A New Witch Hunt? FBI Calls Chinese Students a Threat

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Calling China “a whole-of-society threat,” FBI Director Christopher Wray recently claimed that Chinese students in the US may be conducting espionage. Law professor, author, and Committee of 100 chair Frank H. Wu, says the FBI is reviving a racist legacy

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Earlier this month, the nation’s top intelligence officials testified at a Senate hearing on global threats. While much of the focus was on Russia, FBI Director Christopher Wray took aim at a different target, Chinese students in the US. Wray was questioned by Senator Marco Rubio.

MARCO RUBIO: Director Wray, let me ask you what in your view could you say in this setting is the counterintelligence risk posed to US national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in sciences and mathematics?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country, it’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline. I think the level of naivety on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it. So, one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat on their end and I think it’s going to take a whole of society response.

AARON MATÉ: Wray’s comments prompted criticism. The Committee of 100, a group of Chinese Americans said, “We have seen instances in our history when Asian Americans have encountered such racial prejudice resulting in discriminatory lies and harmful actions. These incidences have been shameful chapters in American history, ones that we must collectively as a nation commit to not repeating.” Well, joining me is Frank Wu. He is chair of the Committee of 100, a distinguished professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Professor Wu, welcome. I want to start by reading to you a headline that was in The Washington Post following race comments and it’s called Waking Up to China’s Infiltration of American Colleges.

Josh Rogin, the writer, writes, “At last the community of US officials, lawmakers, and academics are focused on resisting Chinese efforts to subvert free society is beginning to respond to Beijing’s presence on America’s campuses.” What is going on here? What is this purported threat that Josh Rogin and FBI Director Christopher Wray are referring to?

FRANK WU: We’re living a time of change. We’ve never seen this before within the lifetimes of all of us where Asia is ascending, China especially. It’s unprecedented. This rise makes people anxious, even alarmed. Their sense is that everyone of Chinese background or even Asian is a threat, every student, every scientist, every scholar, every researcher. Imagine if the director of the FBI had said every black person represents a threat to all of American society. We would say, “Whoa, wait a minute here. Yes, there’s some people who commit crimes and are wrong doers,” but the idea that this everyone who could be suspect, that violates American principles, American ideas against stereotyping on the basis of who you are, where your grandparents came from.

You know, Chinese people have been in the United States since the 1830s. There are six generation Californians of Chinese descent. There are adopted kids. There are people who are loyal Americans whose parents or grandparents started off as students or professors. It’s the very same scholars that are being impugned now.

AARON MATÉ: So, when Wray said in that clip we heard that every FBI field office has seen this activity and that there are now investigations underway, were you surprised by that?

FRANK WU: No. I’m not surprised because there is this suspicion. You know, when I was a kid growing up, people would ask me “Are your parents communists?” “Do you eat dogs?” and so and so forth. It was part of the common cruelty of childhood. You would explain, “Well look, I’m an American.” People would respond “You all look alike.” That’s what’s going on here. It’s the broad brush. It’s the idea that it’s all and that it’s based on ethnic origin. That’s what should trouble us. There are just too many false claims, cases against people such as Wen Ho Lee, …Chan, Professor Shi. I’ve just given you three examples where the government prosecuted people as spies. People who had come from Asia of Chinese background who had come here as students and then naturalized and become loyal Americans.

The thing that was pointed at them and it turns out for no reason. Their lives were ruined because of this type of profiling and prejudice that if it were applied to any other ethnic community, you would recognize it. You would say, “Hey, we have a deal in America. You don’t characterize an entire society this way based on your blood, your heritage.”

AARON MATÉ: You know, you mentioned Wen Ho Lee, so that was the scientist who was falsely accused of being a Chinese spy. His life was ruined, basically. At the time, there was a famous saying that was put forth by some FBI experts that said that they spy by grains of sand, referring purportedly to Chinese espionage efforts in the US. By grains of sand, they effectively meant almost every single Chinese person in the US. Right?

FRANK WU: Right. It’s the idea that everyone is a sleeper agent. It’s the conspiracy theory. We’re ready to rise up. It’s like during World War II, people of Japanese descent, 2/3 of them US citizens, some of them had no meaningful relationship to the Japanese empire, most of them, in fact. Men, women, children, the elderly, even American military veterans alike, they were locked up in internment camps. The theory was blood will tell. A Jap’s a Jap. That’s what people said back then. Now, some might say “Well here, we’re just talking about the foreigners. You’re okay. You were born in the United States.” The trouble is people don’t take the time to distinguish. They don’t bother to find out before they start to make accusations and that’s what we’ve seen in these very real cases.

