MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today for this background briefing to discuss the announcement made last week by President Trump and elaborated on by Secretary Pompeo on limiting the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to leverage nonimmigrant student and researcher visa programs to acquire United States technologies, intellectual property, and information to develop advanced weapons systems in China.
As the Secretary noted, we will not tolerate PRC attempts acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institutions and research facilities for Chinese military end uses. We want to stress, however, that the United States will continue to welcome all legitimate students and scholars in the PRC for student – for study and research once routine visa processing resumes.
To help further explain our thinking behind this decision and its implementation by the State Department, we have joining us today [Senior State Department Official One], [Senior State Department Official Two], and [Senior State Department Official Three]. For the purposes of this background briefing, they will be referred to as Senior State Department Official One, Two, and Three, respectively. They have short opening remarks, and then we’ll take your questions.
A reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.
[Senior State Department Official One], please go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much, [Moderator]. I want to begin by quick talking something that [Moderator] just said. It is absolutely imperative that folks understand this is not targeting the vast majority of Chinese students who, COVID permitting, are still welcome to come to U.S. schools and research institutes and whose contributions we value greatly.
That said, we do have a very narrow problem, a national security problem, a very important one that we are seeking to target with a scalpel. This policy is very, very narrowly targeted on this narrow problem set. This is not something that should affect, as I said, the vast majority of Chinese students and scholars who are coming to do totally legitimate academic and research work here in the United States.
That said, it is true that the People’s Republic of China for a number of years now has very deliberately been targeting sensitive technologies in the United States and other advanced economies and that these technologies have been put to the use of modernizing China’s military to the detriment of our national security and that of our friends and allies.
In particular, China has either coopted or coerced a finite, small number of academics and researchers who have come to the United States and other countries where they have engaged in activities that have given them access, taking full advantage of our open academic and research environment, to sensitive technologies. And they’ve done so without revealing in these small number of cases their ties to China’s security apparatus, and thus whether they have been actually stealing technology per se or merely diverting it, they have nonetheless, under less than completely honest pretenses, have been a channel for taking this technology back to China for nefarious purposes.
I will point out that in this area, as in so many others, we find that China over recent years has become increasingly more aggressive. I would say the technology space is one of, if not the most important, of these arenas where there is increased competition between China on the one side and the United States and other rule-of-law, democratic countries on the other.
So our approach here is of a piece with the rest of this administration’s policy of seeking to enhance and strengthen our resilience to the PRC’s increasingly aggressive and underhanded tactics on the one hand, while at the same time, to the extent possible, maintaining as much as possible the open flows of people between our two academic and research institutions.
The particular program that we’re targeting here [Moderator] mentioned up front, it’s called “military-civil fusion.” And I’d like to turn it over to my colleague [Senior State Department Official Two] to talk a little bit more about that in particular, which, again, is the narrow focus of this policy. Over to you, [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official One]. So good afternoon, everyone. I just very briefly would like to highlight what MCF is and how the administration’s actions last week and this policy sets of visas is a consequence of the PRC’s MCF strategy.
As I had discussed maybe with some of you guys before, military-civil fusion is a Chinese whole-of-government, whole-of-nation – not just government – strategy, directly overseen by Xi Jinping, and it seeks to merge civilian and government sectors, civilian research, civilian education, civilian tech with government security, military sectors in order to acquire and then develop advance technologies for the benefit of the People’s Liberation Army. In doing so, it subverts a range of exports controls that other countries have on their technologies, precisely so that civilian trade doesn’t get diverted for military end uses.
In this particular case, the PRC seeks to exploit the access that some of China’s brightest graduate students and researchers have to leading U.S. institutions in order then to divert and steal sensitive technologies and knowledge and intellectual property and, again, divert them to security purposes. We, the government, are deeply concerned about the serious risk that this strategy poses, both from a national security perspective but also to maintain integrity of the academic – the open academic and collaborative research institutions that we have. It’s a security risk for us and also to advanced technology producing countries around the world.
