Are spies from China infiltrating our academic prowess here in the U.S.? Xia Yeliang, a former Economics Professor at Peking University, apparently thinks so.
Of the increasing numbers of headlines dedicated to Chinese intelligence activities in the U.S., most have been exclusively related to Industrial Espionage. Ever since the Wen Ho Lee incident, dubbed Operation Kindred Spirit in the late 20th century, where a Taiwanese-American physicist was accused of leaking the design of a nuclear warhead to the Chinese government, the pervasive attitude towards Chinese intelligence has focused largely on cyber security and espionage to steal trade secrets from American enterprises. In fact, China has been identified as the most active foreign power in the acquisition of American technology, according to U.S. Officials.
So how exactly does this relate to higher learning? An estimated 235,000 Chinese students come to the U.S. each year and are generating billions of dollars, not to mention inadvertent contributions toward cultural exchange.
It does seem rather farfetched that any of the Chinese students I’ve met and befriended could be moonlighting in any such capacity. However Mr. Xia expressly stated that it is visiting scholars who assume this dual identity, rather than actual enrolled students. Having just attended the welcome reception/mixer for the new post-doc fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I am currently employed, certainly brings the reception into a slew of new (if not comical) scenarios. I include this anecdote, because Harvard University was one of the two examples (along with Stanford), that Mr. Xia cited when discussing this supposed phenomenon at a press conference last week.
Concerns mainly seem to stem from the idea of needing to self-censor in U.S. classrooms, when discussing issues which may be deemed sensitive to China. While I was living in China, I was technically a government representative, and therefore had to avoid the “Three T’s: Taiwan, Tienanmen, and Tibet. I had never considered the possibility of these rules applying to U.S. classrooms, until a certain discussion with a Chinese student from my graduate program. We were both in Geneva over the summer, working at various international organizations, and she had been tasked with writing a list of human rights abuses in her home country. The assignment was for all interns regardless of nationality, and my friend had a hard time thinking of things to add to her list. It turns out, obvious answers to us (ie: mandating family planning through the one child policy) were things she didn’t realize were internationally considered to be human rights abuses. It’s what she knew as a fact of life.
My bottom line: What could such a “spy” really take away from an open academic institution such as Harvard University? Given the proper credentials, admission isn’t denied to any one person. Therefore, could they really infiltrate an institution that wouldn’t necessarily bar them in the first place? What would be the point? There are already so many Chinese students who qualify both academically, and financially to pursue educational opportunities at the top institutions in the U.S., as well as around the world to honestly absorb the classroom contents as intended.
Would it really be in the Chinese government’s interest to waste resources to go that far?☼