China is not a “friendly” competitor. It is very much a strategic threat, one that is actively working to undermine the United States and western values of freedom and liberty. Yet too many universities and policymakers fail to recognize the danger.
Many universities have been blinded by dollar signs. They pay agents to recruit international students, primarily because they will pay full tuition. China is more than happy to pay the price. Prior to the pandemic, 35% of all foreign students in the U.S. were Chinese nationals. That number has since dropped by more than half, but Chinese students still fill a disproportionately large share of seats—especially in post-graduate STEM classrooms.
Innovations and technical advances generated by university-based research (along with private sector research and development) have been a boon to U.S. security as well as our economy. But in its quest to become a global power, Beijing uses a variety of tactics—illegal as well as legal—to glean cutting-edge technology and intellectual property from university research systems, international laboratories and corporate R&D facilities.
As a result, China is catching up fast. Last fall, officials at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned that universities, business executives and state and local officials need to do a better job of protecting their intellectual property. Failure to do so, the Associated Press reported, “could eventually give Beijing a decisive military edge and possible dominance over health care and other essential sectors in America.”
The FBI estimates that the U.S. economy loses between $225 billion and $600 billion annually to pirated software, theft of trade secrets and counterfeit goods. Cybereason, a cybersecurity tech company, estimates that one Chinese state cyber operation has stolen “hundreds of gigabytes of intellectual property and sensitive data,” worth trillions of dollars, from 30 multinational companies.
But too many lawmakers aren’t paying attention. Congress recently passed the CHIPS Act, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to tech research and workforce development. Yet the bill contains only limited provisions to protect the work it funds from foreign predations. More stringent provisions, crafted to restrict Chinese influence and espionage campaigns being carried out on campuses through Confucius Institutes and undisclosed Chinese funding, were blocked by Senate Democrats.
While CIA Director William Burns has acknowledged that China poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security and the biggest geopolitical challenge of our generation, the White House isn’t acting like it. The Biden Administration has scrapped the Justice Department’s “China Initiative.” And just a few weeks ago, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean Pierre refused to call China more than a competitor, even though the FBI opens a new counterintelligence investigation of Chinese espionage and intelligence efforts, including efforts to influence U.S. state and local leaders every 10-12 hours.
Our leaders need to treat the China challenge with the seriousness it deserves. And so do our universities. They should focus less on recruiting “highest bidder” students from China and more on teaching and research efforts that can produce STEM and technology advances to build a more secure, prosperous and free society both here and abroad. Their doors should be open to foreign students who seek to receive the best advanced education. But those doors must be opened in a research environment that takes security and accountability seriously.
Nearby Texas A&M University is showing just how tricky that balance can be. In May 2020, the university won multiple federal awards—and more than $400 million in federal grants to conduct sensitive research in a variety of areas. The A&M system was one of five entities to receive the prestigious Defense Counterintelligence & Security Agency Award for Excellence in Counterintelligence for the previous year. It is the highest honor given by the U.S. government in this category. More than 10,000 corporate and academic organizations were in the running, according to a university press release.
Three months later, a professor there, who was also a NASA researcher, was arrested on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud. He allegedly hid his affiliations with a Chinese government program designed to advance that country’s high-tech development.
Universities should focus on improving education quality and outcomes for all students, while simultaneously working with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to protect the fruit of their research. Failure to prevent intellectual property theft and illicit technology transfers could weaken American economic and national security interests.
This piece originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News