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Chinese Students: Security Threat or Stereotype Threat?

As Senate subcommittee takes on issue of international students and national security, some raise concerns about generalizations that would paint Chinese students and scholars broadly as spies.

June 7, 2018
 
Senator John Cornyn

A Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday afternoon originally bore the title “A Thousand Talents: China’s Campaign to Infiltrate and Exploit U.S. Academia.”

Although the name of the hearing was changed to “Student Visa Integrity: Protecting Educational Opportunity and National Security,” Democratic lawmakers nevertheless raised concerns that Chinese students and scholars are being broadly tarred as threats to national security and potential intellectual property thieves. Fueling this concern is a recently reported policy change, going into effect June 11 and confirmed in broad strokes during the hearing by a State Department official, which will restrict the length of visas for certain Chinese nationals who are participating in some types of sensitive research.

In a sign of how tense the debate has come, normal congressional courtesies appear to have been ignored. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration, sought to invite Representative Judy Chu, of California, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to testify at Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing. Representative Chu’s office said Durbin’s request was declined by the committee chair, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican.

Senator Durbin described this as the first time in more than two decades on the committee that this had happened. He submitted for the record Representative Chu’s written testimony in which she described Wednesday’s hearing as “part of an effort to build a specific case against law-abiding visa holders and to fuel the dangerous narrative that students from China should be viewed with more scrutiny than those from other countries.”

“I want to speak out against some potentially dangerous generalizations that would paint all Chinese students and scholars as spies for China,” Chu said in an interview. “It started with [Federal Bureau of Investigation] Director [Christopher] Wray saying that Chinese students are a national security threat that require a whole-of-society response” -- remarks Wray made in February at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

“I found that to be dangerous, because what does this mean? Does it mean that every Chinese student should be subject to surveillance just because they are Chinese?” Chu asked. Chinese nationals account for almost a third of all international students at American colleges and universities.

Senator Cornyn’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In his opening remarks at the hearing, Senator Cornyn cited Wray’s remarks about the security risks posed by Chinese students and scholars. He noted that Wray’s remarks “were brief and because of the sensitive and classified nature of some parts of this issue, he could not provide the full context or breadth of the concerns in an open setting.”

“Most students and visiting scholars come to the United States for legitimate reasons. They’re here to learn, to share their culture, to learn more about ours, and to contribute their talents to America. Indeed, I’ve come to believe that America’s higher education community is really the crown jewels of what we have to offer as Americans to the world and indeed represent an important element of our soft power,” Senator Cornyn said.

“But as a member of the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee, I can assure you that the threats that Director Wray talked about were real … and they’re not limited to one country. There are countries, including state sponsors of terrorism, like Iran, who are actively working to steal U.S. technical information or products, to bypass expensive U.S. research and development, and exploit the student visa program to gain information that will benefit their countries.”

“Protecting our national security while maintaining a free and open academic environment is a difficult challenge,” Joseph G. Morosco, the assistant director of the Office of the National Manager for Counterintelligence in the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in his testimony before the subcommittee. “Although there are many benefits that international students bring to the United States, we must be clear-eyed about the potential risks. There are many foreign academics and researchers currently attending U.S. institutions from nations that are strategic competitors, including Iran, Russia and the People’s Republic of China. We are particularly concerned about China because it is among the United States’ most formidable economic competitors.”

"Let me be clear," Morosco said in response to a question from Senator Cornyn at a later point in the hearing. "Our counterintelligence concern with respect to China is not driven by race or ethnicity of the students that are in the United States. Our counterintelligence concern is driven by the fact that China has a publicly stated policy goal of acquiring sensitive information and technology around the world, to include here in the United States, and that they seek [to] access and recruit global experts regardless of their nationality to meet their science and technology aims."

E. W. Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, added that for some of the reasons Morosco mentioned, a "disproportionate number" of the economic espionage cases the FBI sees involve Chinese nationals.

Also speaking at the hearing, government witnesses from the Departments of State and Homeland Security presented on processes they have in place to vet applicants for student visas and monitor their activities once in the U.S. For example, Louis Rodi, the deputy assistant director of the National Security Investigations Division within Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), described a partnership HSI has with the National Counterterrorism Center "to routinely screen nonimmigrant students who are lawfully present in the United States against known derogatory information."

