Tue, Dec 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Fearing espionage, US mulls tighter rules on Chinese students

By Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

US President Donald Trump’s administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on Chinese students in the US over growing espionage concerns, US officials and congressional sources said.

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

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

The ideas under consideration include checks of student telephone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and US social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about students’ intentions in the US, including affiliations with government organizations, a US official and three congressional and university sources said.

US law enforcement is also expected to provide training to academic officials that it provides to people in government on how to detect spying and cybertheft, 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 said. “You might not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who’s coming here is untethered from the state.”

The White House declined to 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.

The accusations were groundless and “very indecent,” Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) said.

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

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) this week met at the G20 summit in Argentina.

Greater scrutiny of Chinese students was 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.

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

However, that is exactly what universities — ranging from the Ivy League’s Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities to state-funded schools such as University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — fear most. Universities have spent much of this year lobbying against what they see as a broad effort by the administration to crack down on Chinese students with the change in visas this summer and a fear of more restrictions to come.

At stake is about US$14 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.

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