China’s MSS Leveraging Students In, From U.S.

Education is the gateway to knowledge and the Chinese Ministry for State Security (MSS) exercises its unbridled access to students in both the United States and China to good effect, as they surreptitiously acquire information of interest to China. If one dissects the news surrounding recent indictments, criminal complaints and convictions involving the theft of intellectual property by Chinese entities, you will observe how many of those students, or former students, were providing information to entities associated with China’s key state laboratories, the People’s Liberation Army or other organizations/entities with governmental ties.

To stifle the flames of xenophobia, it is important to note that given the number of Chinese students in the United States, both undergraduate and graduate students, only a very small percentage are dispatched with a short- or long-term espionage goal in mind. A much larger percentage are passively debriefed upon their return to China for tidbits to fill in their information-deficit mosaic. Just because someone is from China does not make them immediately suspect. However, just because someone is from China does place them on the MSS list of potential sources, and there isn’t a damn thing the individual can do about being targeted.

According to Immigration Policy, China had approximately 351,000 students in the United States during the 2016-17 academic year, which is 33 percent of all foreign students (1.1 million) who are studying in the United States.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have been vocal in their admonishment to congressional oversight committees on the need to be vigilant with respect to the China leveraging U.S. universities. Wray noted, U.S. academia is demonstrably naïve and creates its own issues, as China exploits “the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere.”

President Trump has suggested that one means to reduce the threat is to reduce the exposure. In July he recommended reducing the number of visas issued to China’s students. In fact, the U.S. Department of State rolled back an Obama administration adjustment of five-year student visas for Chinese citizens to one-year for those who are studying in “sensitive research fields.” The student may reapply for a renewal each year.

The counterintelligence resources of the United States aren’t going to be able to track the 351,000 students, nor should they. Any expenditure of counterintelligence resources should be based on probable cause to believe that the individual is actively engaged in activity at the behest of China. What is possible—and the path indicated by the FBI’s Wray—is to raise awareness within the academic sector, within the U.S. private sector as part of the overall defense.

Are there Chinese programs designed specifically to harvest information in a more overt and seemingly above-board manner? Yes—two such programs exist.

The Thousand Talents program has been accused by the National Intelligence Council of making possible “the legal and illicit transfer of U.S. technology, intellectual property and know-how to China.”

The recent arrest of Xiaoqing Zheng for theft of intellectual property from his employer, General Electric is an example of both China’s use of the Thousand Talents program and leveraging the access to technology which a U.S.-educated Chinese citizen, who then becomes a U.S. citizen through the naturalization process can be leveraged. Zheng took GE’s intellectual property and put it to work in direct competition to GE, while being funded through the Thousand Talents.

The Confucius Institute is another program China uses to leverage knowledge within academia in the United States. The purpose and success of theses institutes, according to Chinese politburo member, Li Changchum: “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.” Until August, these institutes were eligible for funding; the new National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the funding. But this does not prohibit the Confucius Institutes from providing “strings-attached” funding to U.S. academic institutions—a means to self-censor unwanted or negative perspectives within academia.

The conviction of Glenn Duffie Shriver in 2011 for “conspiring to provide national defense information to intelligence officers of the PRC” is an example of the ability to spot, access and deliver U.S. students studying in China. Shriver studied in China both as an undergrad and graduate student. While there, he noted in his plea agreement, he “developed a relationship with three individuals whom he came to learn were PRC intelligence officers.” The U.S. Department of Justice tells us that Shriver received payments more than $70,000 as he attempted from 2005-2010 to gain employment with the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer and with the Central Intelligence Agency as a clandestine case officer.

The case of Wengui Yan, one of the leading researchers within the Dale Bumpers National Research Center, was educated at UC-Davis, stayed in the United States, became a naturalized U.S. citizen and then in 2013, facilitated the theft of advanced rice research with a co-conspirator, Weiqiang Zheng, who was also U.S. educated and a lawful permanent resident (green card) and was working with a U.S. research entity, Ventria.

The case of Allen Ho is another example. Ho, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan, stayed in the United States after receiving his U.S. education. From 1997-2016 he actively was engaged in helping China advance their nuclear program, through his access and activities in the United States. Part of that effort was spotting and accessing other nuclear experts within the United States to assist China.

The takeaway for all is China is playing the long game when it comes to the collection of advanced technologies and placement of individuals within areas of interest to China. The leveraging of U.S. academia is just but one arrow in their intelligence collection quiver.

Featured eBook
The Four Current Threats Enterprises Can’t Ignore

The Four Current Threats Enterprises Can’t Ignore

The changing digital landscape of data and devices is creating a perfect storm of opportunity for cybercriminals. Enterprises today are prime targets, as more users access more data using more—and more varied—devices. In particular, enterprises today must contend with issues including ransomware, IoT security flaws, DDoS attacks and managing mobile devices on the corporate network ... Read More
Security Boulevard

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

burgesschristopher has 60 posts and counting.See all posts by burgesschristopher