STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news this morning of a U.S. government move against suspected Chinese spying. NPR has learned the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been interviewing American students at Chinese universities. They are asking if Chinese intelligence agencies are trying to recruit the American students. NPR's Emily Feng is breaking this story and is on the line from Beijing.
Hi, there Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Who are these students you spoke with?
FENG: They're all students from the Yenching Academy. It's a master's program that's housed at Beijing's Peking University, and about 30 students are American or Canadian every year. The idea is that they're rising stars. You bring them to China. They learn about the history. They build relationships. And they bring them back to the U.S. But precisely because of these relationships, they're now under scrutiny from the FBI, who fear that these students have been unknowingly targeted by Chinese intelligence agencies.
And in the course of this reporting, I learned that about - at least five of these graduates had been quietly approached by the FBI in the last year. We published the story this morning, and actually, more students from other programs have come forward saying the same thing happened to them.
INSKEEP: You just used the word unknowingly. The question is whether they were unknowingly recruited in some way. What questions, exactly have - has the FBI been asking?
FENG: They're asking everything under the sun. What did you do in China? Who did you meet?
I talked to one Yenching graduate. His name is Brian Kim. He graduated from Princeton, went to China. He's now at Yale Law School, and it was there that he was approached by the FBI five months ago. Here's him.
BRIAN KIM: And they were asking questions like, the Yenching fellowship - why did you apply? Who told you to apply? And I literally told them, the Princeton fellowship office.
FENG: So, clearly, the Yenching graduates I talked to thought it was ludicrous that they had been approached.
INSKEEP: They thought it was ludicrous, but let's look more broadly at the evidence here. There certainly have been cases of various kinds of Chinese information-gathering in the United States. Does the United States have something to worry about here?
FENG: The FBI says yes, and there have been a handful of cases where that's happened. The most notable one was in 2011. There is a man named Glenn Duffie Shriver who was convicted of espionage. He had studied in China, moved to Shanghai after graduation and, there, was co-opted by Chinese intelligence agents who paid him tens of thousands of dollars to apply for CIA and State Department jobs. And if you fast-forward to 2019, that fear that China is using these, quote, "nontraditional actors," to gather intelligence on the U.S. - that's increased tenfold.
So it's become much harder already for Chinese students coming into the U.S. to study and work in certain science and tech fields. The worry now is that U.S. students who have spent time in China are going to come under the same scrutiny. And many of the students I spoke to are worried that, in the future, they wouldn't be able to get security clearances if they were to apply for government jobs.
INSKEEP: Wow. And, of course, these are people who went off and went to study one of the most important other countries in the world. So you mentioned you interviewed five students at this academy at Peking University. Since you reported the story just hours ago, many other people have stepped forward and said, hey, I was interviewed, too. So there seems to be a wider effort even though we don't know quite how wide. How does that fit into the overall tension between the U.S. and China?
FENG: It's part of this bigger disentanglement that's happening between the U.S. and China when it comes to people, students who travel back and forth between the two countries, trade - there's a trade dispute going on now...
FENG: ...Investment and academic collaboration. So the FBI and other intelligence agencies in the U.S. are looking at anyone who studied in China, anyone who may have a contact in China. And some worry that that's just too broad of a category and that you'd be scrutinizing too many innocent people. At the same time, these are the kind of people who understand China because they spent time there and could be useful in U.S.-China relations, so...
INSKEEP: Meaning that if you're...
FENG: ...What's the right balance...
FENG: ...That you strike?
INSKEEP: If you're worried about the relationship between the U.S. and China, if you even see China as a threat, these are valuable people.
FENG: Right. It's a central conundrum. How do you protect U.S. national security without endangering democratic principles and cutting out the people and the ideas that might help the U.S.?
INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for the exclusive reporting.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng.
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