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 productive. 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 Land-grant 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 supplement. 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.