The U.S. educational system is under attack from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is sending spies into institutions to steal high-value knowledge in various fields. Though most espionage activities go undetected and cause huge losses to U.S. research, intelligence agencies have been successful in catching a few such spies red-handed over the past months.
Targeting US universities
“A lot of our ideas, technology, research, innovation is incubated on those university campuses… That’s where the science and technology originates — and that’s why it’s the most prime place to steal,” Bill Evanina, the top counterintelligence official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said to NBC News. According to estimates, the U.S. loses almost half a billion dollars every year due to Chinese theft of American IPs.
Last month, a professor from Harvard University was indicted for hiding the fact that he had accepted over a million dollars from China in return for publishing articles, organizing international conferences, and applying for patents on behalf of the Asian nation. U.S. law requires that such relationships be publicly disclosed. A female Chinese military officer was discovered to have posed as a student at Boston University, received thousands of dollars from Wuhan University of Technology, and lied to the Pentagon about the nature of the money she had received. She fled the country before being arrested.
In December, a Chinese professor affiliated with Harvard was caught at the airport while trying to transport 21 vials of cancer cells from a laboratory in Boston. He wanted to continue research on the subject back in the homeland and publish the results under his name. In September, a Chinese student from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago was charged after officials found out that he was working on behalf of Chinese spy agencies as a recruiter for more spies in the U.S. According to the FBI, there are around 1,000 open cases of IP theft and economic espionage that are linked to China. FBI Director Christopher Wray has called China the biggest threat to American counterintelligence.
As distrust of anything related to China keeps increasing, there has been criticism that such an attitude ends up encouraging racism against Chinese students, scholars, and researchers working in the U.S. In 2015, a Chinese physics professor from Temple University was wrongfully charged by FBI officials who thought he was leaking sensitive information to China. He was arrested in front of his kids and taken out of the home in handcuffs. Prosecutors dropped the charges after they realized the mistake. But by then, the professor’s reputation had already taken a hit.
Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China, warned against the racial profiling of Chinese Americans just because a few Chinese are caught in espionage. “As loyal Americans … we must all condemn any such wrongdoing and illegal activity and unequivocally believe that all such crimes must be prosecuted and punished according to our rule of law… But in recent years there have been so many cases of wrongful prosecution, of lives ruined because of a rush to judgment,” he said in a statement (Los Angeles Times).
A 2017 study by the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese Americans, had found that their community was disproportionately charged under the Economic Espionage Act, received longer sentences, and were significantly more likely to be innocent when compared to other racial groups. Robert Daly, Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, believes that such racial concerns are valid. However, he points out that it would be too simplistic to criticize the U.S. administration for their approach to Chinese espionage since the security concern is real.