Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt looks on during a reception, hosted by Britain's Prince Charles, at Clarence House in London for the delegates of the Global Investment Conference, Thursday, July 26, 2012.

Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt looks on during a reception, hosted by Britain's Prince Charles, at Clarence House in London for the delegates of the Global Investment Conference, Thursday, July 26, 2012. AP Photo/Sang Tan

Chinese Students Are Key to US National Security, Eric Schmidt Says

Google CEO-turned-DoD advisor pushes back on notion that turning Chinese students away will keep America safer.

Eric Schmidt, the longtime Google CEO who now runs two Pentagon advisory boards, says current legislative efforts to bar Chinese students from studying in the United States could be “against our own self-interest.”

In May, the Trump administration declared that Chinese students studying in the United States who have ties to certain Chinese institutions may try to steal intellectual property. The proclamation does not name those institutions.

Chinese “authorities use some Chinese students, mostly post‑graduate students and post-doctorate researchers, to operate as non-traditional collectors of intellectual property,” it reads. 

Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has introduced more sweeping legislation that would essentially bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. 

Schmidt, who chairs the Defense Innovation Board and the National Security Commision for Artificial Intelligence, said that “this current trend to restrict Chinese student access to universities is against our own self-interest.” He made his remarks during an exclusive taped interview to air on Wednesday as part of the Defense One Tech Summit

In 2018, some 403,353 Chinese students were studying in the United States, by far the largest foreign cohort, the Government Accountability Office wrote in May. Schmidt said that far from being a net negative for U.S. national security, these students contribute heavily to it.

“Remember that, in America, the military does not build very much. Not only do you have to have military capability but the contractors also have to get this talent and most of them don’t have it, to be honest,” he said. “One of the things that we looked at was the role of Chinese students in American research. And for those of you who are shocked by this, I’m sorry but I’ll tell you the truth, that many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese. That’s partly because the really, really smart Chinese researchers would prefer to be here. They love America! And they love the freedoms…they want academic freedom.” 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the Trump administration restrictions won’t target every Chinese graduate student. Yet the criteria for expelling students remain murky. The proclamation would affect any student connected to an Chinese institution that supports China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.”

“The graduate students and researchers who are targeted, co-opted, and exploited by the [Chinese] government for its military gain represent a small subset of Chinese student and researcher visa applicants coming to the United States,” Pompeo told reporters in June 

Much depends on the State Department’s interpretation of the rather vague proclamation, said Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security

“While the restriction of visas for students who are current affiliates of Chinese military universities is reasonable as a policy measure, since there is a risk and probability that those students will directly contribute to Chinese military science in the future, any more sweeping or expansive restrictions could be damaging to American innovation,” Kania said. “Given the level of prejudice and xenophobia, even a measure that is justified and more targeted may be tainted by and conflated with more noxious discourse and proposals that are prejudiced and problematic. For instance, calls for more sweeping measures restricting Chinese students in STEM, such as the legislation proposed by Senator Cotton are really troubling and counterproductive.”

In his talk with Defense One, Schmidt noted the Commission’s first-quarter recommendations for helping DoD adopt AI more quickly, and helping the broader government better use AI in national security. Among the key recommendations is helping the government better recruit AI experts, by accelerating the clearance process for such experts. 

Schmidt said that he had been discussing the recommendations with Senate staffers on Capitol Hill, staffers working on the markup for the National Defense Authorization Act. He said to expect to “see significant focus on workforce development” in the NDAA markup.