FIRE joins coalition concerned about FBI-backed monitoring of Chinese students, scholars

August 12, 2019

FIRE and nearly two dozen other organizations, including PEN America, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Heterodox Academy, are voicing concerns today about recent reports that the FBI is encouraging American universities to create “protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.” 

The FBI’s advisory is the latest development in the increasingly uneasy relationship between China’s government and academic institutions abroad. 

While the threats that China’s government may pose to academic freedom worldwide are well documented, any response from the United States and its academic institutions should ensure that the vital principles of free expression and open inquiry are respected. 

As today’s coalition statement explains:

China’s government is notorious for its aggressive use of surveillance. Efforts by the United States to fend off the global arm of autocracy must not mimic the very tactics it professes to reject. As concern on these matters grows, we advise universities to zealously safeguard their independence—to maintain their commitment to academic freedom, to uphold the principle of due process, and to respect the privacy rights of students and faculty, no matter their national origins.

The full statement and its signatories are available below:

According to recent public reports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other government officials have advised some U.S. universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions. This move seemingly stems from growing suspicion that the Chinese government is engaged in espionage of American higher education, with the aim of stealing data and intellectual property. However, this is an area where the government must tread carefully.

Some recent incidents suggest concern with the mounting global reach of Beijing’s tech-enabled authoritarianism is valid; but calls to monitor individuals solely based on their country of origin violate norms of due process and should raise alarms in a democracy. If there are articulable concerns about specific individuals because of their activities and affiliations, those should be pursued without regard to the individual’s country of origin. Disclosure requirements, information sharing, and export control enforcement all offer powerful means to protect against intellectual property theft and espionage without resorting to tactics that cast suspicion on potentially hundreds of thousands of students and scholars. Federal agencies need to clarify and specify their concerns, and ensure that their efforts do not trample on individual rights nor on the principle of free and open academic inquiry and exchange.

More than 340,000 Chinese students are reportedly studying in the United States, as of last year. If not conducted with care, this move risks hampering the future recruitment of talented foreign students and scholars to American shores. This move could also significantly impede the training of new scientists, as well as damage ongoing projects. The pursuit of scientific knowledge should be advanced under conditions of intellectual freedom without political or ideological restrictions.

Further, to the extent that China or other governments are utilizing international students and faculty in the United States as a means to carry out spying or to furtively funnel information back to officials at home, such activities infringe upon the academic freedom of those scholars as well as the institutions that host them and must stop. Unless researchers possess a formal and disclosed government affiliation, they must be permitted to pursue their work free from state interference or involvement. Failure to adhere to this principle violates the precepts of academic freedom and threatens global scholarly exchange.

China’s government is notorious for its aggressive use of surveillance. Efforts by the United States to fend off the global arm of autocracy must not mimic the very tactics it professes to reject. As concern on these matters grows, we advise universities to zealously safeguard their independence—to maintain their commitment to academic freedom, to uphold the principle of due process, and to respect the privacy rights of students and faculty, no matter their national origins.

ACPA-College Student Educators International

American Association of University Professors

Asian American Unity Coalition

Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania

Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association

Association for the Study of Higher Education

Association of American Colleges and Universities

Association of University Presses

Chinese American Citizens Alliance

Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association

Chinese for Affirmative Action

Defending Rights & Dissent

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Heterodox Academy

International Society of Political Psychology

National Coalition Against Censorship

OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates

Ohio Chinese American Association

PEN America

Scholars at Risk

United Chinese Americans

80-20 Educational Foundation