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'Definitely no,' I'm not a spy: Student describes toll of visa ban targeting China tech theft

The Trump administration’s move to ban some Chinese graduate students and researchers comes as the U.S. confronts China’s theft of American technology.
Image: Chinese students
A U.S. education consultant, left, talks with a visitor during the 2013 China Education Expo in Shanghai, on Nov. 9, 2013.Jiang ren / Imaginechina via AP file

A Trump administration directive aimed at reining in what it identifies as China’s theft of American technology and trade secrets has Chinese students and researchers on edge, including one who described the move to suspend and revoke visas for some as a “nightmare” scenario.

“I spend my money, I spend my time and I work very hard,” said the student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of possibly being targeted by the Chinese and U.S. governments if identified. “And now there’s a risk that everything will go ... and I’d have to go back to China. It is a nightmare.”

The proclamation, which took effect June 1, targets an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 individuals with affiliations to universities or entities in China that seek to acquire foreign technology to benefit the Chinese military.

It also gives the secretary of state discretion to cancel F or J visas for Chinese nationals already in the country.

Trump’s proclamation bars the entry of graduate students or researchers on these visas with past or current affiliations to a Chinese entity that “implements or supports” China’s military-civil fusion strategy.

That strategy, according to the State Department, involves China’s “acquiring and diverting the world’s cutting-edge technologies – including through theft – in order to achieve military dominance.”

U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe American universities present a soft target for China’s spies.

The proclamation asserts that Chinese authorities use some Chinese students, mostly post-graduate ones as well as postdoctoral researchers, to gather intellectual property.

Around 360,000 Chinese nationals attend U.S. schools annually, generating economic activity of about $14 billion, largely from tuitions and other fees.

While some critics, among them elected officials, view certain Chinese students as a national security risk, others point to the contributions they bring to America.

And some experts, while acknowledging that the Trump administration’s concerns are valid, worry whether the new visa suspensions might lead to additional restrictions and make Chinese nationals think twice about pursuing an education in America.

“There’s going to be some percentage of those 3,000 people who are legitimately problematic and should be barred from coming here,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

“But in casting that net, you’re going to capture people who are probably legitimate, and that’s going to, I think, cause concern among anybody who wants to come study in the United States.”

The student who spoke with NBC Asian America had attended a college as an undergraduate in China that has ties to the People’s Liberation Army.

Individuals with current or past associations to the People's LIberation Army run a high risk of being exploited by the Chinese government and thus pose a particular cause for concern, the proclamation said.

The student is expected to complete a three-year dual master’s program in material science and computer science at an Ivy League school this fall.

But that might be in jeopardy.

“My plan now is to work here and to contribute here, definitely, so that’s actually got me worried that I’m not going to achieve those goals anymore,” said the student, who is looking for work in the U.S. as a software engineer.

Asked if the student was operating as one of China’s “nontraditional collectors of intellectual property,” as the proclamation’s language states, the 25-year-old responded, “Definitely no, definitely no.”

“When I first heard of that statement, I just feel it's really funny,” the student said. “I haven't received any money from the Chinese government for my graduate studies. I rely on my family and myself to pay for that.”

In recent years, Chinese students, scholars and professors have headlined a string of news stories connected to spying allegations on American campuses.

Universities, with their open and collaborative academic and research environments, are considered prime places from which to steal science and technology.

But some academics and scientists of Chinese descent like Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple University physics professor, and Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a hydrologist for the federal government, have had their worlds turned upside down after being accused of espionage, only to have the charges dropped.

Their cases raise questions about whether racial profiling is behind certain prosecutions.

As of June 15, the Chinese government’s official response to Trump’s visa suspension had been “critical but relatively muted,” according to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a think tank at Georgetown University.

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Zhao Lijian, took aim at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a regular press conference June 2, saying the U.S. imposed the visa suspension “under an abused concept of national security and flimsy excuses.”

The Chinese graduate student said in the phone interview that there should be a “smarter screening process” for F or J visa holders associated with entities or schools with ties to the People's LIberation Army, instead of just a blanket cancellation of their visas.

“They should really look into the projects, probably, that these people are doing research on instead of just putting a label on that” like “you're from this school and this school has some PLA background, you must be related to that,” the student said.

Asked about the Trump administration’s approach, Glaser said she doubts the U.S. government has the ability to assess each individual person.

That’s difficult with a “Chinese system because you don’t know whether they’re telling you the truth or not,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to have access to their party files to know what their real backgrounds are.”

“One could argue that maybe you would just have to make sure that the list is really representative of those universities in China that we really worry about,” Glaser added.

The Trump administration’s proclamation did not detail the specific Chinese schools covered by the visa suspension. The Center for Security and Emerging Technology compiled a list of 13 likely targets.

Two Republican senators, meanwhile, have introduced federal legislation that goes beyond Trump’s proclamation.

The Secure Campus Act would bar Chinese nationals as a whole — not just the ones associated with military-affiliated schools and entities — from getting visas for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM fields.

“The Chinese Communist Party has long used American universities to conduct espionage on the United States,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a news release. “What's worse is that their efforts exploit gaps in current law. It's time for that to end.”

As for Trump’s order, William A. Stock, an immigration attorney and a founding member of Klasko Immigration Law Partners, said he believes it will inflict more harm than it solves.

“There may be valid security concerns, and there certainly have been isolated cases of researchers who’ve been indicted,” he said.

“But to really throw away one of America's great competitive advantages in the world without carefully considering how we balance the interests of security but also of the great security benefits we get, this is a really ham-handed policy,” Stock said.

Whether Trump’s visa suspension and the proposed Secure Campus Act prompt Chinese students to pursue their studies in other countries remains to be seen.

“Just as we have said we have concerns not about the Chinese people but about the Chinese Communist Party, we should say that we welcome Chinese students who are not closely connected with the military,” Glaser said. “And that would be a statement of reassurance.”

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