US uni­ver­si­ties: Chi­nese on cam­pus are stu­dents, not spies

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

An es­ca­lat­ing US gov­ern­ment cam­paign against Chi­nese es­pi­onage is alarm­ing some US uni­ver­sity lead­ers, who be­lieve that the level of con­cern in­volv­ing po­ten­tial spy ac­tiv­ity on their cam­puses is be­com­ing overblown.

In their lat­est pub­lic ad­mon­ish­ment, top of­fi­cials from the FBI, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity ap­peared be­fore a US Se­nate com­mit­tee to de­scribe China as de­ter­mined to steal in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty from US com­pa­nies and col­leges.

Bill Pri­estap, the FBI’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of counter-in­tel­li­gence, de­scribed Chi­nese stu­dents at US col­leges as be­ing rou­tinely met upon their re­turn home by gov­ern­ment agents de­mand­ing that they use their po­si­tions on US cam­puses to ob­tain se­crets of eco­nomic or mil­i­tary value.

But sev­eral US uni­ver­sity lead­ers sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment’s warn­ings about Chi­nese spies, at least as they con­cern col­leges, ap­pear nei­ther jus­ti­fied nor pro­duc- tive. They in­stead ap­pear to re­flect an at­tempt to make the Chi­nese a “bo­gey­man”, said Michael Crow, the pres­i­dent of Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity.

“As far as we can tell,” Pro­fes­sor Crow said of Chi­nese stu­dents en­rolled at ASU, “they are col­lege stu­dents.”

The pres­i­dent of the Worces­ter Polytech­nic In­sti­tute, Lau­rie Leshin, said that she re­garded Chi­nese stu­dents at her in­sti­tu­tion as be­ing there “to learn and to bet­ter them­selves”.

Mark Becker, pres­i­dent of Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity, said that US in­tel­li­gence agents could also be found on US col­lege cam­puses try­ing to re­cruit Chi­nese stu­dents to their side.

Sev­eral uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents said that they were tak­ing steps to help guide and sup­port any of their Chi­nese stu­dents who may feel pres­sure from back home to en­gage in es­pi­onage.

Mr Pri­estap is­sued sim­i­lar warn­ings to aca­demic lead­ers at last month’s an­nual con­fer­ence of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic and Land­grant Uni­ver­si­ties in New Or­leans. He got a sim­i­lar push­back there, with sev­eral uni­ver­sity lead­ers point­ing out that their in­sti­tu­tional pur­pose is to dis­cover and share in­for­ma­tion rather than to hoard it.

At both the APLU con­fer­ence and the Se­nate hear­ing, Mr Pri­estap of­fered ex­am­ples of for­eign theft of valu­able data from com­pa­nies. But he and the Jus­tice Depart­ment have not an­swered re­peated re­quests for ex­am­ples of mean­ing­ful thefts of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty from US col­lege cam­puses by Chi­nese na­tion­als.

Be­yond the col­lege en­vi­ron­ment, the cur­rent US gov­ern­ment cam­paign to por­tray the Chi­nese as de­ter­mined to steal US in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty is re­garded by ex­perts as a mix of well-jus­ti­fied con­cern and po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions, in­flamed re­cently by var­i­ous trade ten­sions.

While US col­leges ap­pear de­ter­mined to pro­tect their for­eign stu­dents from such in­trigue, they may be less com­mit­ted to their Chi­nese gov­ern­ment part­ners. The Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan has be­come the lat­est US in­sti­tu­tion to end its work with the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes, a Chi­nese gov­ern­ment pro­gramme to sup­ply US schools and uni­ver­si­ties with cen­tres for Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion.

The Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes op­er­ate on about 100 US uni­ver­sity cam­puses, to mixed re­views. Some aca­demics, in­clud­ing Pro­fes­sor Crow, see them as pro­vid­ing US stu­dents a worth­while ed­u­ca­tional sup­ple-

ment. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sors, have warned that Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes threat­ens US aca­demic con­trol.

In ex­plain­ing Michi­gan’s can­cel­la­tion of its Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes pro­gramme, James Hol­loway, the uni­ver­sity’s vice-provost for global en­gage­ment and in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary aca­demic af­fairs, avoided tak­ing clear sides in that de­bate.

Pro­fes­sor Hol­loway said that Michi­gan still re­tained nu­mer­ous Chi­nese part­ner­ships, and that he felt that the con­tent pro­vided by the Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes could be bet­ter han­dled through Michi­gan’s ex­ist­ing aca­demic and cul­tural pro­grammes.

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