How US visas can help China's intel agencies to spy on us

How US visas can help China's intel agencies to spy on us

Have you heard about Weiyun “Kelly” Huang? She came to the United States from China on a student visa in 2009 and was accused of enabling a spy. The U.S. government approves thousands of such visas each year, allowing foreign nationals to come to the United States to fill certain high-tech jobs. India and China have accounted for the majority of these visas. Major tech corporations typically employ these foreign nationals, claiming they cannot fill some jobs with Americans. Critics allege that the tech giants use the visas to bring in workers who will work for less money than their American counterparts. 

The companies gain skilled workers and, according to their critics, a reduced wage bill. The visa workers get three to six years’ experience working for the world’s most technically advanced companies. The American consumer presumably gets lower prices. But has anyone thought about why China allows thousands of its workers to come to America to work every year? 

Huang came to the United States as a student and stayed, according to her indictment. She pleaded guilty in December to setting up two fake companies, Findream and Sinocontech, that allowed Chinese H1B visa seekers to claim employment. Those visa seekers paid her to verify their employment, and her verification allowed her countrymen to either come to America or to stay here, the indictment says. 

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One of those countrymen, graduate student Ji Chaoqun, is accused of staying in the United States to spy and paying Huang $900 in 2013 to verify a fake job. According to his 2018 indictment, he was “secretly providing information about American defense contractor employees to a Chinese intelligence officer. … The Chinese government was trying to recruit them as informants,” the New York Times reported. After obtaining his electrical engineering master’s degree, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve, which led to his apprehension. 

Seems like a big deal, right? It is — and the even bigger question is, how many more such deceptions are out there?  

China has done an amazing job of using two key U.S. visa processes. China runs second to India in the technical H1B visas, at about 22,000 new ones per year, and many times that number are renewed. Chinese citizens account for about half of the EB5 visas, which allow foreign nationals to come to the United States and invest in businesses. All that’s fine if the country of origin is free and doesn’t tell its people we’re the enemy. Neither is the case with China. 

The fact that China is communist is central to this discussion. China’s people aren’t the problem; its despotic government is. India and China account for 82 percent of all H1B visas. India, the world’s largest republic, over the past few decades gradually has become a more free and open society, and recently, U.S.-India relations have warmed. China has gone the opposite way. As it has become more prosperous, as the world’s manufacturing hub and supply line, its people have become less free, living under a “social credit” system that is powered by social media. 

How does a person in such circumstances obtain permission to leave and live among the enemy? 

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In Ji Chaoqun’s case, China allegedly gained a spy. The Chinese Communist Party wanted him to obtain information on ethnic Chinese who were naturalized American citizens working on military-related aerospace projects. Some of them were from the Chinese homeland, and some were from Taiwan. None was beyond Beijing’s glare. In “Kelly” Huang’s case, China gained a conduit through which other state-approved Chinese nationals could make their way to the United States. 

We have a hard time imagining what life is like under communism. We’re bristling at social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic, but the federal government won’t make you ritually denounce yourself if they catch you going out during quarantine. Yet in China, when Dr. Li Wenliang sounded the alarm in December that the coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan, he was forced to write a letter denouncing himself for undermining party rule. The world lost three critical weeks of responding to the outbreak because of the Chinese  government’s actions. Li died of the virus in February.

Looking at all this against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing becomes clear: We must move to a more distributed model of doing business and allowing foreign nationals into the U.S. Why should an openly hostile country such as China account for so many key visas? Surely others, from free countries, could do the jobs that account for these visas?

Let’s look to the technical world for an answer. We can take a cue from distributed computing. In distributed computing, software and processes are distributed between multiple machines to make the processes more efficient and build in redundancy. If one machine or node fails, the rest of the nodes in the system just pick up a bit more of the workload. 

Our system is offline because one critical node — China — failed. The opaque, hostile nature of China’s government, and the dictatorship’s relationship to its citizens, are the problem. The world can remain networked, but we must be smarter about it. We need to rethink and re-engineer it. There are plenty of other nodes out there, and a skilled citizenry here, who can handle the workload. 

Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, focusing on U.S.-China relations, economic and national security, and the Asia-Pacific military balance. He was senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, and has served in senior positions at the Defense and State departments. He is the author of “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America's Elite Slept.”

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