Chinese students often come to the United States to seek an American education, which provides a significant chunk of enrollment numbers and tuition revenue for many American higher education institutions. However, national security officials are concerned that some Chinese students take advantage of their studies to spy on the U.S. Reuters reported that the Trump administration, spearheaded by the State Department, is considering tightening visa terms for Chinese nationals who come to the United States as college students.
The proposed restrictions include additional background checks such as checking student phone records, investigating social media platforms of Chinese students on American- or Chinese-based platforms, and unearthing potential ties to government organizations and affiliates. The reason behind these proposed restrictions are spying and intellectual property theft by Chinese nationals, who study at American universities and colleges.
At risk is the $14 billion higher education windfall from Chinese students who attend American universities and colleges, numbering about 360,000 students a year. Higher education officials are concerned that the potential policy change could push Chinese students to go to higher education institutions in other countries, which would hurt their employers’ bottom line.
Back in June 2018, the State Department cut down the time that Chinese students studying robotics, advanced manufacturing and aviation could stay here from five years down to one over national security concerns. The proposed changes come on the heels of a trade dispute between the U.S. and China, which have announced tariffs and counter-tariffs on products such as washing machines, steel, aluminum, and farming products like soybeans.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, has held negotiations with the Chinese government on curbing intellectual property theft of American corporation’s technologies and patents. In exchange, the U.S. government would agree to lower tariffs on Chinese imports, but the Chinese government has not budged during the on-and-off negotiations.
The Chinese ambassador to the U.S. dismissed American concerns about spying, “Why should anybody accuse them as spies? I think that this is extremely unfair for them,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai told Reuters.
However, U.S. national security officials bring up specific examples of intellectual property theft and spying at American higher education institutions, such as Duke University, Louisiana State University, and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Yet, some higher education officials claim that these recent moves do not address the bigger picture of catching up to Chinese innovation. For example, MIT President L. Rafael Reif penned an opinion column in the New York Times, where he argued that these anti-espionage tactics are near-sighted. Reif wrote:
“Expert, decisive action is needed to stop these practices in defense of fair international competition and America’s strategic and commercial interests. But it would be a mistake to think that an aggressive defense alone will somehow prevent China’s technological success — or ensure America’s own.”
Nowhere in Reif’s column did he address national security concerns, nor note the degree to which China has pirated American technology, but Reif instead pivoted to talking points about federal funding directed to universities to unearth innovations in technology.
In short, higher education officials are more worried about revenue sources than national security concerns and theft of intellectual property.