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The Trump administration is considering restrictions that would bar Chinese citizens from engaging in sensitive research at American universities and research institutions because of concerns about them sharing technology or trade secrets with China, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Among the possibilities under consideration, according to the Times, are restricting which types of visas Chinese nationals are eligible for and expanding existing regulations that already apply to Chinese nationals who conduct research with military or intelligence value at American universities.
The Times reported that the exact scope of the possible restrictions is not clear, but that they could affect collaborative research in technologies that relate to China’s “Made in 2025” plan to achieve domination in fields like advanced microchips, artificial intelligence and electric cars.
The Times noted that possible restrictions on Chinese citizens would likely affect graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and employees of technology companies in the U.S. on temporary visas. They would exempt Chinese nationals with permanent residency in the U.S., those who have been granted asylum in the U.S. and former Chinese nationals who have renounced their Chinese citizenship and become naturalized U.S. citizens.
In response to the Times report, higher education groups said that U.S. higher education must remain open to the world. Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a written statement that "scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas" and that "these principles have helped the United States to attract and benefit from international scientific talent."
"We strongly recommend that the administration work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity. Where specific and confirmed espionage is occurring, action must be taken, but obstructing scientific exchange based on nonspecific concerns that could be applied to broad swaths of people is ill conceived and damaging to American interests," Holt said.
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research institutions, said the organization is looking at the issue closely and has requested a discussion with national security agencies. “We want to work with the federal government to protect our national security interests while at the same time preserving the unique institutional culture of scientific openness that makes our leading public and private universities the destinations [for the] world’s best and brightest intellects who help to advance U.S. science and drive the U.S. economy forward,” he said.
American universities collectively enroll more than a million international students, nearly a third of whom come from China. More than 5,000 students on temporary visas from China earned doctoral degrees in science and engineering fields from U.S. universities in 2016, accounting for more than 12 percent of all new doctorates granted in science and engineering fields that year, according to National Science Foundation statistics.
The idea of new restrictions on foreign STEM students from certain countries was first publicly floated in a National Security Strategy document released by the White House in December. Since then, American universities’ ties with Chinese-related entities, including the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes -- centers of Chinese language and cultural education -- have come under newfound scrutiny from lawmakers.
In February, Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told a Senate committee that American academe is naïve about the counterintelligence risks posed by Chinese students and scholars who seek to take advantage of the open research environment in the U.S.
Michelle Van Cleave, a former counterintelligence executive under President George W. Bush, testified at a recent congressional hearing focused on espionage and higher education that American research and development is "systematically targeted by foreign collectors to fuel their business and industry and military programs at our expense."
"China and Russia both have detailed shopping lists of targeted U.S. technologies and specific strategies for clandestine acquisition ranging from front companies to joint R&D projects to cybertheft to old-fashioned espionage," Van Cleave said. "U.S. academic institutions, with their great concentration of creative talent and cutting-edge research and open engagement with the world of ideas, are an especially attractive environment for these kinds of activities. Let me say the numbers are frankly staggering: for every dollar we invest, some $510 billion annually, we lose most if not all of that equivalent amount to these kinds of illicit activities every year."
Major higher education associations have expressed a willingness to cooperate with Congress and national security agencies "to protect legitimate national security interests associated with scientific research conducted at universities."
But they have also expressed concerns that at the same time the FBI is raising alarms about the counterintelligence risks posed by international students, it dissolved the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, which since 2005 has functioned as a vehicle for information sharing between the academy and national security and law enforcement agencies. The FBI said in a statement it had suspended the board as part of a restructuring of its outreach activities and that it is "currently exploring new opportunities for academic partnerships and [remains] committed to engaging with universities and colleges around the country through our 56 field offices.”
Universities are subject to export control regulations managed by various federal agencies that restrict both the transfer of military technologies and designated commercially sensitive technologies to foreign entities. Under the deemed export regulations, for example, universities need to obtain a license before they allow a foreign national access to or use of a controlled technology.
“There are systems in place, and I think that with respect to Chinese visitors and Chinese exchange students and hosting Chinese delegations, my hope would be that whatever counterintelligence concerns are out there, they do not impede the free flow of information in the context of fundamental research that universities engage in,” said Donald Fischer, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Fischer & Associates who advises universities on the export control regulations.
“Sure, there are counterintelligence concerns and at the same time there is also a very, very solid regulatory history of fundamental research that really permits the exchange of collaborative work resulting in scientific publication with Chinese entities," Fischer said.
On the other hand, the Times article singles out a case involving a Chinese national who was investigated by the FBI while he was a student at Duke University. American officials are concerned that a major potential breakthrough in defense technology reportedly tested by China last month -- the capability to make a fighter plane disappear off a radar screen -- may have been achieved with the help of the former Duke student, who worked on similar technologies at a Pentagon-funded laboratory at Duke in 2008. The FBI investigated the student -- who was never charged -- after his supervising professor at Duke grew concerned that he was attempting to share the research with colleagues in China. The Times article noted that most of the professor's research was "early-stage" and was not classified or subject to export control restrictions.
John Krige, the Kranzberg Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of a forthcoming book, Knowledge Regulation and National Security in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press), made a distinction between active espionage and the transfer of knowledge that foreign students obtain in high-level science and engineering fields in the normal course of their educations.
“There’s been pressure since at least 2005 to tighten up the deemed export regulations as they affect especially universities and the capacity of people in learning situations to acquire new knowledge that they can take back home with them to China in particular and exploit for the benefit of the Chinese government,” Krige said.
Krige said there's a risk that the advanced knowledge Chinese students gain at an American university will eventually be used to the disadvantage of the U.S., as may have happened in the Duke situation. At the same time, Krige said, there are also real benefits of Chinese students coming to the U.S. -- they bring knowledge and money and links back to China -- and cutting them off from participating in scientific research in the U.S. undermines core values of academic freedom and openness.
"The free exchange of people and ideas, the removal of the principle that we’re open to everyone except people from terrorist states, that this is an open society that prioritizes scientific exchanges, is the risk worth sacrificing those principles?” Krige asked. "Well, I think I need more evidence to say that the risk is worth the sacrifice."