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US Officials Warn of Chinese Influence in American Higher Education


Vice President Mike Pence speaks Oct. 4, 2018, at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Pence said China was using its power in "more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States."

The Trump administration is sharpening its criticism of Chinese interference in the United States, pointing to Chinese influence in American higher education.

"Beijing provides generous funding to universities, think tanks and scholars, with the understanding that they will avoid ideas that the Communist Party finds dangerous or offensive," Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday in a speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"China experts in particular know that their visas will be delayed or denied if their research contradicts Beijing's talking points," he said.

The Chinese government has denied the accusations.

Visa decision

Earlier this year, the administration considered — but decided against — halting all visas to Chinese students seeking higher education in the U.S., according to the Financial Times. That would put the brakes on more than one-third of all international students in the U.S.: Chinese students constitute more than 350,000 of 1 million international students enrolled in American colleges and universities.

While the FBI maintains that "most foreign students, researchers or professors studying or working in the United States are here for legitimate and proper reasons," according to FBI documents, foreign nations "seek to improve their economies and militaries by stealing intellectual property from a world technology leader like the United States" and employ students to help achieve this goal.

"Only a small percentage is actively working at the behest of another government or organization. However, some foreign governments also pressure legitimate students to report information to intelligence officials, often using promise of favors or threats to family members back home," the agency's documents say.

FILE - FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House, Aug. 2, 2018, in Washington.
FILE - FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House, Aug. 2, 2018, in Washington.

In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on global threats and national security, testified that his agency sees widespread evidence of Chinese student spies.

Wray said the Chinese government is "exploiting the very open research-and-development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they're taking advantage of it."

At the FBI's field office in New York, Charlie McGonigal, a special agent in charge of the counterintelligence division, echoed Wray.

"In the United States, our academic institutions are very open," said McGonigal. "There's a lot of research and development at major universities in the United States that a foreign government would look to exploit by sending students to study at these universities."

In interviews with VOA, most young Chinese say they come to the U.S. for the quality of education and freedom of expression. A diploma from a U.S. college or university is not unlike an American student getting a degree from an Ivy League or other well-known, prestigious school.

Arrivals drop

But that appears to be changing. After a decade of record immigration year after year, the rate at which international students are arriving has slowed. Enrollment figures show about 10,000 fewer new students came to the U.S. in 2017.

Adding to the slowdown are increased competition from universities and programs in other nations and the high cost of schools in the U.S., according to the Institute for International Education.

Additionally, as the Chinese economy continues to expand, there are more career opportunities for nationals who want to return home after graduation in the U.S.

"Countries and multinational employers around the world are competing to attract top talent. As more countries become active hosts of international students and implement national strategies to attract them, the competition … will only intensify," said IIE President Allan E. Goodman.

FILE - Chinese students attend a new-student orientation at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas, Aug. 22, 2015.
FILE - Chinese students attend a new-student orientation at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas, Aug. 22, 2015.

In June, the Trump administration started limiting Chinese students who study in high-tech fields to one-year visas. At the same time, the U.S. State Department issued a policy giving U.S. consular officers the power to limit how long visas are valid for Chinese students, rather than the usual practice of issuing them for the maximum length.

In July, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule that would increase by $150 fees charged on student F and M, or nonimmigration, visa applicants.

"This new policy would be bad for institutions and bad for the nation. While apparently aimed at Chinese students in certain STEM fields, this would have a chilling effect on our ability to attract international students from all countries," wrote American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell in a statement about the science, technology, engineering and math concentrations.

'Broad brush' approach

"We fear that applying a broad brush of suspicion to such a large group sends a message that our nation no longer welcomes talented students and scholars from across the globe," he wrote.

Patrick Chovanec, adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in New York and a former business professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, tweeted in May that he understood the "vulnerabilities" in the exchange systems between China and the U.S.

"But having an open economy and society has actually worked pretty well for the U.S. in the long run," he said. "I'm still willing to bet on it."

International students bring $36.9 billion and 450,000 jobs to the U.S., IIE reports. Chinese students alone "contributed $12.55 billion to our national economy in 2016," Mitchell said.

The top institutions hosting international students in the U.S. are New York University (17,326), University of Southern California (14,327), Columbia University (14,096), Northeastern University (13,201), Arizona State University (13,164), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (12,454), University of California at Los Angeles (12,199), Purdue University in Indiana (11,288), University of Texas-Dallas (9,305) and Penn State University (9,134).

International students in the U.S. make up 5.3 percent of the total student population in the U.S.

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