China Focuses Espionage on U.S. Colleges and Universities

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • China has long engaged in a spying campaign against the United States—from cyber espionage and stealing intellectual property to subtle attempts to infiltrate research laboratories at American universities.
  • According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Beijing is quietly at work gaining access to the trade secrets of U.S. and multinational corporations though ‘academic espionage,’ relying on scholars and researchers as spies.
  • The FBI and the Department of Justice have called on U.S. colleges and universities to tighten their requirements for their employees to report their financial ties with China.
  • As the private sector becomes more difficult for Chinese intelligence to operate in with impunity, college campuses have become more attractive as an avenue for obtaining critical U.S. data.

China has long been engaged in a sophisticated and relentless spying campaign against the United States—from cyberespionage and stealing intellectual property from U.S. defense contractors to more subtle attempts to infiltrate research laboratories at American universities. In the past, Beijing has used Chinese nationals employed in U.S. and multinational corporations to provide the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with pilfered intellectual property of significant value. The financial costs of economic espionage to U.S. firms are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. U.S. officials are now growing more alarmed at China’s spying activities at American colleges and universities, as Beijing intensifies its efforts to make strides, at any cost, in research fields such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Beijing is quietly at work gaining access to the trade secrets of U.S. and multinational corporations though ‘academic espionage,’ relying on scholars and researchers as spies. The scale of this effort is enormous. Universities are among the softest possible targets in terms of espionage. Most academic fields thrive on the free movement of ideas and collaboration within and between academic fields and disciplines, as well as between colleagues, researchers, and scientists. The idea of ‘need to know’ or ‘restricted access’ is anathema to many researchers and academics who devote their careers to science and the pursuit of knowledge. American universities conduct an immense amount of sensitive and even highly classified research in partnership with the U.S. government. China has identified universities and institutions of higher learning as vulnerable entry points to gaining access to sensitive data.

In January 2020, the FBI arrested the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, Charles Lieber, with ‘one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement.’ He failed to disclose his lucrative, deliberately opaque, and secretive financial arrangement with China through a program called the ‘Thousand Talents Plan.’ Under the arrangement, Lieber performed undisclosed work for the Chinese government through Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). Lieber is far from alone. In recent months, the United States has arrested numerous people in academic positions who either failed to disclose work for the Chinese government or actually engaged in straightforward espionage. The FBI has identified programs like the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ as part of Beijing’s full-spectrum espionage efforts to leapfrog the West in developing new technologies to augment China’s military services and intelligence agencies. The FBI and the Department of Justice have called on U.S. colleges and universities to tighten their requirements for their employees to report their financial ties with China. These calls for schools to ‘harden’ their defenses against espionage have largely fallen on deaf ears, producing limited results.

In May 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed the Chinese telecom giant Huawei on a trade blacklist, which prohibits American companies from selling products to the firm without federal authorization. In August 2019, Bo Mao, a Chinese academic who was a visiting professor at the University of Texas, was arrested and charged with fraud for allegedly stealing technology from a California-based company and passing it to China. Because China often uses Chinese nationals in their espionage efforts, the United States has been accused by both the Chinese government and American universities of having a racial or ethnic bias in their counterintelligence (CI) operations. The U.S. government flatly denies these charges. Arrests of individuals such as Harvard’s Dr. Lieber, with no family connections to China, are far less common than arrests or investigations of Chinese nationals working in U.S. colleges and companies. The same day that Lieber was arrested, the FBI also arrested Yanqing Ye, a former Boston University student who was charged with visa fraud for deliberately obfuscating her status as a lieutenant in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As the private sector becomes more difficult for Chinese intelligence to operate in with impunity, college campuses have become more attractive as another avenue for obtaining critical data.

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