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China accuses US of 'harassing' Chinese students and trying to turn them into spies

China has accused US authorities of targeting arriving Chinese students "for political purposes" and trying to turn some of them into spies.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at least eight students with valid travel documents were harassed, interrogated and even deported at Dulles International Airport - a hub for direct flights between Beijing and Washington - since the end of November.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Wang said US law enforcement officials also made "unabashed" attempts to induce and sway some of the students among the recent cases. "[That] directly threatens China's national security," he said.

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Wang characterised the US actions as unprincipled and "discriminatory moves" under the guise of law enforcement, with a "strong ideological bias".

He was responding to a question about recent accounts from Chinese nationals about their treatment when trying to enter the US to study.

The questioner alleged that students had been being repeatedly quizzed by US officials about their political backgrounds and research activities, and that some had been told their entry was conditional on providing insider information about the Chinese government.

Wang said the US authorities were "weaponising" academic research, overstretching the concept of national security, persecuting Chinese students, and "poisoning" the atmosphere of bilateral people-to-people exchanges.

The strongly-worded accusation came two days after China lodged a formal complaint against the US for allegedly blocking Chinese students at the border and just months after both countries pledged to encourage educational and other exchanges.

The Chinese embassy in Washington also warned prospective students to "be cautious" about entering the US through Dulles airport, 42km (26 miles) west of the capital's downtown.

Earlier this month, China Science Daily, a newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, published details of a PhD candidate who was deported by officials at Dulles airport upon her return in December to continue her biological sciences studies.

According to the report, the student spent eight hours in an interrogation room, followed by 12 hours in solitary confinement. She was also subjected to a body search.

When the woman returned to China, she learned of 10 other Chinese students who had similar experiences. They were mainly interrogated about undergraduate scholarships, from the China Scholarship Council, and their involvement in confidential research. the newspaper said.

Institutions attended by the students included Yale, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia. Majors included preventive medicine, statistics, material physical chemistry, communication engineering, German and business administration.

In the second half of last year, the Ministry of State Security - Beijing's top anti-espionage agency - alleged that US intelligence recruited several Chinese nationals studying or working as visiting scholars in the US, Japan and Italy.

The ministry said targets were offered gifts and taken on outings - to the Super Bowl, CNN headquarters, the opera, and even strip shows - as inducements to spy against their country for the US.

Both Wang and the embassy accused the US of violating a consensus reached between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden during their November summit in California.

In their first face-to-face encounter in a year, Xi and Biden emphasised the need to restore societal interactions in their bid to stabilise relations from their most confrontational point since ties were established 45 years ago in 1979.

The two leaders agreed to encourage the expansion of educational, student, youth, cultural, sports and business exchanges.

In his press conference on Wednesday, Wang urged the US to "immediately stop using the so-called national security as a pretext to suppress and restrict Chinese students".

"China will take resolute measures to safeguard national security and the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens," he added.

According to data from the Institute of International Education, Chinese students continue to outnumber any other foreign group studying in the US.

In the school year which ended in September 2023, there were 289,526 Chinese students in the US - a slight decrease of 0.2 per cent from the previous year and the lowest since 2013-14, according to the institute's annual study funded by the US government.

Washington's envoy to Beijing Nicolas Burns said last month that the number of American students in China rebounded to 700 last year after falling sharply to a mere 350 in 2022.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2024 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.