The other thing is these students are contributing. This is how American science is done at universities. If you didn’t have graduate students from overseas, if suddenly every person of Chinese descent vanished from American college campuses. You wouldn’t have any teaching assistants for chemistry or physics or calculus and so on. So, we depend on these folks. When you look at who wins Nobel Prizes in the United States, people started off as a foreign student. Take a look at that shooting that just happened, that terrible tragedy in Florida. Who was the hero? The heroic student who wanted to go to West Point. He sacrificed his own life and saved his fellow students. It was a kid whose parents had come from China.

So, that’s what’s disturbing about this. It doesn’t distinguish between people, I have no doubt there are cases where people are spies. Every country spies. America, my country, my homeland, we spy. But the idea that everyone of a particular ethnic background spies, that’s not right. That’s not what America was founded on.

AARON MATÉ: So, one of the institutions that’s now being targeted here in the US is something called the Confucius Institutes, which is a Chinese government backed educational and cultural program which has ties to universities across the US. And this came up in that hearing on global threats in an exchange between again, Senator Marco Rubio and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

MARCO RUBIO: Last week, I wrote a letter to five higher education institutions in Florida about the Confucius Institutes, which are funded by Chinese government dollars at US schools. It’s my view that they’re complicit in these efforts to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half truths designed to present Chinese history, government or official policy in the most favorable light. Do you share concerns about Confucius Institutes as a tool of that whole of society effort and as a way to exploit the sort of naive view among some in the academic circles about what the purpose of these institutes could be?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes. We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching wearily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.

AARON MATÉ: So, that’s FBI Director Christopher Wray testifying in an open hearing on global threats to Senator Marco Rubio. Professor Wu, if you could just respond to this. I want to read to you from Rubio’s letter that he mentioned to academic institutions in Florida. He says, “Their goal is to exploit America’s academic freedom, to instill in the minds of future leaders a pro China viewpoint.” Talking about the Confucius Institutes. What is this organization and in your response to this new scrutiny of them?

FRANK WU: These are higher education institutes. They’re trying to promote Chinese language and Chinese culture. There’s no question about that. That’s what they do openly. It would be the same thing as starting a Socratic Institute to teach the ancient Greeks. When I visit China, I realize that my mother was right. I should’ve paid attention in Chinese school. I wish I had learned about Confucius. That would make me much more successful and able to compete. In China, they study English, they study American history, they know more about America than we Americans, myself included, know about China. It wouldn’t hurt us to learn a little bit. So, let’s make sure we understand the claim here is that learning Chinese language and learning Chinese culture is dangerous propaganda.

This is more about American anxieties than anything else. If even studying language and culture is a problem, then there isn’t very much that we’re not going to be suspicious of. The other part of this is what government sets up anything to disparage itself? The United States government has Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia. The US government runs operations everywhere that we support. The State Department does educational programs. We send scholars. We have the Peace Corps. Every country wants to promote itself and that’s okay. We certainly should be naive. We should always have our eyes open. But, learning a little bit of Chinese language, learning a little bit of Chinese culture, I wish we’d had that when I was growing up.

It would serve us well. I’d like to learn a little bit of Spanish too while I’m at it. So, what’s happening now is this sense if it has anything to do with China that there’s something wrong. That’s not how America is going to make progress by turning its back on the nation that is doing exactly what America has always encouraged China to do, to emerge into the world, to not be isolated when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went and the United States resumed relations. The fancy word is normalization with China. With the ping pong diplomacy, the whole idea was to engage. The whole idea was the United States and China would now exchange students, scholars, ideas and that not just those two nations and their people, but the world would be better off for that.

I hope we can remember the positive aspects of this engagement. That people from China are like people from everywhere else. There are good ones. There are bad ones. There are ones who are interested in coming here and staying. There are ones that will study here and go back to where they came from. And our American principles are you shouldn’t take a group and say every single student, every professor in every discipline in big cities and small towns that there are active investigations about an entire community. That should alarm us.

AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Frank Wu is chair of the Committee of 100, a distinguished professor the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Professor Wu, thank you. T

And thank you for joining us on The Real News.