Our expectations for this policy is to prevent the PRC from acquiring for their military use sensitive research and technology in the United States academic and research institutions. We also hope that this will contribute to an improved environment in which the U.S. and Chinese scholars can engage free from the distress caused by the course of efforts of the PRC. And to reiterate the point that [Senior State Department Official One] had made earlier that this is a narrow approach that we’re trying to take; it only affects a small subset of the breadth of Chinese students that come that we benefit from them coming to study in the United States.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Okay, and I guess I will take over from here. This is [Senior State Department Official Three]. Let me just echo what my colleagues said about the value of international students and legitimate Chinese students to the United States. We fully understand and support that. Traditionally, we have afforded international students priority in the visa appointment process. And when we were able to open up again after the COVID pandemic, we hope to continue that practice.
But all that said, the first task of a visa system is to protect national security, and that includes, as my colleagues have pointed out, the safeguarding of sensitive technology and research.
So in the visa context, the President’s action suspends the entry into the United States of any PRC national seeking to enter pursuant to an F or J class visa to study or conduct research at the graduate or post-graduate level where the individual’s academic or research activities are likely to support the development of the People’s Liberation Army advanced capabilities. So again, as my colleagues have pointed out, this is a small subset of the large number of legitimate Chinese students who are currently studying in the United States, and we continue to welcome all those legitimate students while ensuring that our national security is protected.
MODERATOR: Okay, Operator. We’re ready for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please, press 1 then 0 on your keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating that 1-0 command. And if you’re using a speakerphone, please, pick up your handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, it’s 1 and then 0. One moment, please, for the first question.
And that will come from the line of Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this. I just want to clarify something. Are you revoking the existing visas of Chinese nationals who are in the United States, and therefore effectively expelling them?
And my other question is a little bit wider: I’m just curious how the heavy-handed intervention of U.S. law enforcement on peaceful protesters is affecting your ability to point out the erosion of human rights and the right to assembly in Hong Kong, and what kind of an impact it has on the weight of your diplomacy. I’m sure you’ve seen Carrie Lam’s accusation of double standards, and she’s hardly the only one. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, let me —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, if you could – the visa question, definitely, but —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, I’ll address the revocation question, and it came up. And let me point out that domestic enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. So the department does have broad authority to revoke visas under U.S. immigration law, but we always work in concert with other agencies that have domestic enforcement authority, and so I would direct you to DHS to get an answer to that question. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the Hong Kong question, the Secretary of State and the President have both had quite a lot to say about that, and it’s not just the United States; it’s the international community at large. I think I will just refer you to the comments of the Secretary and the President over recent days.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Can we open the line of Matt Lee for the second question?
QUESTION: Hey there. Good afternoon. In all of this discussion since last week when this became the reality, there has been no mention of the actual numbers of Chinese students who you think will be affected. In other words, how many current Chinese students fit the bill for having their visa either revoked or how many applicants do you estimate per year from China would be affected by this? Presumably, you’ve done due diligence and figured that out.
And then once you’ve given that number, I think what we can expect: The Chinese are nothing if not insistent on reciprocity. And regardless of whether you accept the argument that an American student in China might have connections to a U.S. military or the Pentagon or an affiliated institution, how many American students would you expect to see hit by a reciprocal Chinese action? Thank you.
And if you guys can’t give an answer to either question, then I – please, explain to me how this makes any difference at all. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Let me address the numbers question. As noted in my opening remarks and that of my colleagues, we expect that this will affect only a small percentage of the total number of Chinese students studying or seeking to study in the United States. According to figures that the Institute for International Education released for the 2018-2019 academic year, there are approximately 369,000 Chinese students in the United States, representing a 1 percent increase from the prior year, and accounting for about one-third of the total of all international students.
So it is impossible to say because we don’t know how many individuals will seek to apply in all of these fields, but based on research that we’ve done, we expect the percentage to be low. The total number of 369,000 is far in excess of the small percentage that would be affected by this targeted approach, but it’s important to keep in mind this is a carefully calibrated, targeted initiative that’s going after individuals at certain levels of study. Remember, it’s targeted at graduate students and above and researchers in certain sensitive fields. It’s not designed to impact large numbers of people. It’s going after individuals who have been determined to be – to represent a potential serious threat to national security. Over.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And this is [Senior State Department Official One]. I would say I obviously have no crystal ball so I cannot tell you what the Chinese may or may not do in response. I would – but I would – I guess I would take exception to the premise. What we are responding to is an action on the part of the PRC government, where it is specifically targeting sensitive technologies, it is specifically looking to avoid transparency. So the folks who are doing the work of the Chinese security agencies are not being upfront either with our consular officers with whom they’re applying for visas or with the academic or research institutions with which they’re engaging.
