I often pose policy questions here to which I do not have good answers. This evening’s posting falls into this category.
Though most people following last Tuesday’s Senate hearing on “spies within us” focused on the testimony involving Russia, several primarily Chinese-American activist groups and members of Congress are protesting an exchange between Senator Marco Rubio and FBI Directory Chris Wray concerning “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students.”
The activists are accusing Rubio and Wray of claiming that all or most Chinese students are spies. Of course, Rubio and Wray said no such thing, but this is now the norm in U.S. politics. In 2016 the Democrats cried that Trump had said all Mexican immigrants are murderers etc. but of course he never said such a thing. I will return to this point later in the post.
One of those objecting to Rubio and Wray’s comments was Rep. Judy Chu, whose LA-area district is one of the most, if not THE most, heavily-Chinese in the nation. Valley Blvd., stretching 20 miles through umpteen San Gabriel Valley suburbs, is a Chinese foodie’s dream, a seemingly unending string of Chinese restaurants, Chinese cafe’s, Chinese grocery stores and Chinese malls. Chu, speaking for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) wrote (emphasis added),
There is no doubt that we must take espionage threats from foreign countries seriously. However, Senator Rubio’s leading question and FBI Director Wray’s sweepingly broad response were completely irresponsible generalizations that attempt to paint all Chinese students and scholars as spies for China. I condemn these remarks entirely and reject these dangerous attempts to build a case that Chinese students, professors, and scholars should be viewed with more suspicion than others.
Unfortunately, Chu’s last statement is statistically incorrect. As a group, the Chinese students ARE different.
The number of cases of industrial espionage by (typically former) Chinese foreign students has been so large that the Wall Street Journal once published a table summarizing them. And many of the Chinese students have been quite militant in the affairs of their host countries, such as their efforts to block the Dalai Lama from delivering a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego. A report of an incident in Australia is chilling. (Added, March 9: See also the long Foreign Policy article on these issues.)
I know of no other country whose foreign students are acting in this manner.
The Confucius Institutes, also mentioned by Rubio, have indeed been under attack as being used by the Chinese government as propaganda tools on U.S. campuses. Some universities have closed them down. According to Inside Higher Ed,
One U.S.-based Confucius Institute, at the University of Chicago, closed in 2014 after more than 100 faculty signed a petition that cited, among other things, concerns that Hanban’s role in the hiring and training of teachers “subjects the university’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China.”
A February 18 column by the Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin was titled “Waking up to China’s infiltration of American colleges.” That title says it all.
So Rep. Chu is wrong; the Chinese case is indeed different.
Thus Rubio and Wray did have a valid point. But what do they propose to do about it? The vast majority of Chinese students are simply here to study (and in many cases, to eventually become Americans).
On the other hand, as I have pointed out, a “vast majority are harmless” argument is not sufficient in discussions of public and national security. Only a tiny percentage of immigrants are terrorists, murderers or gang members, but those tiny percentages, translated to absolute numbers, cause much American misery.
To be sure, Chu and the others do have a point in suggesting that Rubio and Wray’s concern over China’s attempt to influence U.S. internal affairs might lead to overzealous investigation of the innocent. The February 15 press release of the mainly-Chinese group Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association (APAPA; unfortunately the press release seems not to be on the Web), warns,
The past glaring examples of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1942 Japanese Internment Act, and the recent racial profiling of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, Sherry Chen and Dr. Xiaoxing Xi were part of America’s shameful and discriminatory history – a history that should not be repeated.
This is partly true, partly not. The Xi case does seems to be a tragic instance of inept bungling on the government’s part. However, although Dr. Lee’s civil rights were indeed egregiously violated by the FBI, by his own admission he had had proactive contact with a confessed spy; that, not racial profiling, is what brought him under suspicion. (Disclosure: I was a member of the Steering Committee of the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund.) One Chinese-immigrant friend who is knowledgeable on the Chen case says although she was no spy, her handling of government documents did justify her getting fired.
Though there are no clear solutions — the U.S. is not going to shut down the flow of Chinese students to the U.S., nor should it — the concerns raised by Rubio and Wray cannot be dismissed. Use by Chu and others of the magic incantation “racial profiling” is both inaccurate and counter to U.S. interests. Rubio and Wray need to hear about the concerns of CAPAC, but the latter must first admit that there indeed is a problem.