China’s Spies in U.S. Universities

Who will take notice?

In May of this year, in a commentary titled “United States, don’t underestimate China’s ability to strike back,” Wu Yuehe, a journalist at the People’s Daily, had this to say:

We advise the U.S. side not to underestimate the Chinese side’s ability to safeguard its development rights and interests. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

A few weeks later, two Chinese professors at Emory university lost their jobs. Li Xiaojiang and Li Shishua, who were conducting research in the field of genetics, failed to disclose grants they received from nebulous institutions in China. 

Two questions:

[1] Why were two scientists employed by an American university receiving grants from China?

[2] Why were the pair so reluctant to disclose the grants?

The answers to both questions are as simple as they are worrying. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told senators that China is engaging in a concerted effort to steal its way to economic dominance. As I write, there are more than 1,000 investigations underway on intellectual property theft. Every single one of these investigations leads back to China.

The Chinese have been engaged in this sort of nefarious activity for years, and American institutes of education appear to be their prime focus. In August 2015, an electrical engineering student based in Chicago sent an email to a Chinese national titled "Midterm test questions." Two years later, the email was the subject of an FBI probe in the Southern District of Ohio. Law enforcement agents suspected the student was actually a plant, an intelligence officer who was sent to the United States for one reason only: to acquire technical information and share it with defense contractors in China.

Though investigators took note, they took no action. In 2018, however, Ji Chaoqun, the email’s author, was arrested in Chicago for allegedly acting within the United States as an illegal agent of the People’s Republic of China.

This arrest was long overdue. In 2013, Ji arrived in the United States on an F1 Visa, for the purpose of studying electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 2016, according to a Department of Justice report: “Ji enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves as an E4 Specialist under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which authorizes the U.S. Armed Forces to recruit certain legal aliens whose skills are considered vital to the national interest.”

Interestingly, as the report documents, in his application to participate in the MAVNI program, Ji specifically denied having had contact with a foreign government within the past seven years, which we now know was a blatant lie.

China gathers valuable research from U.S. universities by using nonconventional collectors, including professors, scientists, and students. According to a recent piece by Spectator’s Cole Carnick, the National Institutes of Health, a government agency that funds public health research at US universities,

found the Chinese government has developed systematic programs to unduly influence and capitalize on US-conducted research, with Chinese scholars divulging exclusive research to Chinese intelligence.

In March, according to a Wall Street Journal report, Chinese hackers targeted research on maritime technology at several universities, including the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, Penn State, and even MIT.

Understandably, FBI officials have advised universities across the land to review ongoing research involving Chinese individuals that could have militaristic applications.

Aside from infiltrating scientific research, the Chinese party actively attempts to influence campus discussions about China through student organizations. As a 2018 Hoover institution report noted, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), the official organization for overseas Chinese students and scholars registered in most colleges, universities, and institutions outside of China. takes directives from the Chinese government and develops close ties with China’s consulates. Worryingly, as the report notes, when campus events focus on Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs, CSSA representatives contact officials in China, who then ask (or demand) the given university to silence any distasteful discussions.

Two years ago, the University of California San Diego extended an invitation to the Dalai Lama. Unsurprisingly, the university quickly received requests from the campus CSSA and China’s consulate in Los Angeles to rescind the invitation. Thankfully, the university refused to acquiesce. Chinese officials, clearly unimpressed, prohibited future scholarship funds for Chinese students studying at UCSD.

As Jeanine Frost once wrote,

There is only one way to fight, and that's dirty. Clean gentlemanly fighting will get you nowhere but dead, and fast. Take every cheap shot, every low blow, absolutely kick people when they're down, and maybe you'll be the one who walks away.

Chinese officials, clearly fans of Frost’s work, are prepared to fight dirty. They are prepared to lie, steal and cheat.

China, not Russia, is the existential threat to the United States.

America's failure to realize this fact could prove catastrophic.