Investigations are being conducted on suspected Chinese spies carrying work and student visas who returned to the U.S. at the start of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
On June 15th, The Washington Free Beacon reported about hundreds of Chinese citizens being under investigation after law enforcement officials flagged their travel schedule in January 2020. At the time, President Donald Trump took action by signing an executive order that restricted the entry of non-citizens and residents from China on Jan. 31, 2020.
An internal report obtained by the media outlet detailing the investigations was circulated among various national security and law enforcement agencies on Jun. 3, 2020. The report suggested that Chinese students had returned to the U.S. ahead of their planned schedule so as to avoid pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
According to the report, “the team examined 58,000 inbound Chinese F/J visa holders in the (Passenger Name Record) database and identified 396 individuals whose return travel was (scheduled) after January 2020 but had returned in January 2020.”
Confirmation from intelligence officials is pending as to whether the Chinese nationals carrying student visas were indeed spies. However, the coordinated change in travel schedules strongly suggests that a substantial number of Chinese nationals had knowledge about how severe the COVID-19 situation would be ahead of time.
It was not until Jan. 31, 2020 that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, despite the fact that China had placed the city of Wuhan under quarantine eight days prior on Jan. 23.
“The Chinese government relies on nontraditional collectors of information as an important piece of its espionage efforts. Academia is not immune,” said senior research fellow at the National Institution of Scholars, Rachelle Peterson, to The Washington Free Beacon.
Peterson added, “Cutting-edge research, technological inventions, and other forms of intellectual property are key targets for the Chinese government, which has sought to create in its foreign-based citizens a sense of obligation to bring back something of use for the Chinese Communist Party.”
U.S. universities have been a longtime target of China’s espionage strategy, according to intelligence officials. Bill Evanina, the top counterintelligence official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said to NBC, “A lot of our ideas, technology, research, innovation, are incubated on those university campuses. That’s where the science and technology originates – and that’s why it’s the most prime place to steal.”
The Free Beacon reported that around 30 percent of all foreign national students in the U.S. are from China, or around 340,000 people. The Trump administration cancelled around 1,000 research and student visas of Chinese nationals in September 2020 on the grounds that the applicants were connected to the Chinese military.
In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a detailed investigation into research grants provided in 2019. In June 2020, over 50 scientists who had received NIH grants were fired because they refused to disclose their connections to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other foreign governments.