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Trump’s Executive Order on Chinese Students Addresses a Complicated—But Real—Issue
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Trump’s Executive Order on Chinese Students Addresses a Complicated—But Real—Issue

This issue requires a surgical scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

On May 29, President Trump issued an executive order that was sure to draw the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ire. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a wide-ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” the opening line of the order reads. This campaign doesn’t just rely on traditional spies. An unknown number of Chinese students have been enlisted. Some of these students claim to be conducting graduate research in the U.S. purely for academic reasons but are really reporting back to the PLA. The executive order is intended to disrupt the campaign by restricting the entry of certain Chinese graduate students. 

The CCP’s response—accusing the U.S. of being racist—was entirely predictable.  During a press conference that same day, China’s brash Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, claimed that such a measure would harm “Chinese students’ lawful rights and interests,” and then blasted the order as an example of “stark political persecution and racial discrimination.” 

Like other Chinese diplomats, Zhao has mastered the rhetorical skill of pitting the U.S. government’s actions against American principles. Zhao called on American leaders to live up to their professed belief in “openness and freedom,” which the “U.S. claims to champion.” He ranted that the move reflects “some Americans’ deep-seated zero-sum game mindset and Cold-War mentality” and then wondered aloud “if this is a rebirth of the notorious ghost of McCarthyism.” The executive order “has gravely impacted the normal cultural and personnel exchange between the two countries” by undermining “the social foundation for bilateral relations,” including the “international talent exchange.” 

No one should be fooled by Zhao’s professed concern for America’s liberal values, of course. Trump’s executive order grew out of a problem of the CCP’s own making. The Department of Justice (DoJ) and FBI have been attempting to uncover PLA moles within U.S. academia for several years—leading to some high-profile accusations. And as the FBI has stressed, this hunt isn’t motivated by ethnicity or race. It is driven by the CCP’s nefarious schemes, which often include American citizens, including professors born and raised in the United States. Some professors have been recruited into China’s “Thousand Talents Program.” This effort may promote some cultural tolerance, but the DoJ and FBI have repeatedly warned that the CCP is using it to transfer key know-how from the U.S. to China’s military and industrial complex.   

Still, this is a complicated issue. Depending on how Trump’s executive order and subsequent actions play out, there are prospective downsides. Chinese students are a key source of talent for the U.S. and the world. Obviously, the vast majority of them are not spies. And a good number of these students likely aren’t in sensitive fields with direct military applications. That’s why this issue requires a surgical scalpel, not a sledgehammer. 

But make no mistake, there is a legitimate security issue here. Let’s discuss what the executive order does and does not do.

The executive order doesn’t affect all Chinese students seeking visas.

The headline of a Los Angeles Times article earlier this week blared: “It’s the new Chinese Exclusion Act.” The title was taken from a quote attributed to an activist cited in the piece. The executive order may have its problems—but it isn’t the legal or moral equivalent of the 1882 law, which banned Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. As written, it should affect only some Chinese students. And as some of the other sources cited in the Los Angeles Times piece recognize, there are legitimate concerns about the CCP’s presence on American campuses.

According to the Institute of International Exchange (IIE), there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students attending American colleges and universities inside the U.S. during the 2018-19 academic year. And China has been the top source of foreign students for the past 10 years.  

Trump’s executive order is intended to restrict “F” or “J” status visas—official government paperwork necessary for traveling into the U.S.—granted to students seeking to enter U.S. graduate programs. It doesn’t affect prospective undergraduate students, because they don’t typically have access to the types of “sensitive” technologies American officials are concerned about. It doesn’t target all new graduate students either. Instead, it is limited to people who have ties to Chinese entities responsible for implementing or supporting the CCP’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” 

The White House defines the CCP’s “military-civil fusion strategy” as “actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities.”

In other words, the executive order is meant to close a loophole the CCP has exploited. Men and women posing as “students” have used America’s open academic system to serve the interests of China’s military and industrial complex. 

The executive order also instructs Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to consider whether Chinese nationals “currently in the United States pursuant to F or J visas,” and who have ties to the CCP’s “military-civil fusion strategy,” should have their visas revoked. And both the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are instructed to consider whether any further actions are warranted to limit the CCP’s initiative.

As long as the executive order is implemented in a targeted fashion, it seems like a reasonable response to a real problem. The State Department stresses that it will be used in just such a fashion. Chinese students who are unconnected to the CCP’s “military-civil fusion strategy” are supposed to be unimpeded, as are individuals pursuing fields of study that lack military applications.

Of course, that can be tricky. Many cutting-edge technologies are dual purpose. That is, they have both commercial and military applications. And Chinese students are a key source of talent in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Consider artificial intelligence. 

On Tuesday, Paul Mozur and Cade Metz of the New York Timesreported on the role played by Chinese researchers and experts at the very top of America’s artificial intelligence industry. Some of the one dozen engineers who worked on the Defense Department’s Project Maven, “an effort to remake American military technology through artificial intelligence,” were Chinese citizens. They were employed by Google at the time, but after the company’s employees objected to the arrangement Google stopped working with the Pentagon. But the Times gives a rundown of how Chinese scientists have played an essential role in the development of AI both in the corporate world and academia, with many of them choosing to live and work inside the U.S. instead of returning to their native country. This is a rebuttal, of sorts, to Sen. Tom Cotton’s argument that many of China’s best and brightest return home after studying here. Cotton raised concerns about this purported brain drain, but his critics claim it is an overblown concern. 

