China's President Xi Jinping waves to Russian President Vladimir Putin via a video link, from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.

China's President Xi Jinping waves to Russian President Vladimir Putin via a video link, from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. Noel Celis/Pool Photo via AP

China Has Increasing Sway in US Science, JASON Report Says

Beijing is using better jobs at home, aggressive intelligence agencies, and a greater financial reach to influence American institutions.

Alarmed about how the Chinese government is chilling the political speech of athletes like LeBron James? Wait until Beijing starts influencing U.S. scientists. A new report from the Defense Department’s JASON research group says U.S. scientific research can be threatened when Chinese nationals who come to the United States for post-graduate degrees in science and technology return home and are pressed to cooperate with China’s intelligence and security services.

The report, out this month, looked at research projects funded by the National Science Foundation. It found that “actions from Chinese government and its institutions…are not in accord with U.S. values of science ethics.” Specifically, the report says that the Chinese government just doesn’t get something essential about the way scientific research is done in the United States and in the West: that conflicts of interest have to be spelled out very clearly. In the case of the Chinese students, it's a legal obligation to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party's security and intelligence services, as laid out in the 2017 National Intelligence Law.

It’s the same law that allows Chinese authorities to obtain any and all information Huawei has on customers, as well as data on technical vulnerabilities in Huawei products. The law even warns citizens against telling others that they have helped the government. “Many U.S. citizens would view this law as particularly vexatious and some, perhaps many, would refuse to comply,” the report says.

The report notes that foreign-born engineers and scientists, drawn to the United States for education and economic opportunity, have been critical to the country’s economic and scientific development. “Today, foreign nationals account for the majority of graduate students in many technology fields, including electrical, civil, mechanical, industrial, chemical, and petroleum engineering. They also dominate in fields including computer science and economics, and some universities’ graduate programs likely could not maintain their high level of excellence without foreign students,” it says.

But Chinese firms can now offer remuneration at least equivalent to that of U.S. employers — and U.S. federal policy is making foreigners feel less welcome. “The drivers of this change include large increases in pay packages offered by China at all levels (for example, postdoctoral salaries now reach 600,000 yuan, or $87,827, topping the U.S. average of $47,000), stricter visa restrictions on students, and perception of ‘increasing hostility against Chinese researchers.’”

Moreover, China is going to be the location of more and more of the sort of key research and technology jobs that individuals fresh out of college would be attracted to. A 2018 report from R&D World magazine found that “The shifting of R&D investments to Asia is a trend that started several years ago, and it has continued with 44% of all R&D monies in 2018 being spent in that region—a significant trend expected to continue into the future.”

China is also producing more scientific papers. “Chinese contributions account for 36 percent of global scientific publications. This is approximately twice the standard address-based measure of papers in international scientific journals and a comparable share of global scientific citations,” notes a paper published in China and the World Economy in January.

More money is flowing from China to American academic institutions in the form of tuition. This gives China a lot more clout to press academics, censor research and speech, and shape education institutions, according to a 2018 study from the Wilson Center.  

Concern about the growing number of Chinese researchers at U.S. institutions has been building. A 2018 paper from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit described “Immigration policy for foreign students” as “primary defensive levers” that policy-makers might address as part of a broader policy aimed at pushing back against Chinese influence.”

But the JASON report found no clear policy remedy. A 1985 National Security Decision Directive (189) states that the government’s position is that “to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research remain unrestricted.”

As the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood noted on Monday, “Actual theft or espionage is of course punishable by law. But as a general principle, foreign scientists who immigrate to the United States should be treated like any other citizen, the JASONs wrote, and they ‘should be judged on their personal actions and not by profiling based on the actions of the government and political institutions of their home country.’”

But, of course, requiring that Chinese students be more transparent about their relations with Chinese security and intelligence runs the risk of putting those students in the crosshairs of those very authorities, as the National Intelligence Law doesn’t allow for the disclosure of those communications. It’s a final sign that the group that perhaps has the most to lose in the growing friction between the United States and China on U.S. college campuses is the students themselves.