“In addition,” Rodi said, “HSI developed a program to address a potential vulnerability with nonimmigrant students who entered the United States to study in a nonsensitive field of study and subsequently transferred to a sensitive field of study.”

Senator Durbin questioned why the hearing focused on the risks posed by international students in particular: “I would say of all the possible ways of compromising the economic integrity and even the national security integrity of the United States, this is a small category,” he said.

Senator Durbin also sought to pin down Edward J. Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, on the reported change that will limit the duration of visa lengths just for Chinese nationals.

"News reports have stated under a new policy to take effect on June 11, Chinese graduate students would be limited to one-year visas if they’re studying in certain fields such as robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing. Is that true?" Durbin asked.

"Senator, we have issued some additional screening instructions to U.S. embassies and consulates to deal with certain individuals from China studying in certain sensitive fields," Ramotowski responded. "It would not be appropriate to discuss the details of those internal instructions in an open hearing, but what I can tell you is that these are screening measures. They don’t in and of themselves prohibit the entry of anyone into the United States or restrict access to our country."

"Do they limit, is it a one-year limit?” Senator Durbin asked.

"In some cases the visa, if approved, might be limited to one year, multiple entries, with the option to renew," Ramotowski replied.

"It’s my understanding this just applies to certain Chinese graduate students, is that correct?" Durbin asked.

"It applies to certain Chinese nationals, yes, sir," Ramotowski said.

Later, Durbin returned to the question, phrasing it in a different way. “June 11, new standard: if you are a Chinese graduate student, you are limited to a one-year visa in certain fields. I mentioned several: robotics, aviation, high-tech manufacturing. True or false?"

"Senator, yes, we do have new guidance on that, that applies enhanced screening to Chinese citizens in certain highly sensitive fields that have been recommended to us by other government agencies," Ramotowski responded.

"That particular June 11 new standard, strictly for Chinese graduate students?” Senator Durbin asked.

"And certain other individuals of Chinese nationality that might be engaged in similar study or work."

Pledges of Vigilance

Also testifying at the hearing were representatives from the higher education world. They stressed that universities are ready partners with the government and that they already comply with existing laws and rules governing sensitive technologies.

"Universities are increasingly vigilant about securing research programs and ensuring compliance with rules relating to export controls, controlled unclassified information and classified information," said Kevin Gamache, the chief research security officer at the Texas A&M University System. "The A&M system has taken a leadership role in this area. We established the Academic Security Conference in 2017 as a forum for academic institutions participating in the National Industrial Security Program [a program dealing with the protection of classified information]. We also managed a Listserv with 120 universities for academic security professionals to collaborate daily. Finally, we established the Academic Counter-Exploitation Program, a secure portal on DHS's Homeland Security Information Network, to allow academic institutions to share controlled, unclassified threat information unique to academia."

Gamache said that "many others within the academic community also work diligently to protect our nation's high-value research, but more can be done. We recommend establishing an academic counterexploitation working group to work with the FBI, DHS and other agencies to help inform policy solutions to counter the foreign threat to sensitive academic research. This group could also establish a national initiative to educate faculty and university administration on threats to our research and innovation base."

"Secondly," Gamache continued, "fund federal research robustly. Our adversaries' efforts would be less effective if U.S. faculty and students were resourced more fully. If the U.S. government matched funding levels and provided a focus equal to what the Chinese government is contributing to their talent recruitment programs, it would diminish many of these security issues considerably."

"University and college officials take threats to national security, academic freedom and economic security very seriously," said Jill Welch, the deputy executive director for public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "NAFSA, along with other higher education associations, stands ready to partner with you in these efforts."

Welch cautioned, however, against "the potential unintended consequences associated with overly broad action. "Let us remember that we are in fact in a global competition for talent and it is through open collaboration, the influx of international perspectives and the free exchange of ideas that the United States will prosper in the global economy."

Welch said, "It’s exceedingly important that the majority of Chinese students and scholars understand that we are not talking about them today. It’s exceedingly important because there are many choices of where talented people can go, and our research programs in the United States, particularly at the graduate level, are incredibly dependent on this kind of talent in order to offer the spaces in our classrooms to American students as well."

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