In an apparent move to intercept suspected scientific and technological espionage, American officials are reportedly planning to expel Chinese graduate students with links to the Chinese military.
Estimates show that at least 3,000 students will see their visas canceled — a fraction of the 360,000 Chinese nationals studying in the U.S. — effectively halting projects that they could be working on, according to The New York Times.
Apart from intelligence concerns, the plan comes as tensions between the U.S. and China over trade, COVID-19, and the status of Hong Kong escalate. President Donald Trump is expected to make an announcement on China today.
“We are not happy with what’s happened. All over the world people are suffering, 186 countries. All over the world they’re suffering,” he told reporters Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “We’re not happy.”
Canceling the visas of existing Chinese graduate students, however, is expected to stir public debate. For one, U.S. universities and scientific organizations that depend on tuition and fees paid by those students oppose the decision.
Educators also fear the plan’s global implications. “We’re very worried about how broadly this will be applied, and we’re concerned it could send a message that we no longer welcome talented students and scholars from around the globe,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.
Officials are reportedly targeting those who graduated from Chinese universities with direct ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes some of China’s most prestigious institutions for higher education.
Both the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice have long been wary of such universities, believing that military officials could train students in basic espionage and eventually force them to return critical information to China.
Those advocating the move say that only those who pose a significant risk will be targeted. A 2018 study from think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed that China has been sending students from military-affiliated universities so that it could assemble its own military technology.
According to the study, the Chinese government is targeting five Western countries in particular. These include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.
In January, the F.B.I. released an arrest warrant for Yanqing Ye, a Lieutenant in the PLA and a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Ye, who studied at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa and falsely identified herself as a “student” to study at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019.
During her studies, Ye allegedly continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant, assessing U.S. military websites and transmitting documents back to China.
Believed to be hiding in China, Ye has been charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, visa fraud, making false statements, and conspiracy.
The move to expel Chinese graduate students appears to work in conjunction with a new bill that prevents them from coming to the U.S.
On Wednesday, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) unveiled the Secure Campus Act, which aims to ban Chinese nationals from receiving student or research visas for graduate or postgraduate studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The legislation also places restrictions on participants in Chinese foreign talent-recruitment initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Program, which identifies experts around the world — often those who are ethnically Chinese — and invites them to bring knowledge to China.
“The Chinese Communist Party has long used American universities to conduct espionage on the United States. What’s worse is that their efforts exploit gaps in current law. It’s time for that to end,” said Cotton. “The SECURE CAMPUS Act will protect our national security and maintain the integrity of the American research enterprise.”
Companion legislation will be introduced by Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tennessee) in the House of Representatives.
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