Education

Chinese students are paying the price for US intelligence concerns

FILE - Visitors to the U.S. consular service line up outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The Chinese government has protested to the United States over the treatment of Chinese arriving to study in America. Ambassador Xie Feng said in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, that dozens of Chinese have been denied entry in recent months when returning to school from overseas travel or visiting family in China.
FILE - Visitors to the U.S. consular service line up outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The Chinese government has protested to the United States over the treatment of Chinese arriving to study in America. Ambassador Xie Feng said in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, that dozens of Chinese have been denied entry in recent months when returning to school from overseas travel or visiting family in China.
FILE – Visitors to the U.S. consular service line up outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The Chinese government has protested to the United States over the treatment of Chinese arriving to study in America. Ambassador Xie Feng said in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, that dozens of Chinese have been denied entry in recent months when returning to school from overseas travel or visiting family in China.

Chinese students seeking to study in America are feeling the heat over U.S. concerns about intelligence and Beijing’s influence over higher education, in some cases leading to them being denied entry to the country.  

Chinese Ambassador Xie Feng at a recent event celebrating student exchanges accused the United States of unfairly questioning dozens of students who had valid visas at airports and ultimately not letting them in.

“They held valid visas, had no criminal records, and were returning to school after traveling elsewhere or reuniting with their family in China. But when they landed at the airport, what awaited them was eight-hour-long interrogation by officers, who prohibited them from contacting their parents, made groundless accusations against them and even forcibly repatriated them and banned their entry,” Xie said. “This is absolutely unacceptable.” 

The Justice Department declined to comment on the matter.

Chinese nationals make up the largest portion of international students coming to the U.S., accounting for more than 280,000 visas in 2023 out of the 600,000 given by the State Department.

Despite Chinese students in many cases facing longer wait times for visas than those from other countries, approval is often not the last step. 

“The lengthy questioning of Chinese students with properly issued visas and the sending of some of those students back to China undermines confidence in the United States and results in some able Chinese students going to third countries. I also object to the questioning of Americans with properly issued visas by Chinese immigration authorities,” said Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.  

“Both governments have extremely able officials in the embassies and consulates in each other’s country. They perform extensive diligence on all applicants and reject many. Their decisions need to be respected. The leadership of both countries need to inform its immigration authorities that except in the case of immigration fraud, the visa issuance will be respected,” he added.

But until an individual is past a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, it is not uncommon for them to be questioned and turned away.  

Sophia Gregg, a Virginia-based immigrants’ rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said border patrol agents have wide discretion on who can come in to the country, even when valid visas are issued.

“Before you pass customs control, you’re still in control by the customs and border and — U.S. immigration — they can deny you entry or visa for any facially legitimate and bona fide reason,” Gregg said.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have been growing increasingly concerned about about Chinese spies across multiple sectors, including some accused on college campuses.

In 2019, a Chinese student in Chicago was indicted after he was in contact with high-level Chinese intelligence officers, giving them background on U.S.-based individuals who could potentially be recruited to spy for China, CNN reported

“They don’t just come here to spy. … They come here to study, and a lot of it is legitimate,” Joe Augustyn, a former CIA officer, told the news network. “But there is no question in my mind, depending on where they are and what they are doing, that they have a role to play for their government.” 

Lawmakers have also specifically targeted Beijing-affiliated Confucius Institutes at colleges campuses.

Last year, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cheered New York’s “Alfred University finally doing the right thing and shutting down its Confucius Institute.”

“But the Confucius Institute is only one tool in the CCP’s toolbox — it will use research partnerships, talent programs, and other initiatives to gain access to sensitive research and technologies that fuel the [People’s Liberation Army’s] advancement,” Gallagher said.

“We’re going to continue to dig into the facts to make sure that no American taxpayer dollars are supporting research partnerships that the CCP can exploit for its own purposes,” he added. 

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to The Hill’s request for further comment.   

Experts argue, however, that the vast majority of Chinese students are here for legitimate studies and are willing to take the risk to get here for a good education.  

One big concern the U.S. has currently is that many Chinese students are coming to the country to study science or technology, two sectors of particular interest, said Swallow Yan, president of the U.S. Education Without Borders.

But he said students are coming to the U.S. for those subjects because Chinese “parents and students really consider America the No. 1 country for education for science or technology for professional opportunities.”

House members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) last week announced they are working to stop the return of the “China Initiative,” which was supposed to target espionage, from former President Trump’s tenure. They argue the program, which Republicans are attempting to revive, did little to stop spies but did target people of Chinese descent.

A letter was sent to House and Senate leaders by dozens of lawmakers advocating for the China Initiative to be dropped from a funding bill.

“We have to have a nuanced, evidence-based approach to our relations with China, including within higher education and research. We can protect U.S. workers and businesses and safeguard our national security and higher education systems without unnecessarily targeting or harassing Chinese students with valid visas authorizing them to live and study here,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), CAPAC chair, said in a statement to The Hill. 

“For every qualified foreign student, including every qualified Chinese graduate student, that doesn’t enroll in our higher education institutions, our nation loses out on their innovation and economic productivity and campuses lose out on their tuition and student life contributions,” Chu added.  

The CAPAC also argues that Republicans are “reviving racially motivated rhetoric against Chinese Americans.”

“While it is crucial that we protect our national security and intellectual property, codified discrimination is not the answer. At a time when anti-Asian hate and violence is still rampant across the country, we must do everything we can to prevent programs like this — founded in racism and xenophobia — from happening again,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), CAPAC executive board member.

Updated at 10:57 a.m. ET

Tags China China foreign exchange students foreign exchange students Mike Gallagher

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