Date: August 1, 2019
By: Emily Feng
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. [FULL STORY]