IN MAY, CHINESE students with military connections were blocked from pursuing graduate study or postgraduate research at US universities.
By the executive order of US President Donald Trump, the United States suspended the issuance of non-immigrant F and J student visas to such Chinese nationals, effective June 1. It claimed that some students operated as ‘non-traditional collectors of intellectual property’ on behalf Beijing’s ‘wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of…the People’s Liberation Army’.
Newly unsealed papers filed in the San Francisco division of the US district court for the Northern District of California, are providing some detail to that accusation.
They depict an organised attempt by the PLA Air Force to send scientists from the Air Force Military Medical University (AFMMU), formerly the Fourth Military Medical University, and other military institutions to work on US university research programmes without revealing that the participants were in active service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Four people have been charged with related visa fraud, three of whom have been arrested in the United States, it was announced on July 23. Investigations have touched on 25 cities and are continuing.
The proximate case involves a bail hearing for Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with the court papers), a biologist researching at the University of California, Davis. She is said to work for the AFMMU’s Centre for Molecular Translational Medicine. (Translational medicine involves paring basic and clinical research to develop new drugs and medical products, and is a field getting a lot of attention in China.)
Tang is facing charges of visa fraud by making false statements on her application for her J-1 visa (for exchange programmes) last year. She is accused of falsely answering ‘no’ to three questions about whether she is a member of the military and the Party and whether she had had assistance in making the application. If convicted of the charges against her, which do not include any of IP theft at this point, she could face ten years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.
The US government wants her held in remand until she comes to trial, believing her a flight risk. However, Tang, who is in her late 30s, is the one of the quartet not in US custody as she has taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. This threatens to create a significant tension point between Washington and Beijing if she is not handed over to US authorities.
Having closed down the Houston consulate-general this week, citing the need to protect US intellectual property, the US president might be tempted to impose the same sanction on the San Francisco consulate, which US intelligence officials hold to be the centre of China’s espionage efforts in the United States.
A similar case, for which the court has also released the bail-hearing papers, involves Song Chen, who is in US custody. A Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, she has been working on neurological research there since the beginning of last year.
Like Tang, she is said to be a member of the AFMMU’s Civilian Cadre, technical specialists regarded as active military personnel. Her affiliations cited on her published academic papers have included the Department of Neurology at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, a clinical teaching hospital for the AFMMU. The court papers regarding her also include a photograph of her in uniform.
More substantive court filings about the cases against Song and Tang have not been made public.
However, in Song’s case, in addition to being accused of committing perjury over her visa application by falsely stating her military duty ended in 2011, she is charged with destroying evidence and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (a federal offence in the United States).
The bail papers refer to ‘several’ similar cases, two of which are identified, Wang Xin, a J-1 visa student at the University of California, San Francisco, and one at Duke University referred to as ‘LT’. Wang was arrested on June 7. The third Chinese student who has been detained has been named as Zhao Kaikai, who was arrested on he same day as Song.
Zhao is studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University. She is said to have attended the Air Force academy, Aviation University, and worked at the National University of Defense Technology, the PLA’s elite scientific research institution.
Chinese students in the United States have increasingly fallen under the suspicious eye of the Trump administration in its relentless determination to keep US technology out of Chinese hands. Its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress identified the openness of academia and the scientific community in the United States as a vulnerability.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said after the May executive order was issued,
We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.
The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus an estimated up-to-5,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk if the administration can make good on its goal of finding a way to cancel existing visas held by Chinese graduate and postgraduate students, and not just stop new issuance.
Chinese students account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses are excluded from the new issuance suspension.
Overall, two in five international students in the United States are undergraduates. However, the more than one in three who are graduates and postgraduates and the further one in five who are working for US companies, as they can do after graduation to get practical experience, are weighted towards Chinese students, and especially in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where there is a shortage of qualified US job applicants. More than one-half of US graduate or higher- level STEM degrees are awarded to international students.
Senator Tom Cotton, a strident Republican critic of China, has introduced legislation into Congress that would bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. His proposal is being fiercely resisted by the US tech industry, which scours the world for the best talent. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told a conference earlier this month that ‘many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese’.
None the less, a growing atmosphere of hostility towards Chinese students is noticeable in the United States as bilateral relations deteriorate over everything from trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus. At his regular press briefing earlier this week, in response to a question about the ordered closure of the consulate-general in Houston, Texas, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,
For some time, the US government has been … intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.
This week, the Chinese embassy in Washington started organising more charter flights home for Chinese students who have graduated, are about to see their visas expire, or are encountering ‘difficulties staying in the US’. It has already flown about 7,000 home who had been stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This Bystander expects that to be characterised as a military evacuation by the more belligerent China hawks in the United States.