China’s STEM Students in U.S. Pose Problem

By Stew Magnuson

iStock photo

There is a lot of conjecture on whether the People’s Republic of China is catching up, has caught up, or is even surpassing the United States in various technology fields that will be critical for economic dominance for the remainder of the century.

It’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer as there are many fields — 5G, bio-tech, quantum sciences, space tech, advanced computing, material sciences, hypersonics, to name but a few — and how the two nations compare in each category is a complex question.

Both nations have top secret programs and trade secrets in many of these fields so the general public may truly never know how advanced one country is over the other.

But there is one indicator that speaks to how China sees the United States and American technology and know-how. And that’s the number of undergraduate and graduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics students it sends to study at U.S. universities.

Just how many students are there? A Center for Security and Emerging Technology paper released in October tried to get at that answer by using four different data sources. The study, “Estimating the Number of Chinese STEM Students in the United States” by Jacob Feldgoise and Remco Zwetsloot came up with 45,720 undergraduates studying agriculture, biology, computers, engineering, mathematics and physical sciences and 76,060 in either master’s or Ph.D. programs in the same fields.

Including the non-STEM fields, there are 143,320 undergraduates and 129,400 postgraduates.

Here’s the news flash: every single one of these quarter of a million students are potential assets for Chinese intelligence services.

That’s not to say that they are all actively spying in the United States. That’s not to say they are all trained in espionage. That would be an insult to real covert operatives who spend years learning their tradecraft.

But the simple fact of the matter is that it is illegal for any citizen of the People’s Republic of China to not cooperate with China’s security services. That means that these students can be approached before, during or after their time in the United States by Chinese intelligence officials and debriefed on what they learned or what they saw, or tasked with carrying out certain actions after they arrive.

And if they don’t want to comply, then when they return, it’s off to some kangaroo court and then prison. Maybe they didn’t want to spy. Too bad. That’s life in a police state.

Just to be clear: this law is for citizens of the People’s Republic of China. It does not extend to citizens of Taiwan, Singapore or the Chinese diaspora.

So if the United States is engaged in a technology war with China, why are American universities training so many “foot soldiers?” Why is it giving student visas to de facto spies?

If one wanted to take a hammer to the problem, the knee-jerk reactionary solution would be to simply ban all students coming from the PRC. Congress had some bills before it this session proposing just that. This proposed solution becomes less realistic after Inauguration Day.

But is this a case where a scalpel is a better tool than a hammer? Is this a case where the action would have unintended and unforeseen consequences?

The “risks and benefits [of hosting Chinese students and researchers] differ across fields and degree levels,” the report’s authors noted. The data they accumulated is “necessary for formulating risk-management strategies that do not unnecessarily harm U.S. universities and innovation,” they added.

Universities, of course, have been accustomed to the tuition and fees these students bring and need funding to remain strong.

And academic freedom is a hallmark of U.S. institutions of higher learning and a source of their strength.

Yet the United States draws a line at allowing these students, or any foreign nationals, to work on national security contracts.

Academic freedom has its limits. Those firewalls should be strengthened and institutions that run afoul of these laws should have their ability to bid on national security contracts terminated. A foreign student caught spying should be treated as any individual breaking U.S. espionage laws would. They should do time in a U.S. prison.

Meanwhile, let’s as a nation face the reality: We’re not filling our universities with homegrown master’s and Ph.D. students in STEM fields. That is a U.S. shortcoming. Tuition, fees, and onerous student loans for U.S. citizens wanting to pursue these degrees should not be a barrier.

Reports in the U.S. academic community have emerged that Taiwanese, Singaporeans, and ethnic Chinese from nations other than China, as well as Chinese Americans are being harassed at our ports of entry. Ticking off our friends and allies in the China-U.S. tech war is unwise and counterproductive.

Profiling U.S. citizens is just plain wrong. Remember: a scalpel, not a hammer.

And finally, China is investing a lot in these students and wants them to come back.

We should make that choice harder. Instead of legislation banning these students, we should do everything possible to lure them here to play for our team. That would include financial incentives and an easy path to U.S. citizenship.

