Guy Farmer: International students, or spies?

The ongoing scandal involving California Congressman Eric Swalwell, an ambitious Alameda County Democrat who had a dalliance (a nice word for it) with a lovely young Chinese Communist spy, reminds me of a prescient Appeal column I wrote last August. Here’s an edited version of that column:

During my U.S. Foreign Service career I supervised international educational exchange programs, including the prestigious Fulbright Program, in three countries — Australia, Peru and Venezuela — but I always wondered why so many Chinese students were in those programs.

Now I know the answer to my question. Some of those Chinese “students” were spies. This troubling fact was confirmed last August when federal authorities arrested Chinese military-linked researcher Hu Haizhou, who was studying at the University of Virginia’s (UVa) Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department. Hu was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport before he could board a flight to Qingdao, China.

According to FBI agent Matthew Rader, Hu was in possession of UVa files including “bio-inspired research simulation software code with military applications.” In other words,” researcher” Hu was a spy for China’s Communist government, which is engaged in an increasingly contentious struggle with the U.S. for global superiority.

Agent Rader said “probable cause existed to charge Hu federally with fraud-related illicit computer intrusions and the theft of trade secrets.” UVa researchers who had worked with Hu told the Washington Examiner that their Chinese colleague “left the university abruptly to return to China without saying goodbye.”

That could be because Hu “was directed by the Chinese Scholarship Council to upload summary reports regarding his UVa research every six months.” Those reports went to China’s Key Laboratory for Underwater Robot Technology, which is funded by the People’s Liberation Army. Draw your own conclusions.

Shortly before Hu was arrested, our State Department ordered China to close its Houston Consulate, charging that Chinese researchers were engaged in “an intelligence-gathering operation aided by Chinese diplomats to collect scientific research from American universities.” When I was stationed in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in the early 1990s I lived next door to an alleged Chinese “cultural center.” I didn’t detect any cultural activity but I did see a very large satellite dish that interfered with my TV reception.

U.S. universities, including the University of Nevada, are understandably reluctant to say anything negative about foreign students because most of those students pay full tuition. USA Today reported that “American universities stand to lose hundreds of thousands of international students” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And moreover, those students spend billions of dollars in college towns like Reno. Open Doors, a non-profit that tracks foreign students, estimates that they spend more than $40 billion per year in the U.S.

University administrators and admissions officers are reluctant to discuss the ugly subject of money, but it’s a main reason why they love international students, not just because they come from exotic foreign lands and make student bodies more diverse, but also because they pay full tuition.

According to the respected Wall Street Journal, “U.S. officials believe Chinese military-related researchers represent a small sliver of the approximately 370,000 Chinese who study in the U.S. as part of academic exchanges.” But one percent of 370,000 is 3,700. That’s why I applaud President Trump’s decision to restrict future visas for such “researchers.”

The Justice Department last summer filed visa fraud charges against four of those researcher/spies who did little to hide their Chinese military affiliations. Therefore, the Biden State Department should take a hard look at academic exchange programs between the U.S. and China.

I strongly support those programs, but only if they benefit bona fide students, not spies.

Retired diplomat Guy W. Farmer supervised academic exchange programs in three countries.

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