Nearly 20 American organisations issued a statement on Monday against racial profiling, in response to the US government urging colleges to monitor Chinese students and scholars over fears they may be stealing information for Beijing.Intelligence agencies in the United States, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have in recent months asked some US research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.
A letter urging the government to “tread carefully” has been signed by 19 universities and associations including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), and Scholars at Risk, an international network of academic institutions that supports academic freedom. It was also signed by PEN America, a non-government organisation that promotes free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights.
The organisations acknowledged that “concern with the mounting global reach of Beijing’s tech-enabled authoritarianism is valid”, but they stressed that “calls to monitor individuals solely based on their country of origin violate norms of due process and should raise alarms in a democracy”.
“Efforts by the US to fend off the global arm of autocracy must not mimic the very tactics it professes to reject,” the letter said, referring to Beijing’s extensive use of surveillance on its citizens.
In April, MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston ousted three Chinese-American researchers who were allegedly spying on behalf of the Chinese government.
Other Chinese-American scientists said they had received calls and visits from the FBI, without being accused of any crime.
As Chinese-American researchers have increasingly been put on watch lists or been arrested, fears have mounted that they were being unfairly singled out and were victims of the frictions between Beijing and Washington that have included trade, technology and national security.
Before Monday’s letter, as many as 15 American universities – including Yale, Columbia and Stanford – had issued statements this year in support of scholars and researchers of Chinese ethnicity.
Since last year, FBI officials have visited at least 10 members of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 research universities.
In Monday’s letter, the associations said they advised universities to “zealously safeguard their independence – to maintain their commitment to academic freedom”.
The organisations urged government agencies to use other means – such as disclosure requirements, information sharing and export control enforcement – to protect the US against intellectual property theft and espionage, instead of casting suspicion on potentially hundreds of thousands of students and scholars.
“If there are articulable concerns about specific individuals because of their activities and affiliations, those should be pursued without regard to the individual’s country of origin,” the letter stated.
Without careful handling, this move could “significantly impede the training of new scientists, as well as damage ongoing projects”, it said. “The pursuit of scientific knowledge should be advanced under conditions of intellectual freedom without political or ideological restrictions.”