The Times’s report provides just one snapshot of an incredibly complex issue, highlighting the benefits of the international talent exchange between the U.S. and China. However, there are obvious downsides as well. The CCP is using AI to put in place a sophisticated surveillance system, which it has used to monitor and harass Muslims in the western Xinjiang region and is deploying elsewhere. The CCP has also made it a priority to upgrade its AI capabilities in order to keep pace with the U.S. military. How does one balance the obvious benefits of recruiting talented scientists from China against the equally obvious and odious behavior of the CCP?    

As the White House itself recognized in a strategy paper last month, it is necessary to determine where cooperation between the two countries is beneficial and where conflict is unavoidable. Many scientific endeavors, by their very nature, straddle this line. It is easy to see how advancements in AI can improve our quality of life, including health care, while also having deleterious effects on the economic well-being of some of our citizens. Some forecasts predict exceptionally high unemployment rates due to AI-induced technological displacement. Add in the military dimensions of AI, as well as the CCP’s bad intentions, and the issue becomes even more fraught with uncertainty and risks.    

An alleged PLA lieutenant studied at Boston University.

While many Chinese experts aren’t serving the CCP, some of them are. And a few recent cases highlight a pattern of behavior the new executive order seeks to obstruct. 

In January, the FBI added Yanqing Ye to its Most Wanted list. According to the U.S. government, she studied at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October of 2017 to April of 2019—under false pretenses. On her J-1 visa, which is one of the types of visas now restricted by Trump’s executive order, Ye claimed that she was a mere “student.” The DoJ alleges otherwise. Federal investigators identified her as a Lieutenant in the PLA who had studied at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a “top military academy directed by the CCP in China.” She allegedly “maintained close contact with her supervisor at the NUDT and other colleagues” during her time in the U.S., completing “numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing United States military websites, and sending United States documents and information to China.”

What’s strange about Ye’s case is that her affiliation with NUDT appears to have been well-known. A paper she co-authored in late 2018 contains a brief bio indicating that she attended NUDT and was pursuing a Ph.D. degree there. Given that the NUDT is known as a “top military academy,” her real career wasn’t all that difficult to guess. 

Take a look at the paper again and you’ll see that Ye has an aptitude for mathematics. This is a key part of the phenomenon discussed above, as many Chinese students are in the STEM fields. But the DoJ accuses Ye of using her talents not just to determine how to maximize profits in the era of electronic commerce—the subject of her research paper—but for the PLA’s designs as well. When U.S. authorities reviewed Ye’s communications via WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging and social media application, they found that she was collaborating with a “PLA official from NUDT…on a research paper about a risk assessment model designed to decipher data for military applications.” 

When announcing the charges against Yanqing Ye, the DoJ also released an indictment against Zaosong Zheng, a researcher who worked on cancer cells at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from September 2018 to December 2019. At the end of last year, “Zheng stole 21 vials of biological research and attempted to smuggle them out of the United States aboard a flight destined for China.” He was intercepted at Boston’s Logan Airport, where officials “discovered the vials hidden in a sock.” After initially lying to officials, Zheng allegedly “admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel,” claiming he “intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.”

Unlike Yanqing Ye, the DoJ did not accuse Zaosong Zheng of serving the CCP’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” But both allegedly abused America’s J-1 visa program, which was targeted in President Trump’s executive order.

These are good examples of how the CCP has used America’s visa program for its own designs. Thus far, however, the Trump administration hasn’t explained how pervasive this problem really is. 

Visa abuse is only one of the threats to America’s universities.  

The CCP doesn’t just implant members of the PLA within America’s academic institutions through student visas. It recruits American academics to serve its interests as well. 

Some of the CCP’s schemes were outlined by John Brown, the Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, in testimony delivered to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last November. The CCP has devised “expert recruitment programs known as talent plans,” which target some of America’s leading scientific minds. “Through these programs,” Brown explained, “the Chinese government offers lucrative financial and research benefits to recruit individuals working and studying outside of China who possess access to, or expertise in, high-priority research fields.” 

In all, the CCP has established more than 200 talent recruitment programs, the most well-known being the so-called “Thousand Talents Plan.” That plan was thrust into the news again this week when Dr. Charles Lieber, one of the world’s leading nanoscientists, was indicted by a grand jury. Dr. Lieber has been charged with lying to federal authorities about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.”  

Lieber is no small-time academic. He was the chairman of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and had received “more than $15 million” in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD) over the years. Simultaneously, the Chinese government made its own lucrative bid for Lieber’s services, allegedly providing him with up to $50,000 per month in pay and other benefits so long as he worked up to nine months per year for the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). Lieber was allegedly deceptive concerning his work for WUT and his participation in the “Thousand Talents Plan.” He allegedly caused Harvard University to “falsely tell NIH that Lieber ‘had no formal association with WUT’ after 2012,” which wasn’t true. 

The Lieber case first broke into the news earlier this year. The charges against him were filed at the same time as Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng. The prosecutors’ indictment of Lieber doesn’t charge him with merely participating in the “Thousand Talents Plan,” because that isn’t by itself a crime. Instead, the DoJ and FBI have typically pursued a string of cases based on related charges, usually with the accused being charged with making false statements about the extent of their work and the funds received, as well as tax evasion. In some cases, such as Lieber’s, the indicted party also receives funds from U.S. federal institutions that require full disclosure of foreign entanglements. This creates a trip wire for some participants in the “Thousand Talents Plan,” as the recipients may not be anxious to share the full scope of their work on behalf of the Chinese. 

While the heated rhetoric surrounding the trade war and accusations around the containment of the coronavirus have produced many headlines about the growing tensions between U.S. and China, some of the most aggressive steps in the tit-for-tat escalation have taken place out of the spotlight. Steps like the recently announced executive order address only one part of the overall Chinese scheme for infiltrating American universities. There’s more coming. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.