FBI warns US universities of ‘threat’ from Chinese nationals

Counter-intelligence agent’s warning raises fears for universities that students will feel increasingly isolated

November 13, 2018
Chinese table tennis players whisper to each other
Source: Getty

The FBI’s top counter-intelligence official has told US university leaders to be highly wary of Chinese nationals on their campuses, saying that the threat of intellectual property theft appears well beyond what many of them realise.

Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, told the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ annual conference in New Orleans that China was determined to build its economic and military strength by using any means necessary to obtain intellectual property with competitive advantages.

“By hook or by crook,” Mr Priestap said, “China intends to be the sole superpower on the face of the Earth, and they intend to become that through economic dominance.”

Mr Priestap gave no examples of incidents where a Chinese national had stolen anything of national security value from a US university campus. But he said that Chinese students returning home were routinely greeted by intelligence agents and told not to be “empty-handed” the next time they come back.

University officials said that they took such warnings seriously and are constantly revisiting their policies to guard against abuses. At the same time, many academics questioned the overall benefit to the US of turning their campuses more inward and making them more isolated and unduly suspicious of their students and faculty from China or any other foreign country.

“We have a duty of course to protect our institutions, and to be responsible citizens,” Meredith McQuaid, dean for international programmes at the University of Minnesota, told the conference. “But that duty includes protection against mere rumours and false allegations as much as it includes protection from harm.”

The conference came as the Trump administration and leading congressional Republicans became more vocal about the threat they see from China. President Trump was described in August as saying that “almost every student” from China is a spy.

And lawmakers led by senator Marco Rubio of Florida have opened investigations into the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-funded programme for teaching Chinese language and culture to students that has partnerships with about 100 US universities. A leading criticism of the programme is that the partnership promotes a politically tainted curriculum.

Some US universities have ended their Confucius Institute programmes as a result of the pressure. But a representative of one such institution, Texas A&M University, described the termination to the APLU conference as largely nominal, aimed at placating US critics.

While the Confucius Institute operation has ended in name, Texas A&M took care “to evaluate what is the essence and the equity units in that partnership”, said Chad Wootton, associate vice-president for external relations at Texas A&M.

The result will soon be seen in a new relationship between Texas A&M and its Chinese partners “that continues well beyond the rhetoric that we had to deal with on this one grant”, Mr Wootton said.

Mary Millsaps, research information assurance officer at Purdue University, pleaded with government officials to remember that most US university research takes place at the fundamental level. “It’s publishable, it’s intended to be shared,” she said.

The most effective response to the Chinese threat, Ms Millsaps said, would be for US security agencies to join universities in sharing best practices.

“Perhaps,” she said, “we can stave off some very damaging regulations that would then shift our focus to managing the regulation rather than addressing the threat.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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