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US lawmakers prep bills targeting China spy threat on campus

The Engemann Student Health Center on the campus of the University of Southern California on May 12, 2018. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Some U.S. lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would make it harder for Chinese students and scholars to work in the United States, citing security concerns as a trade war rages between Washington and Beijing.

The members of Congress, mostly President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, are writing bills that would require more reporting from colleges, universities and laboratories about funds from China, prohibit students or scholars with ties to the Chinese military from entering the United States or set new limits on access to sensitive academic research.

Failure to comply could mean financial hardship.

The proposed bills add to growing pressure against Chinese students, researchers, companies and other organizations in the United States.

Amid an escalating trade war between China and the United States, members of Congress have become increasingly concerned the thousands of Chinese students, professors and researchers in the United States could pose a security threat by carrying sensitive information back to China.

Republican Senator John Cornyn said on Wednesday he hoped to win bipartisan support for the “Secure our Research Act,” a bill he planned to introduce next week to prompt U.S. institutions to do more to protect valuable research.

“We are under attack,” Cornyn said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing examining foreign threats to U.S. research. “Their (China’s) goals are to dominate the United States military and economically,” he said.

Cornyn, who is also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called U.S. academia “naive” about the threat from China. He warned that he would not vote for any plan to give taxpayer dollars to public institutions unless they improve security.

Many of the individual bills face little chance of passing despite growing bipartisan concern in Congress over security risks from China.

While Trump and many other Republicans want stricter controls on immigration as well as a hard line on China, Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, warn about the risks of making immigrants feel unwelcome.

“Foreign-born scientists put Americans on the moon. They worked on the Manhattan Project. Nearly a third of all American Nobel laureates were born outside the United States,” said Senator Ron Wyden, another Intelligence Committee member who is ranking Democrat on the Finance panel.


Lawmakers from both parties, as well as university officials, point to the multimillion-dollar contribution to the U.S. economy from the 350,000 Chinese who come for undergraduate or graduate studies.

“We believe that the overwhelming number of international students from all countries come here with the best of intentions and we should continue to encourage them to come,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

However, small pieces of the measures could make their way into broader, must-pass bills, like the massive annual National Defense Authorization Act, which is currently making its way through Congress.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Republican Representative Francis Rooney marked the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on Tuesday by re-introducing the “Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft (SHEET) Act,” intended to prevent what they described as Chinese espionage efforts at U.S. universities.

Chinese authorities reject such accusations and are pushing back. On Monday, Beijing warned students and academics about risks in the United States, pointing to limits on the duration of visas and visa refusals.

On Tuesday, China widened its warning to companies and tourists. It told companies operating in the United States they could face harassment from U.S. law enforcement and cited gun violence, robberies and thefts.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Chris Sanders, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)

© Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019