A sudden knock at one's door. An unexpected call to meet off campus. Surreptitious visits to family members.
American graduates of the prestigious Yenching Academy, a one- to two-year master's degree program housed at Beijing's elite Peking University, are being approached and questioned by the FBI about the time they spent in China. In the last two years, at least five Yenching graduates have been approached by agents to gather intelligence on the program and to ascertain whether they have been co-opted by Chinese espionage efforts.
Brian Kim is one of them. Five months ago, Kim received a call from an unfamiliar number. "It was a person who claimed to be an FBI agent, and I immediately thought it was a scam call," Kim recalls.
Now beginning his second year at Yale Law School, Kim was able to verify the agent's identity with the local FBI office in New Haven, Conn., the next day. He arranged for two FBI agents to meet him at a coffee shop near Yale's campus, where, over the next hour, they grilled him on his personal and academic history.
"It became clear to me, maybe three-quarters of the way through, that they were actually most interested in China," Kim says.
One of the agents asked if anyone in China had tried to recruit Kim for espionage efforts. Who had encouraged Kim to apply for the Yenching program in the first place?
"I literally told them the Princeton fellowship office" had recommended he apply, says Kim, who has a bachelor's degree from Princeton University. "There was a moment of levity where we're just both treating this experience like, are we doing this right now?"
Fears of Chinese espionage
The mistrust of Yenching Academy, dubbed the "Rhodes Scholarship of China," illustrates just how far fears of Chinese espionage have permeated among the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment.
Once cast as a way for America's best and brightest to build relationships with and improve understanding of China, academic programs and collaborations are now falling under scrutiny. FBI agents have been lobbying U.S. university administrators to monitor Chinese researchers and students working in certain science and technology fields. Federal funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health are also investigating academics for not properly disclosing Chinese funding or research done with Chinese institutions.
Suspicion of Yenching Academy may stem in part from its funding — it is partially supported by China's education ministry. But Yenching administrators tell NPR they have never been contacted by the FBI or other intelligence agencies over national security concerns and were not aware of their graduates being questioned upon return to the U.S.
"They don't have time to have made extensive contacts in the area that would be sensitive," David Moser, Yenching's associate dean since 2017, told NPR by phone. "I have not seen anything that would indicate problems. But of course, it's only recently that U.S.-China relations [have] gotten so fraught and with tension. So who knows?"
In an emailed statement, Yenching Academy said the FBI scrutiny had not disrupted normal operations, but "we are deeply concerned about the possible effects of unwarranted official scrutiny on the morale and career development of our alumni, and we strongly request that the U.S. government cease any intrusive or unjustified investigations of our Yenching scholars."
The FBI said in a statement emailed to NPR: "In an attempt to fulfill our national security mission, and in the hopes of better protecting U.S. citizens, the FBI will sometimes conduct voluntary interviews with individuals who have studied or conducted research abroad, often at their request. The goal of these interviews is to identify potential security risks and to protect U.S. citizens from illegally — and perhaps unwittingly — supporting foreign government interests."
When reached for comment, the FBI also highlighted the case of Glenn Duffie Shriver, who was convicted in 2011 of spying for the Chinese government. According to the Department of Justice, Shriver, who had studied abroad in China as an undergraduate, was recruited by three Chinese intelligence officers while living in Shanghai after graduation and encouraged to apply for U.S. intelligence positions.
"Foreign intelligence services have increasingly chosen to target and recruit academics, researchers, and others to conduct activities on behalf of foreign governments. Past investigations have identified Chinese universities as locations where such targeting sometimes occurs," according to the FBI statement. "These investigations have shown that foreign governments and intelligence services often seek to identify and develop relationships with U.S. students, scholars, and researchers who can help them gain access to information and persons that fulfill the foreign government's international intelligence agenda."
"There is a file on me"
Yenching is no stranger to controversy. Ironically, when the program was launched in 2015, it was criticized in Chinese academic circles for being a vehicle of American soft power and influence.
"'English Chinese Studies' is simply a large-scale transplant of Western Chinese studies and Sinology to Peking University," two Chinese professors wrote in a widely circulated editorial for the news website Guancha in 2014.
In the U.S., Yenching was welcomed by China watchers and policymakers alongside the Schwarzman Scholars program — a rival, 3-year-old master's program funded by billionaire financier and Trump confidant Stephen Schwarzman — as an important component of people-to-people diplomacy with China. There are no known instances of Schwarzman students reporting scrutiny from U.S. authorities.
About 30% of Yenching's approximately 125 students each year are American or Canadian and a fifth come from mainland China.
"We know that bonds built between students of our two countries will last a lifetime," Michelle Obama said in a handwritten note, after visiting the Yenching campus in 2014.
But the bonds appear to have led to suspicion. Over the last year, local FBI agents have approached Yale several times, asking university officials to disclose the identities of Chinese and Chinese-American researchers and students working in certain laboratories, according to a Yale employee who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Yale administrators refused. The experience in part prompted Yale President Peter Salovey to publish an open letter on the university website in May "to affirm Yale's steadfast commitment to our international students and scholars."
Yale Law School declined to comment but the school's Dean Heather Gerken told NPR by email that "we are extremely protective of our students and care very much about this issue." When asked to comment, the university referred NPR to Salovey's letter.
When approached by the FBI, says Kim, "The instinct isn't to say, 'No, come back with a warrant.' The instinct is to say yes."
Other students accepted to Yenching Academy never made it to Beijing. When two West Point graduates were admitted to the fourth incoming Yenching class last year, the Department of Defense intervened and banned them from attending, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.
Kim hopes to serve in the public sector on Korean Peninsula issues, given his Korean language abilities and background in policy. But, he says, "Just the idea that somewhere in D.C., there is a file on me and that somebody thought I was a threat to the national security system is a very disturbing thought."
Amy Cheng contributed reporting from Beijing.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.