Why Is the FBI Investigating Americans Who Study in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Over the last two years, the FBI has questioned at least five U.S. citizens who have studied at Yenching Academy, a Master’s degree program hosted by Peking University. The purpose of the interviews, according to NPR, is to “ascertain whether they have been co-opted by Chinese espionage efforts.” This intensified attention follows increased scrutiny of Chinese students studying at U.S. universities, especially those linked to the military, reflecting the growing rivalry between the two powers.



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Are national security concerns warranted for Americans who study in China? And if so, are such investigations a reasonable approach? How can the United States nurture an experienced policy and diplomatic corps amidst increasing mistrust and strategic competition? And what do these investigations signal about future potential restrictions on international intellectual exchange and academic cooperation between the United States and China? —The Editors


From my seat at the Yenching Academy Opening Ceremony in September 2016, I remember looking around the auditorium at my peers who came from over 40 countries. United by an interest in China, we knew that our time in Beijing would help our future careers. Our time on the ground would set us apart.

A few years later, my peers have been set apart—not for their achievements, but for FBI scrutiny. The past few years have seen a dramatic change in the U.S.-China relationship, yet, as tensions between our nations rise, it is more essential than ever that young Americans understand China—its language, people, and culture. Instilling fear among the next generation of China scholars undermines this aim.

At Yenching, my peers and I learned as much outside the classroom as we did on campus. Our carefully orchestrated visits to corporate offices featured flashy slideshows that praised China’s advances in cashless payments and fin-tech. But these experiences conflicted with the antiquated fapiao reimbursement system used on campus, which necessitated hard-copy receipts printed on vintage contraptions. Visits to the school’s financial office revealed the extent to which the ever-changing anti-corruption laws govern campus operations—first dictating no alcohol could be purchased with Peking University funds, then no coffee, and then even no tea. But with each new decree, if you asked politely for an exception, the rules might give way.

Increased scrutiny of Yenching Academy students fits into a broader pattern of FBI suspicion of educational exchange with China, visible in aggressive FBI briefings for U.S. academic administrators, a growing distrust of ethnic Chinese researchers, and recent visa restrictions for Chinese academics. While instances of espionage should certainly not go unpunished, a small minority of cases seem to have had an outsized influence on prevailing attitudes within the U.S. government.

As the next generation of specialists evaluate their future career paths, reports of the FBI’s outreach to Yenching Scholars may dissuade them from seeking opportunities to study abroad. When balancing the risk of not obtaining a security clearance against the “safer” option of learning about China from a textbook, this group may decide that the cost of studying abroad is too high. The chilling effect that FBI questioning has on young scholars risks alienating a cohort of American citizens best equipped to see our country through these increasingly challenging times.

Despite reports of FBI questioning, the time my peers and I spent in China has mostly been seen in a positive light—Ph.D. programs, consulting jobs, and public service tracks envisioned while sitting in that Opening Ceremony have mostly come to fruition. These are the individuals I would like to represent my country in the future of U.S.-China relations: a talented group of scholars with a sophisticated understanding of China. As a graduate of Yenching Academy, I hope the FBI sees the time my peers and I spend in China as an asset, not a threat.

It is no coincidence that the FBI is questioning American students who studied at Yenching Academy now, in a climate of mounting security concerns and anxiety towards China, egged on by the administration’s calls for “strategic competition.” According to this administration’s National Defense strategy, “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors.” This language suggests that the Trump administration finds Chinese economic competition illegitimate, and it is scrambling to find the most effective way to contain it. Curtailing engagement with China undermines the success of any approach to China, including strategic competition. Study abroad experiences encourage people-to-people exchanges, which motivate collaboration rather than unnecessarily adversarial postures. American authorities should not diminish Sino-U.S. collaboration by putting a target on the backs of those who are most well-equipped to develop it.

While it is America’s responsibility to monitor Chinese espionage strategy, federal authorities should not present citizens with such an unappealing choice: submit to interrogation, knowing anything they say can be used against them, or refuse (perhaps out of fear of appearing to lie), and leave feeling targeted by their own government. If the U.S. truly wants to draw upon Americans who have studied in China to better understand that country on the basis of competition, it should invite them to speak about China on their own terms, and be grateful for their expertise. Calling unexpecting Americans and attempting to interrogate them is unlikely to yield good intelligence.

