Chinese students studying in the US have helped pad the coffers of elite US universities for years. But over the summer, the Trump Administration angered academic leaders across the US by adopting new restrictions on visas for Chinese graduate students (though the president decided against a ban on all visas for Chinese students, a policy pushed by Trump aide Steven Miller). And in what looks like the next step in the administration's crackdown on espionage by Chinese nationals in the US on student or employment visas, Reuters reported Thursday that the State Department plans to tighten its vetting of Chinese students to try and prevent espionage at America's universities.
The new vetting measures will include checks of student phone records, as well as the scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and US social media platforms for anything that might raise doubts about a students' intentions - including affiliations with the Chinese government. The plan also involves providing training to US academics to help them spot spying and cyber theft.
"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’s 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 U.S. 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 United States told Reuters 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.
In recent months, the US has embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on China's intelligence services, arresting suspected spies and warning friendly countries to steer clear of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.All of this suggests that the stronger vetting processes are part of a broader crackdown.
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 also are 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 while not scaring away talented students in a way that would harm universities financially or undercut technological innovation, administration officials said.
Regardless of whether the national security concerns are legitimate or not, US academics will do everything they can to oppose and stymie these measures. Why? Because Chinese students are responsible for some $14 billion of economic activity that directly benefits American universities.
But 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. They have spent much of 2018 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 $14 billion of economic activity, most of it tuition and other fees generated annually from the 360,000 Chinese nationals who attend U.S. schools, that could erode if these students look elsewhere for higher education abroad.
Trump and senior members of his administration have already reverted to playing the "bad cop" role in the ongoing trade negotiations with China, warning that the talks haven't yielded any progress, and that China has made no effort to reform its espionage and IP theft practices. Now analysts will inevitably wonder" Could this crackdown on Chinese students help poison the well ahead of Trump's Saturday dinner with Xi?