US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signs an agreement on fifth-generation internet technology with Slovenia's Foreign Minister…
FILE - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signs an agreement on fifth-generation internet technology with Slovenia's Foreign Minister Anze Logar in Bled, Slovenia, Aug. 13, 2020.

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials are considering broader restrictions against Chinese students attending American schools, as part of a deepening standoff between the two countries.

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hopes that China’s government-funded “Confucius Institutes,” which have branches on American university campuses, will all be shut down by the end of the year.

“I think everyone’s coming to see the risk associated with them,” Pompeo said in an interview with the Fox Business Network, accusing the Chinese-government funded institutes of working to recruit “spies and collaborators” at U.S. colleges. 

An undergraduate student, left, shows her watercolor painting at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on May 2, 2018.

The crackdown may also target Chinese academics who have relied on state funding for their overseas studies. On August 26, the University of North Texas (UNT) terminated an exchange program for 15 visiting Chinese researchers sponsored by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), a group backed by China’s Ministry of Education.

The action marked the first time a United States university cut ties with a Chinese national scholarship fund following the increased attention on academic espionage. In an article published in the university’s newspaper, administrators said they took the action following detailed briefings from federal and local law enforcement.

Each of the 15 Chinese government sponsored students received an e-mail from the UNT office of the provost and vice president for academic affairs on August 26. The e-mail stated that the school “has come to a decision to end its relationship with visiting scholars who receive funding from the Chinese Scholarship Council (also known as the Chinese Scholarship Fund).”

The scholars have been informed their J-1 visas have also been terminated, leaving them with one month before they have to return to China.

Flurry of new restrictions

Pompeo said at a news conference last week that the State Department recently wrote to the boards of several U.S. universities to alert them to the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. He said that these threats may include illegal funding for research, intellectual property theft, intimidation of foreign students, and opaque recruitment.

On the same day, the State Department announced that the entry of senior Chinese diplomats to U.S. campuses would require approval from the State Department. 

Gordon Chang, lawyer and author of The Coming Collapse of China, told VOA that American officials are responding to years of academic and intellectual property theft by China, which largely went overlooked.

“They come to U.S. campuses not to learn but to download databases and take information to be used by Beijing,” he said. “So this is a fundamental problem for the United States.”

What is the China Scholarship Council?

Established in 1996 by the Ministry of Education of China, the CSC provides scholarships for foreign students studying in China and Chinese students studying abroad. These funds are mainly derived from the government.

Its official purpose is to "strengthen friendship and understanding between China and the people of the world and promote China's socialist modernization and world peace.” 

Experts told VOA that the CSC tends to offer scholarships to senior researchers and postdoctoral students, as well as students studying technologies in fields that are in line with China's development strategy. These scholars are required to return to China after their studies. Experts warned that the U.S. needs to be vigilant about this strategy.

According to a report from the Center for Security and Emerging Technologies at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Diplomacy in July, about 7% of Chinese students studying abroad, or roughly 65,000, received scholarships from the CSC each year.

In addition, the report notes that the CSC prioritizes funding for “urgently needed talents serving major national strategies, important industries, key fields, major projects, cutting-edge technologies, and basic research.”

The author of the report, Ryan Fedasiuk, research analyst at Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, told VOA that the number of cooperation projects between the CSC and foreign universities has soared in the past two years.

“We found that last year in 2019, the number of programs that the CSC has approved between Chinese universities and elite foreign universities had increased significantly, from about 19 in 2018 to some 120 in 2019,” Fedasiuk said.

He also said that the CSC’s job is to try to persuade or in some cases, compel those students to return to China after completing their scholarship programs.

“This is done through a variety of incentives,” he said. “In some cases, they simply ask them to return, and the CSC will in some cases award Chinese students who are overseas not otherwise receiving funding from the Chinese government with funds in the hopes that they will return afterward. But in some cases, they do require that applicants for scholarships list financial granters who will be held responsible for the full sum of the award that was paid plus penalties if they don’t return to China after completing their program.”

Despite this pressure, however, more than 85% of Chinese doctoral students studying STEM at U.S. universities choose to stay in the U.S., according to the report.