U.S. groups urge restraint in investigating academic espionage by China

The United States should not emulate China in applying surveillance against certain ethnic minorities as part of an effort to thwart academic espionage, a coalition of Asian and higher education organizations write in an open letter issued today.

The letter cites a recent story by NPR describing meetings at which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has urged university officials to monitor the activities of Chinese students and Chinese-born researchers on their campuses. The groups, which range from the American Association of University Professors to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, point to “the mounting global reach of Beijing’s tech-enabled authoritarianism” and the Chinese government’s “aggressive use of surveillance.” But the U.S. response “must not mimic the very tactics it professes to reject,” the letter warns. “This is an area where the government must tread carefully.”

Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, a New York City–based nonprofit that organized the letter, says: “We are worried about what can happen if you encourage people to be on the lookout without making clear what criteria they should use. It’s not that the government doesn’t have the right to track illegal activity. But we are trying to be the voice of restraint in defending due process and academic freedom.”

Senator Mark Warner (D–VA) has spent the past year bringing together law enforcement and higher education officials to discuss how to protect federally funded research from foreign threats. He thinks there’s a way to improve security without violating core academic principles.

“I have been in close touch with our universities over the very real challenge of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] targeting our institutions in order to access specific technologies,” Warner said in a statement to ScienceInsider. “The CCP is using creative ways to access and steal our technologies, using its authoritarian model to pressure academics and researchers to act on behalf of China’s national interests via coercion and financial incentives. But as the U.S. counters their strategy, it makes no sense to engage in racial profiling, and law enforcement must be careful to ensure that they do not fall into that counterproductive method.”