So rather than us worrying about what the Chinese reaction to our step would be, I would characterize this as a U.S. – a very judicious and narrowly targeted U.S. reaction to a set of Chinese actions which are very troubling and undermine U.S. security.
MODERATOR: Great. Next, let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams, please.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I just wanted to push you a little bit more on two elements you just mentioned. One, if you have the numbers saying that there are 369,000 Chinese students in the U.S., you must have an estimate currently of how many of those are graduate students who fall under this category. So could you tell us how many graduate students in these sensitive fields are currently in the U.S.? Because just saying it’s going to be a low percentage, that could be anywhere from 1 percent to 30 percent. So could you – could you narrow that down by telling us how many are currently there?
And then, second, could you tell us who is going to be sort of adjudicating which visas get denied and which people? I’m not really clear on the precise criteria. Are you just setting aside a certain set of fields and saying, okay, these fields we’re no longer going to give visas to Chinese graduate students seeking to study them? Are you – is it going to be Chinese graduate students from particular universities? And who specifically will be making that judgment? Is it the consular officer at the desk in the embassy or someone else? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official Three], do you want to talk about the fact that a consular officer at the window will still be doing this on a case-by-case basis? And I’m happy to talk a little bit more about the broad areas we’re looking at, or, [Senior State Department Official Two], if you want to do that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, no, I —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But maybe, [Senior State Department Official Three], you could start off with that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, I was just about to, in fact, point out that we will be handling this the way we handle any other type of visa adjudication. Consular officers will receive guidance on the overall program, and then they will assess each applicant and each applicant’s situation on its own individual merits. And that holds for our consular sections in China and anywhere else around the world where a PRC citizen might choose to apply. Over.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And regarding the fields, I’m reluctant to prejudice the implementation of this rule, and so I don’t think it would be appropriate to discuss which specific fields. However, I would want to provide a view of the technology areas that we’re concerned about, and there’s things like quantum technology; for example, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, advanced materials. These are the broad areas that the U.S. Government has routinely been concerned with in the context of military-civil fusion, and so I would refer you to those kinds of documents such as the Export Control Reform Act that list a range of technology areas that the U.S. Government is trying to wrap our arms about in how to better control these technologies and these researches. Over.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And this is [Senior State Department Official One]. The one thing I would add there is, again, without prejudice to any particular case, clearly we’re not looking for anyone engaged in these fields; we’re looking for folks that we have reasonable – reasonable suspicion to believe have been either co-opted or coerced into basically acquiring these technologies for the purposes of PLA modernization.
So again, this is a very narrowly focused problem set and a policy that is – like I said, more of a scalpel than a baseball bat, if you will. We are trying to keep this as limited as possible to address the specific concerns that we have about these particular technologies making their way to the People’s Liberation Army. Over.
MODERATOR: Next to Shaun Tandon.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) ask you a question about what you said about welcoming Chinese students overall despite these restrictions. As you know, China has been the top source of students both – at the overall level, including undergraduates, in the United States for many years. How concerned are you and to what extent was it a factor in your decision making looking into what the broader effect would be on Chinese students? Are there any efforts that are going to try to make – to reassure students that don’t have any links to the military, that they’re welcome to come to study – to the United States? Are you worried at all that the numbers could go down?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I am hoping that everyone who is engaged in this call will write in big, fat, bold font at the very top of this story the repeated assertions we’ve all made that, in fact, we continue to welcome and value the contributions of the vast majority of Chinese students and academics. And of course, in addition to calls like these we’re messaging this as best we can through all available useful media for that purpose. But yes, we – looking at this as one of many tools that we can use to get that message out. We’ll be doing the same via our embassy and our consulates in Beijing and obviously back here in the States as well with Chinese students, with academic and research institutions, and of course, as we’re doing right now, with the press.
