collecting information, openly exploiting the research and development environment.

Consequently, says the document, threats coming from China should be seen not just as threats coming from the Chinese government, but from an entire society, which is, finally, asking for a response coming from the entire American society.

It is proposed also a concrete solution: no longer than a year since the law will come into force, the Secretary of Education, together with the Secretary of Defence and the director of intelligence community, will found a group of work across the Education Department to address espionage’s threat in academies institutions. The group of work- around 30 members from the Defence, Justice, Energy, Education departments and the intelligence community- together with the office of intelligence community, will come up with a list of sensitive research projects and will provide instructions for the academic institutions wherein those projects are being developed.

The sensitive research project is defined as a research project across an academy institution, funded by a qualified financed agency – the Defence and Energy Departments, an intelligence community structure- however, except for classified projects and those that need participants’ access to classified information.

Students coming from China, North Korea, the Russian Federation and Iran will be allowed to get involved in sensitive research projects, only with the approval of the intelligence community director.

The same director will identify the foreign threats, governments, corporations, profit and non-profit organizations, seen as espionage threats related to research projects and will come up with a list periodically updated. For the beginning, this list will be composed of: Huawei, Hikvision Digital Technology Company, Dahua Technology Company, Kaspersky Lab.

At a declaratory level, the law project is, somehow, a reaction to Education Department’s ineffective response to a letter from June 2018, wherein 26 members of the Congress have asked the start of an investigation of Chinese organizations’ possible attempts to access research and technology results from the American universities. Claiming that Huawei’s partnerships with more than 50 US universities are threatening the national security, it was being asked for the Education Department to require American universities who are working with Huawei Technologies to send information about their common projects.  

Lately, there were some speculations in the United States about Huawei’s connections, in particular company’s president, with the Chinese government, and there were adopted different economic measures who aimed at stopping the expansion efforts on the American market.

But it is not only about Huawei and the Chinese communication equipment that could be used to access sensitive information.

The American politicians think that foreign governments and organizations, especially the Chinese ones, made it to impose their political agenda under the academic environment coverage.

As consequence, the Congress has organized various hearings about the possible attempts to spy US academic researches, and the Pentagon is investigating the research partnerships between the Chinese companies and the American universities. In a recent interview, the presidential counsellor for national security, John Bolton, has stated that the Chinese state is trying to use non-profit think-tanks and organizations for influence actions in the US, and the movement is larger than any other foreign effort in the history.

Congressman Jim Bank’s legislative initiative is not the only one

In June last year, the US State Department has reduced, from five to one year, the visa duration for Chinese students’ studying in fields like aviation or robotics, reasoning that it would decrease the espionage risk and intellectual property theft in vital fields for national security.

Another legislative initiative, elaborated a year ago, by republican congressmen Joes Wilson and Marco Rubio, the Foreign influence transparency scheme, was asking organizations like Confucius institute to register accordingly with the Foreign agents registration act, thinking that the American people have the right to know if they are consuming propaganda of a foreign government. 

Senator Marco Rubio thinks that, through the new legislation, there will be much more transparency of foreign governments’ activities which are operating in the United States, and entities like the Confucius Institute should register at the Justice Department as agents of the Chinese government. This way there will be eliminated the gaps from the Foreign Agencies Registration Act (FARA), adopted in 1938, which foresees the academic institutions to be freed of any obligations of organizations and people acting in behalf of a foreign government to register to the Justice Department and reveal their relation with that government and funding resources.

They went further and, in February this year, a report of the Senate has accused Confucius Institutes for being strictly controlled by Beijing and for being a threat against the academic freedom, recommending some measures to counter this phenomena up to closing the institutes.

These institutes, funded by Hanban, a department of the Foreign Ministry controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, are controversial for quite a while now as the politicians think they could be used by the Chinese government as propaganda. Also, there are warnings from the intelligence community about universities- soft targets for the foreign intelligence services that use their students and personnel to access emergent technologies. FBI Director, Christopher Wray, talked, on many occasions, about the naiveness of the academic sector and the Chinese agents who got infiltrated in the most prestigious American universities, referring to Confucius institutes.

After the first Confucius Institute was launched in 2004, at the Maryland University, there were created 400 similar entities in the US (Confucius institutes and classes). In the US, in 2018, there were 340.000 Chinese students, which means 30% from the total of the foreign students in American universities and colleges.  

Such a significant presence makes it difficult to approach what the intelligence community representatives and politicians call the complex Chinese threat, unjustified presences or even espionage efforts of America’s major economic and political rival over the US academic environment.

It is all the more difficult as there are opinions according to which Confucius institutes are not actually that different from the ones created in other countries, the German ones (Goethe) the Spanish ones (Cervantes) or the French Alliance. Confucius Institutes would just be monitored and funded by Hanban only partially, as the US school that hosts such an entity offers also annual funds to match Hanban’s contribution, as well as space and administrative support.  

As the measures are more and more serious (Stephen Miller, Trump’s presidential counselor, was speculating at the end of the year, the idea of prohibiting visas for all Chinese citizens), it is brought on the table the idea of funds’ issue. Some are speculating that there would be around $14 billion coming from taxes generated, annually, by Chinese citizens who are going to US schools, an amount which would disappear if these students would go for studies in a different countries. And, for example, only in one year (2010) Hanban has offered $4million to Stanford University for the Confucius Institute, without getting involved in choosing scholarships or breaking Stanford’s academic liberty   (Richard Saller, the dean of University’s Humanist Sciences School).

If you want to fight China, you need Chinese speakers

In the academic environment, even if it is accepted the idea that these institutions are Chinese governments tools, the allegation is rejected for being pointless (Robert Daly, former director for the China Maryland University Initiative from Maryland, former employee at US embassy to Beijing, before 1990), and the governmental actions are seen as Red Scare tactics (Margaret Pearson, political sciences professor in Maryland), because of the lack of plausible data to prove that the Confucius Institute is working as coverage for espionage actions or other illegal activities. Senate’s investigation from February did not work either.

Furthermore, no one can argue the importance of the cultural changes between both states and, as Gao Qing was stating, director of Confucius Institute US Center, if you want to fight China, you need Chinese speakers, in other words, it is crucial to have acknowledge of what concerns you.

A 2018 study of Hoover Institute from Stanford University, called the Chinese Influence and American Interests: promoting constructive vigilance, got to the conclusion that Confucius Institutes are providing the Chinese government access to American student groups, and across the reflection groups, researchers and students are stating that there are influence attempts coming from the Chinese diplomats. However, the same report affirms that mass media should reinforce its information and make responsible investigations about the Chinese influence and any other measures to be taken, by anyone, to counteract this influence and not to demonize any group of American citizens, or US tourists. Or, as Terry Hartle is stating, the vice-president of the American Education Council, not to transform the Chinese students in pillars for the US-China rivalry. It is obvious that Chinese students did not come up in the US overnight. And the threat they supposedly represent was not made overnight either. But, it is also clear that the secrete services tracked them even if they did not made it publicly, because they were aware that is could been transformed in threats against national security. And they were right.

Despite the statements made on the other side of the issue, calling on a cold war mentality (Lu Kang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson), creating any kind of walls, either cultural or academic, cannot but remind about what happened during McCarthy’s era and about instigating to a society response, as Jim Banks thinks of it.