Posted on August 27, 2019

‘Academic Espionage’: China Suspected of Flooding U.S. with Students to Access Sensitive Programs

Ben Wolfgang, Washington Times, August 22, 2019

America’s plan to catch China in the race to deploy super-fast hypersonic weapons may begin in college classrooms.

Academic leaders, lawmakers, and military and intelligence officials say Washington needs to take a harder look at the number of Chinese who come to the U.S. to study engineering, aeronautics, astronautics, quantum mechanics and other fields that have direct connections to national security. The massive influx of Chinese students in recent years, they say, has led directly to Beijing’s advantage in the development of hypersonics and other cutting-edge technology — though U.S. officials say privately that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to track individual cases of students gaining specific insights in a given area and then taking that knowledge back home.

The issue of China’s “academic espionage” raises delicate questions about discrimination and academic freedom, and the education and military sectors have struggled to strike the right balance between protecting classified research and attracting the diverse, international student base prized by top universities.


Beijing has also explicitly targeted ethnic Chinese students, entrepreneurs and high-tech researchers working abroad to come home through its Thousand Talents Plan. The effort has become so sensitive that Chinese officials reportedly have been told not to identify the foreign scholars and figures whom they are trying to lure back home.


Troubling cases

In the 2017-2018 academic year, over 360,000 Chinese were studying at American institutions. A decade ago, the figure was 100,000.

Although the vast majority of Chinese students attend school in the U.S. for straightforward academic reasons, others — and in some cases professors — come with close ties to the government in Beijing.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year said China’s People’s Liberation Army had paid for at least 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad, including in the U.S.


The FBI, State Department, Department of Justice and a host of other government agencies have ramped up their efforts to work directly with universities to encourage better vetting of Chinese students and to limit their access to any sensitive research related to national security.


U.S. officials say the Chinese strategy is long term and revolves around getting as many students into American universities as possible, with the hope that at least a handful of them return with new knowledge in cutting-edge fields.


Cracking down

Higher education groups say they are encouraging universities to take the issue more seriously and to more closely examine the backgrounds, financing and affiliations of any Chinese institutions with which they work.