- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2019

America’s plan to catch China in the race to deploy super-fast hypersonic weapons may begin in college classrooms.

Academic leaders, lawmakers, and military and intelligence officials say Washington needs to take a harder look at the number of Chinese who come to the U.S. to study engineering, aeronautics, astronautics, quantum mechanics and other fields that have direct connections to national security. The massive influx of Chinese students in recent years, they say, has led directly to Beijing’s advantage in the development of hypersonics and other cutting-edge technology — though U.S. officials say privately that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to track individual cases of students gaining specific insights in a given area and then taking that knowledge back home.

The issue of China’s “academic espionage” raises delicate questions about discrimination and academic freedom, and the education and military sectors have struggled to strike the right balance between protecting classified research and attracting the diverse, international student base prized by top universities.

The strength and depth of the American higher education system are seen as a strategic asset for the U.S., one that could be weakened if classrooms and research labs are closed to certain populations.

Academic leaders say Washington needs to lead the way in developing a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s long-term efforts to use America’s institutions for its own gain. Relying on individual professors or universities to police themselves, scholars say, is ineffective.

“You cannot rely on faculty doing the right thing,” Iain Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said during a recent hypersonic weapons conference at Purdue University.

Beijing has also explicitly targeted ethnic Chinese students, entrepreneurs and high-tech researchers working abroad to come home through its Thousand Talents Plan. The effort has become so sensitive that Chinese officials reportedly have been told not to identify the foreign scholars and figures whom they are trying to lure back home.

Hypersonics — weapons or aircraft that can travel at least five times the speed of sound — is one area where China is outpacing the U.S., partly by sending large numbers of its top students to American colleges. Those students often pay full tuition upfront, making them highly coveted in university admissions offices.

“Some faculty are going to think, ‘Yes, I should be careful about recruitment.’ But if there are no restrictions in place, other faculty will maybe not even be aware that it’s something to think about,” Mr. Boyd said. “And maybe for their own selfish reasons, just looking at whether it is students from China, where everything is paid for, so it’s a free ride for the professor. If the community, if the government, wants the situation to change, they will have to change it.”

Troubling cases

In the 2017-2018 academic year, over 360,000 Chinese were studying at American institutions. A decade ago, the figure was 100,000.

Although the vast majority of Chinese students attend school in the U.S. for straightforward academic reasons, others — and in some cases professors — come with close ties to the government in Beijing.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year said China’s People’s Liberation Army had paid for at least 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad, including in the U.S.

Just this week, a University of Kansas professor was indicted on federal fraud charges accusing him of concealing that he worked for a Chinese university while conducting U.S. government-funded research. The Kansas City Star reported that Feng “Franklin” Tao, 47, of Lawrence, who taught chemical engineering and chemistry, was charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.

The FBI, State Department, Department of Justice and a host of other government agencies have ramped up their efforts to work directly with universities to encourage better vetting of Chinese students and to limit their access to any sensitive research related to national security.

The problem, officials say, extends far beyond hypersonics and other military-related programs.

The National Institutes of Health warned last year that its programs may be at risk.

“NIH is aware that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers and to take advantage of the long tradition of trust, fairness and excellence of NIH-supported research activities,” NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins wrote in an August 2018 letter. “This kind of inappropriate influence is not limited to biomedical research; it has been a significant issue for defense and energy research for some time.”

U.S. officials say the Chinese strategy is long term and revolves around getting as many students into American universities as possible, with the hope that at least a handful of them return with new knowledge in cutting-edge fields.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are tackling the issue. The House version of the massive 2020 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision requiring the Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to develop a list of foreign entities that could conduct “research espionage.”

The version in the Republican-led Senate is even more pointed. It calls on the Pentagon to specifically identify any institutions in China and Russia that “are known to recruit individuals for the purpose of advancing the talent and capabilities of such a defense program or to provide misleading transcripts or otherwise attempt to conceal the connections of an individual or institution to such a defense program.”

Those lists would presumably aid universities, federal agencies and other stakeholders in vetting students.

Cracking down

Higher education groups say they are encouraging universities to take the issue more seriously and to more closely examine the backgrounds, financing and affiliations of any Chinese institutions with which they work.

“The issue is that there are foreign governments that are very aggressively trying to surpass the United States in specific science and technology fields,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. “Because of the aggressive nature [of foreign governments], we need to be on our toes.”

The elevated concern over Chinese academic espionage comes against a broader backdrop of discord between the Trump administration and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. The two sides remain locked in a bitter trade war, and military tensions are simmering as China increases its reach in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific.

President Trump, who argues that it’s long past time to confront China on a variety of fronts, has taken some action to address the academic side. The State Department, for example, said last year that it would shorten the duration of stay on visas for some Chinese students in the U.S.

Some of the president’s Republican supporters in Congress argue that the White House should go further and use the rising number of Chinese students at American schools as leverage in broader negotiations.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, suggested this week that the U.S. should consider expelling some Chinese students if the government in Beijing mounts a military crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong.

“Let’s not be naive,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “There are reasons that they are going to universities that are affiliated with national laboratories or that have large Department of Defense presences. If they want to come to small liberal arts colleges to study the Western canon, to understand why liberal democracy is the best form of government that we’ve ever invented, that’s one thing. If they want to go to a university that has large DoD presence to study quantum mechanics, that’s another thing.”

Despite those concerns, some analysts argue that the U.S. must exercise caution to avoid singling out any specific country or discriminating against any particular nationality of students.

“That’s a really dangerous path to go on,” said Ms. Spreitzer. “It’s not just China. I think by focusing only on one country, you’re missing the broader picture that these countries are being very aggressive in undertaking these efforts.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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