Further, the strategic competition model is increasingly self-defeating. For example, the United States lags China in crucial research areas including biotechnology and artificial intelligence; facilitating more Sino-U.S. exchange in these fields is in the United States’ best interest. Alienating the relatively few U.S. citizens with meaningful experiences in China does nothing to alleviate China’s “unfair” practices in trade and intellectual property, nor does it contribute to the administration’s policy of strategic competition; the U.S. can’t compete with China if it discourages its citizens from understanding it.

Even a hawkish stance on China should support this assessment; keep your friends close and your strategic competitors closer.

Fearful suspicion of Americans who have studied China—a country which should be acting as America’s most important partner on global issues, starting with climate change—is unwarranted and detrimental. It is a missed opportunity. Americans should be encouraged to study Chinese and to study in China. President Barack Obama recognized this as early as 2009, when he announced he wanted 100,000 Americans to study in China between 2010 and 2014. A decade later, the relationship between the U.S. and China has become even more critical to global stability. That much is clear. American authorities should view insight into China as a valuable tool for future negotiations and progress, not a justification for suspicion.

Exchanges between Americans and Chinese from all walks of life are vitally important. They reduce misunderstandings and promote the cooperation still required of two world powers. At the same time, Americans need to be more vigilant about who they are engaging with and how. When mayors, scholars, or students interact with their Chinese counterparts, the titles may be equivalent but the backgrounds and motivations of the Chinese institutions often are not. No significant Chinese institutional exchange is effectively independent of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), and often has the unstated (to the American counterpart) objective of propagating influence and gathering intelligence. This does not mean that most interpersonal interactions with Chinese counterparts are insincere or compromised, but that they are being shaped by complicated institutional dynamics. With enough self-awareness, these issues can in most cases be managed—not least by avoiding self-censorship on the American side while preserving the benefits of engagement.

The absence of additional information on the Yenching case precludes comment other than to say that the FBI’s concerns are plausible and by no means unique to that program, or to other similar programs such as the Schwarzman Scholars program, in which I participated. Despite FBI efforts to warn American students that they may be targeted abroad, more can be done in partnership with universities to inform students what to look out for and how to report questionable interactions.

In the United States, China’s government attempts to control how China is discussed in universities and other institutions, and to misappropriate information and technology. Unfortunately, heavy-handed rhetoric about and intensified scrutiny of Chinese students risks becoming counterproductive for America. The U.S. must maintain the distinction between China’s government and Chinese—of all nationalities—even as China’s government often willfully fails to do the same.

Vigilance is only part of a response. A commitment to America’s values as an open society matters too. Chinese students’ time on American campuses should be an unequivocal soft power win. Instead, polling suggests that a stunning number leave without making a single close American connection. Isolated in a socio-technological bubble, apart from a few hours in class, it is as if many had never left China. The C.C.P. is happy that this is the case. American colleges shouldn’t give them that satisfaction.

The United States should also do more to invest in America’s continued success, instead of bemoaning China’s attempts to target it. The bigger question about Confucius Institutes is not whether China has ill intentions, but how the U.S. could be so negligent in funding language training that many schools have had to take China’s money. The same goes for scientific research.

When I studied at Tsinghua, I can recall no instance which I would regard as suspect, but I do recall many constructive conversations with Chinese classmates and professors that have continued to challenge and inform my thinking. There is plenty that is wrong in the U.S.-China relationship; I believe exchanges can still be one of the things that are right.

The classroom is never a neutral space. Nor should it be: teaching is, at its heart, an act of persuasion. What professor does not aspire to turn her students, to borrow the delicious spy-novel slang, towards her own ideas? The liberal arts tradition with which the so-called “Rhodes Scholarship for China” aims to engage, and in which I teach at NYU Shanghai, oversells its famously free exchange of ideas. A good class discussion can go anywhere, but we’re always hoping the students come around to our side of things.