MODERATOR: Okay, for the next question, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I was wondering if you could, following up on my colleague’s question, say whether vetting guidelines have been given to embassies and consulates for determining which students will get visas and what you’ve told the universities and research institutions to assuage any concerns that they might have going forward? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yes, like any other immigration policy, consular officers will be acting under the basis of guidance from Washington. And as one of my colleagues pointed out at the beginning, currently because of the COVID pandemic we are not providing any nonessential visa services, which would include students, at the present time. So consular officers will have full guidance when we reopen for student visas in the future. Over.
MODERATOR: Okay, next to John Ruwitch, NPR.
QUESTION: Hi. Just curious: The question of how many people you expect to fall into these categories has come up a couple of times. I just wanted to ask a couple of things. One is: Do you have an estimate and you’re just not sharing it with us? And then is this – what evidence do you have that the situation is getting worse with regard to Chinese scholars that fall into these categories stealing or gaining – seizing technology or gaining knowledge that they’re using to sharpen the PLA’s edge? Do you have any specific examples that you can tell us about?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Again, with respect to the numbers, the research that we’ve done indicates it would be a small percentage of the total number of Chinese students in the U.S.A., but we’re unable to say exactly what that number is going to be because we can’t predict how many individuals will actually be applying in any given month. I’ll let colleagues address your other question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. So regarding is this getting worse, well, it’s certainly not getting better. I will point you to – there’s two specific FBI cases regarding U.S.-based scholars that are kind of caught up in this problem that we’re trying to address here, which is preventing stealing of IP and the diversion of sensitive research to military end uses. There is no indication that we have seen that the PRC Government is slowing down their efforts to acquire these technologies across the board. Here we’re focused specifically on research and academia, but the same applies with commercial transactions and regular export controls of goods shipping overseas as well. Over.
MODERATOR: Great. Next, Ed Wong.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I have a quick question. The – I mean, there’s different tiers of schools in the PRC, and various schools have various ties to the PLA. I’m just wondering if you could at some point release a list – you don’t have to do it right now on the call – but release a list of some of the schools to which, like if people have graduated from, they’ll be barred from getting visas. Is that something you can do? And also, there’s other universities like Tsinghua, which is a very well known school but does received some funding, I think, from parts of the military, and so those are less clear-cut. I’m wondering how you plan to address that.
The – another thing is also: Have there been historical precedents for this? Like, for example, in our rivalry with the Soviet Union, did you bar certain classes of students or categories of students from studying certain fields in the U.S. at that time?
And then the third question is why do it against – why, I guess, label a class of students as being off-limits rather than just doing standard counterintelligence on these particular students when they’re here in the U.S.?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. So I can address some of those questions. The – we are not likely to release a list of the universities any time soon because – again, I don’t want to undermine the effort even before it gets off the ground, so to speak. Our approach here is to identify universities that are critical, important to Chinese military-civil fusion purposes. Some – you’re right, some of them are more apparent than others, but we try to do our due diligence to identify which are the ones that fall in that bucket.
I do not know – regarding your question with the USSR, I’ll take that back. I do not know what the history is of that one.
And then regarding the last question about counter-insurgency – or counterintelligence, sorry – we are not – we’re certainly not going to diminish our counterintelligence efforts. This is an effort that we’re going to try to take at the front end to also complement counterintelligence efforts. Over.
MODERATOR: Okay. Last question that we have in our queue for right now is Jessica Donati. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m sorry to repetitive, but it seems like a very simple question that we’re asking in terms of the percentage. You’re saying it’s low. Can you give us a ballpark estimate based on the figure that you already have for Chinese students last year, which presumably was part of your calculation, and give us, say, within the nearest 5 percent how many this would be? Or if you cannot tell us, can you just say that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: We’re not able to narrow it down beyond the term “low” because of the other uncertainties that were mentioned earlier. Over.
MODERATOR: Okay, that looks like it’s our last question. Thank you to our briefers for joining today and for everyone dialing in. Have a great afternoon.