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US reportedly targets Chinese academicians in bid to prevent security risks

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The United States, which is fighting a tariff war with Beijing, has reportedly been elbowing out Chinese professors and experts from world-class academic and research institutions in what it calls an initiative aimed at mitigating potential risks to its national security and research interests.

In a rare move, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently called together more than 100 top leaders of Texas's academic and medical institutions such as Texas Medical Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center, warning them of security threats from foreign adversaries, who the bureau thinks are "inside" people attempting to steal intellectual property for their benefits, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle, an influential daily newspaper in Houston, Texas.

During the meeting, an FBI official told these academic officials that they had collected "classified information" to prove that people working with them are posing the biggest risk to academia in Houston and nationally, with FBI Special Agent in Charge Perrye Turner calling for establishing a strengthened partnership between the bureau and academic and medical institutions to prevent the theft of intellectual property and research, said the Houston Chronicle report.

The credibility of the report was corroborated by a later FBI statement, which said that the bureau provides the public and private sector with "counterintelligence tools as well as awareness training" that are needed to protect their information and facilities.

Although the statement did not mention the specific countries the so-called foreign adversaries are from, it reflects the FBI's growing fears of what it calls intellectual property theft by China, which the United States claims costs it as much as $600 billion every year.

The Houston Chronicle report has made a splash in the Chinese communities of the United States, where it is rumored that the FBI sent a blacklist of Chinese professors and scholars to several academic and medical institutions including Texas Medical Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center asking for removal of these academics, many of whom are covered by China's Thousand Talents Plan.

The Thousand Talents Plan, launched in 2008, aims to bring leading Chinese scientists, academics and entrepreneurs living abroad back to China. The plan is a key part of China's effort to gain global supremacy in innovation and technology.

In a written response to a question by Sino-US.com, MD Anderson Cancer Center said that it follows all state and federal employment laws and, in particular, does not discriminate on the basis of race or nationality. The reply failed to alleviate anger among some Chinese living in the United States, who believe that the increasing tensions between the two countries have intensified discrimination against the Chinese minority.

Sino-US.com also contacted via telephone the Houston office of FBI only to be told that it "could not deny or admit the investigations." The FBI Houston office later said in an email sent to Sino-US.com that the bureau "did not conduct any arrest" at MD Anderson Cancer Center, refusing to comment on the backlist.

Caijing, a Beijing-based magazine, quoted several Chinese academics working in the United States as saying that experts favored by the Thousand Talents Plan had been a target of investigations of the related American government agencies including the FBI, which made it clear in June that China is the "broadest, most significant" threat to the United States and its espionage is active in all 50 states.

"Some of the scholars covered by the Thousand Talents Plan who are still in the United States have been summoned by the FBI for 'talks'," a Chinese professor at a famous American university told Caijing, refusing to give his name.

The aftermath of the investigations of the FBI has spilled over to some other universities in the United States.

Sino-US.com has recently obtained an email that Joseph Heppert, vice president for research at Texas Tech University, sent to his colleagues, in which he conveyed deep concerns over China's Thousand Talents Plan, which has the goal of seeding highly competitive research programs in Chinese universities that will "allow the nation to overtake the traditional technological lead held by the US and other nations worldwide."

Heppert also revealed in the email that Texas Tech University cancelled an offer, after consultations with the FBI, to host a visiting scholar from a Chinese university after the faculty member wanted access to sensitive research programs while being monitored. The Chinese visiting scholar was invited by a Texas Tech University faculty member as a reciprocity for applying to the Thousand Talents Plan.

Normally, applicants or invitees are required by the Thousand Talents Plan to spend some time annually at listed Chinese university while retaining their positions in the United States. It is a concern of US universities and the related government agencies, which are suspicious about the nature of their relationship with Chinese universities.

Currently, US lawmakers are considering a bill, which could permanently bar individuals being involved in talent recruitment programs of China, Russia and Iran from gaining any federally funded research grants from the US Department of Defense.

The move comes amid rising tensions between China and the United States caused by their trade disputes. In addition to tariffs, the Donald Trump administration is reportedly considering creating sanctions on Chinese entities which are suspected of stealing intellectual property through cyber espionage. Some experts say that the action could force China to make concessions in the trade war.

In May, the Trump administration announced that the validity of visas issued to Chinese graduate students studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics would be shortened to only one year. It is another sign of the United States protecting its high technologies from being acquired by Chinese.


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