But whose side? In the small pond of Western-affiliated and -facing higher education in China, this is a complicated question. NYU Shanghai is a Sino-American partnership granting degrees in both countries. My students—Chinese, American, and dozens of other nationalities—write their essays in English, in shapes of argument this American dude recognizes as good. Am I a missionary spreading the gospels of critical inquiry and the beautiful English sentence? Proudly. Am I a colonialist stumping for a distinctly Western flavor of universal human rights? Probably. Do I ultimately serve an institution no less a Chinese soft-power initiative than Yenching Academy? Sure. Done right, the never-neutral classroom thrives on such contradictions. But we should not be surprised when the suits back in Washington start to twitch: Our own Vice Chancellor was summoned to Congress to testify that we enjoyed a properly American form of academic freedom. Not an FBI spy hunt, but a value test nonetheless.

The problem is not that an American student or Western-style institution in China will one day fail such a test: The never-neutral classroom all but guarantees it. Nationalists will never suffer ambiguity, and spymasters will always find their marks. Instead, we should look to the students. They signed up for these contradictions. They came to China hoping to understand how, in this irrevocably globalized world, the same idea might still mean different things to different people. Let the G-men call this relativism; they’re paid to see in black and white. But a kid who switches superpowers for college dares to believe she might learn something from—and bring something to—a classroom tainted by all the complexity of human life. The real crisis here is our growing fear, in both countries, of following our students’ lead.

NPR’s account describes Yenching grad Brian Kim meeting two agents in a New Haven coffee shop. Who told Kim to apply to Yenching, they wanted to know. “The Princeton fellowship office,” he replies, and the three men share a “moment of levity” over the banality of a scene lived by many ChinaFile readers: American elites swapping study-abroad tales over espresso. Only a few years ago, this was the image of a cosmopolitan education, where any classroom is incomplete without a journey out into the never-neutral world. Today, two of those Americans are typing up the other’s FBI file. Such lines, once drawn, take a lifetime to fade. We may all soon be forced to pick a side.

NPR’s report leaves us with more questions than answers. Is the FBI just targeting Yenching Academy, or are other academic programs in China also suspected of being vehicles for Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) recruitment of American citizens as spies, such as Schwarzman College? Did the FBI agents abuse their power or violate the rights of any of the five Yenching graduates?

The answers to these questions are important. First, they would help us contextualize these interviews and avoid undue suspicion of the Yenching program: Narrow reporting of C.C.P. influencing and espionage efforts and American counterintelligence work may discourage young talents from participating in these academic exchanges, and even jeopardize people’s careers.

Second, more context would allow us to establish whether the FBI interviews were conducted legitimately. From both the NPR article and conversations with other Yenching alumni, I had the impression that national security scrutiny of Americans who studied in China is perceived as somehow unwarranted.

Now, strategic mistrust between the United States and China is undisputedly fueling paranoid tendencies in the Trump administration. The main victims are Chinese students and scientists in the United States, who face intensified scrutiny, visa restrictions, suspicion, and sometimes racism. Asian-Americans are also caught in the middle. The FBI Director’s remarks painting all Chinese students as potential spies certainly does not provide any reassurance about the objectivity of American counterintelligence methods.

But intelligent agencies of a democratic country have the right, in the context of an investigation, to question their citizens over potential dangers to which they may have exposed themselves and their country. And given the Chinese government’s track record of coopting and coercing both national and foreign citizens—including those in academia—as part of its influence campaigns, Western governments have valid reasons to be vigilant. Naivety about academic cooperation with Chinese institutions has facilitated censorship, technology transfers to the Chinese military, and outright espionage.

This is not to say that the United States should terminate all academic exchanges with China, let alone treat any American who studied in the People’s Republic of China as a national security threat. With China an increasingly global power, the United States desperately needs more, not less, analysts and diplomats with experience studying and living in the country. These people are accustomed to navigating the complexity of China’s political system, deciphering C.C.P. propaganda, and constantly negotiating spaces to debate and think critically.

Western governments should not deny individuals the opportunity to exercise agency over the sociopolitical systems in which they operate. Nor should they let institutions like Peking University, where liberal minds like He Weifang and dissident students are fighting authoritarianism, perish in silence. In banning two West Point graduates from attending Yenching, the U.S. government surrendered to the C.C.P.’s repression of academic freedom. Instead, the United States should invest in proper training of students—especially those with limited China background—prior to their enrollment in Chinese academic programs, so that they are equipped with adequate tools to recognize unwanted intrusions and to protect themselves.