In my recent Backgrounder on the risks to national security inherent in the large nonimmigrant student and research scholar population in the U.S. I discussed not only the risks, but also possible steps the president and Congress might take to ameliorate some of those risks.
In short order, as if to emphasize the significance of those risks, two cases were publicized in the media that focus on one of the major risks associated with hosting students and scholars: the Chinese government, which casts a wide espionage net. A net so wide that it might fairly be called a "family enterprise" in which not just professional intelligence officers participate, but also virtually anyone it sends abroad who may gain access to secrets or proprietary trade information that gives China a leg up strategically, militarily, or economically.
The first case involves one Bo Mao, a Chinese professor who was arrested in Texas for theft of secrets that he allegedly passed along to Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that is trying to corner the 5-G market, and that appears to have ties to Chinese military and intelligence organs who use Huawei's market share and equipment to spy (see here and here). A quick internet scan suggests that the man was a professor at the University Nevada, Reno, before arrest and that he has been involved in the use of lasers to meld powdered metals together in new and unique fashion.
While readers may observe that, as a professor, he isn't in the same category as a student or research scholar, my quick response is that we don't know that he didn't enter the United States originally as a student or scholar, and then move on to professorship based on his educational niche, one which clearly would be of interest to enterprising industries, telecom or otherwise. What's more, his alleged offense actually goes to reinforce the point that spying for the Chinese state (which is inseparable from its businesses and industries, none of which can exist in a communist country without approval of their political masters) is pervasive.
The other case is arguably worse: A Chinese government employee, Zhongsan Liu, was arrested and charged for committing large-scale fraud in the procurement of nonimmigrant research scholar visas on behalf of select Chinese citizens.
One FBI official is quoted as saying:
The allegation that an employee of a foreign government has worked to mask the true purpose of an individual's presence in the United States isn't news to the FBI. ... This alleged behavior should be another alarm bell that foreign governments are constantly working to exploit research work being conducted throughout the United States. Not everyone shares the honest goal of conducting open research to benefit society as a whole. This case is another example of the pervasive and organized effort, in this instance an allegedly flat-out illegal one, to fulfill a top priority of collecting information to advantage a foreign adversary.
It's good that these individuals have been caught, but it's troubling that such schemes were at work at all. And where are the immigration authorities in all of this?
I'd like to think that somewhere in the bowels of Washington, subject-matter experts are doing careful post-mortems to ask themselves whether there were missed clues that could have stopped the visa scheme in its tracks, or whether there was something that didn't quite add up about the professor — and how all of this relates to the oversight and vetting role that U.S. immigration and consular officers are supposed to conduct. But I doubt it. They probably sleep easy, knowing that the FBI is on the job.