Fearing espionage, US weighs tighter rules for Chinese students

WASHINGTON • The Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on Chinese students in the United States over growing espionage concerns, US officials and congressional sources said.

In June, the US State Department shortened the length of visas for Chinese graduate students studying aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing to one year from five. US officials said the goal was to curb the risk of spying and theft of intellectual property in areas vital to national security.

But now, the Trump administration is weighing whether to subject Chinese students to additional vetting before they attend a US school.

The ideas under consideration, previously unreported, include checks of students' phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and US social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about the students' intentions in the US, including affiliations with government organisations, a US official and three congressional and university sources told Reuters.

US law enforcement is 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 US official said.

"Every Chinese student who China sends here has to go through a party and government approval process," one senior US official told Reuters. "You may not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who is coming here is untethered from the state."

The White House declined comment on the new student restrictions under review. Asked what consideration was being given to additional vetting, a State Department official said: "The department helps to ensure that those who receive US visas are eligible and pose no risk to national interests."

The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons.


China's Ambassador to the US told Reuters that the accusations were groundless and "very indecent".

"Why should anybody accuse them as spies? I think that this is extremely unfair for them," Ambassador Cui Tiankai said.

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.

The world's two biggest economies are also in a trade war, and increasingly at odds over diplomatic and economic issues.

Any changes would seek to strike a balance between preventing possible espionage and not scaring away talented students in a way that would harm universities financially or undercut technological innovation, administration officials said.

But that is exactly what universities - ranging from the Ivy League's Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities to state-funded schools - fear most. They have spent much of this year lobbying against what they see as a broad effort by the US administration to crack down on Chinese students with the change in visa rules this summer and a fear of more restrictions to come.

At stake is about US$14 billion (S$19 billion) in economic activity, most of it tuition and other fees generated annually from the 360,000 Chinese nationals who attend US schools, that could erode if these students look elsewhere for higher education abroad.

"Our national security concerns need to be taken seriously, but I am extremely concerned about the stereotyping and scapegoating of Chinese students and professors," said Ms Judy Chu, a Democrat who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2018, with the headline 'Fearing espionage, US weighs tighter rules for Chinese students'. Print Edition | Subscribe