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Guy Farmer: Chinese students, or spies?

By Guy W. Farmer

During my U.S. Foreign Service career I supervised international educational exchange programs, including the prestigious Fulbright Program, in three countries — Australia, Peru and Venezuela — but I always wondered why so many Chinese students were in those programs.

Now I know the answer to that question. Some of those Chinese “students” were spies. This unpleasant fact was confirmed late last month when federal authorities arrested  Chinese military-linked researcher Hu Haizhou,  who was studying at the University of Virginia’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department. Hu was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Aug. 26 before he could board a flight to Qingdao, China.

According to FBI agent Matthew Rader, Hu was in possession of UVa files including “bio-inspired research simulation software code with military applications.” In other words, Chinese researcher Hu was a spy for the Communist government of China, which is engaged in an increasingly contentious  struggle with the U.S. for global superiority.

Rader said “probable cause existed to charge Hu federally with fraud-related illicit computer intrusions and the theft of trade secrets.” UVa researchers who had worked with Hu told the Washington Examiner that their Chinese colleague “left the university abruptly to return to China without saying goodbye.”

That could be because Hu “was directed by the Chinese Scholarship Council to upload summary reports regarding his UVa research every six months.” Those reports went to China’s Key Laboratory for Underwater Robot Technology, which is funded by the People’s Liberation Army. Draw your own conclusions.

Shortly before Hu was arrested, our State Department ordered China to close its Houston consulate, charging that Chinese researchers  were engaged in “an intelligence-gathering operation aided by Chinese diplomats to collect scientific research from American universities.”  That doesn’t surprise me because when I was stationed in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in the early 1990s I lived next door to an alleged Chinese “cultural center.” I didn’t detect any cultural activity but I did see a very large satellite antenna that interfered with my TV reception.

U.S. universities, including the University of Nevada,  are very reluctant to say anything negative about foreign students because most of those students pay full tuition. As USA Today reported recently, “American universities stand to lose hundreds of thousands of international students over the country’s failure to contain the (COVID-19) pandemic. … Also at stake: billions of dollars that international students spend in our country.” Open Doors, a non-profit that tracks foreign students, estimates that those students spend more than $40 billion per year in the U.S.

Did I mention that most foreign students pay full tuition? University administrators and admissions officers are reluctant to discuss the ugly subject of money, but it’s a main reason why they love international students, not just because they come from exotic foreign lands and make the student body more diverse. 

According to the respected Wall Street Journal, “U.S. officials believe Chinese military-related researchers represent a small sliver of the approximately 370,000 Chinese who study in the U.S. as part of academic exchanges.” Nevertheless, a “small sliver” of 370,000 is a lot of people. President Trump last May decided to restrict future visas for such researchers. Good for him!

“The Justice Department in recent weeks has charged four Chinese researchers with visa fraud,” the Wall Street Journal reported late last month. “In some cases the researchers did little to hide their Chinese military affiliations.”  This is a good reason for the State Department to take a closer look at academic exchange programs between the U.S. and China.

I strongly support those programs but only if they benefit bona fide students, not spies.

Retired diplomat Guy W. Farmer supervised academic exchange programs in Australia, Peru and Venezuela.