If the next Albert Einstein in quantum technology arrives here as a graduate student, every effort should be made to make sure he or she doesn’t want to go back to live in a police state.

Topics: Cyber

Comments (5)

Re: Chinas STEM Students in US Pose Problem

Well, DL, maybe you are one of the best and brightest of American STEM graduates and have spent your entire career in elite institutions. Maybe my experience of 35 years in a STEM profession after earning a PhD is different, but it includes work in a couple of industries and a variety of institutions, for profit and nonprofit, universities and private institutions. In my experience, I have met as many mediocrities among our imported scientists and engineers as any who could be described as 'the best and brightest.' My experience also includes many examples of the brightest American students, especially women and minorities, going into anything but a STEM profession, in which they will have to compete with the entire planet for every job. My experience includes many examples of the best and brightest Americans struggling for years to get stable employment in their chosen profession and many, who almost as soon as they do get established, become salespersons or managers, in the for profit sector, or professional grants-persons or administrators, in academia, i.e. politicians, who hardly ever set foot in a lab after that.
And when we discuss the risk of having 110,000 or so PRC citizens studying STEM here and the large additional number already permanently employed in American universities and research institutes, we need to start out acknowledging some realities. First, in the 1970s and 1980s when the Soviet Union was the main threat to America, it was exceedingly difficult for a Soviet citizen to get so much as a visitor's visa, let alone permission to live, study or work here. In fact, the Soviet Union often used citizens of Eastern European satellite countries, who could get in much more easily, as spies. Nevertheless, the Soviets were quite successful at stealing American military secrets. Second, a PRC citizen has negative as well as positive incentives for spying for the Chinese Communist Party. They all leave hostages behind them and, from the day it took over China, the CCP has routinely punished entire families for the offense of a single member. And all PRC citizens here are carefully and thoroughly monitored by the CCP but not by the FBI. The CCP has never needed to recruit more than a tiny fraction of its citizens abroad to become very, very successful at stealing trade and military secrets and they can provide plenty of incentives, both positive and negative, to recruits.
As long as we have so many PRC citizens studying and working in STEM professions here, we will never have any military or trade secrets. Unwinding this situation will be a long and painful process, but it must be done, and we haven't even started.

DD at 12:39 PM
Re: Chinas STEM Students in US Pose Problem

Why do we see it as "training foot soldiers"? Why not see it as attracting the best and brightest to the United States, thereby siphoning the world's best talent for US benefit? And the US certainly does benefit: over 70% of Chinese (as well as Taiwanese, Indian, Korean, etc.) graduate students in STEM fields end up staying in the US for the long term, and they provide a highly skilled workforce component that improves our technology and economy. To be fair, that situation is changing, which is driven by two basic factors. First, a "pull" from China and other countries who realize the benefits of hosting very bright foreign students; China would rather US students & researchers go to China than vice versa, and they certainly want their own students. Second, a US "push" due to a growing hostility in the US toward foreign students (as evidenced by the number of articles that ask, for example, why the US is training Chinese foot soldiers). We can't do much about the first, but we can do a lot about the second. So yes, we should indeed do everything possible to lure them here to play for our team.

DL at 2:30 PM
Re: Chinas STEM Students in US Pose Problem

Basically American universities are tutoring the CCP future scientisits, give them everything they need to thrive and make CCP's China great, it's stunning how political leaders and elites in the west are negligent to this eminent threat, there are over 350000 Chinese students in US alone, more than half of them are pursuing STEM degrees, occupying the seats and taking away the chance of domestic students of a better education and a better future, the country's chance of 150000+ future scientists and engineers are taken, because western universities and higher educations systems became the money thirsty institutions who choose capital over national security, the first step is limiting all Chinese stundents education to non STEM disciplines then more definitive steps should be taken.

mark at 3:21 PM
Re: Chinas STEM Students in US Pose Problem

"...why are American universities training so many 'foot soldiers?'" Two reasons: money and prestige.

Patrick Harris at 10:33 AM
Re: Chinas STEM Students in US Pose Problem

Solution to this national security issue:

1. Totally free education for all Americans,
2. Raise investment in quantum computers and AI at least equal to China.

This is how pay the cost of staying global leader.

Recai Iskender at 4:01 PM
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