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Chinese students in U.S. wary of going home under new spy law

Overseas youths face new risks, from smartphone content to surveillance by peers

MASAHIRO OKOSHI, Nikkei Washington bureau chief

May 7, 2023

Surveillance has become more of a concern for Chinese students in the U.S. visiting home for the summer. © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- With the school year winding down across the U.S., Chinese students attending universities here are taking increased precautions to avoid getting into trouble -- or possibly even detained -- after returning home for summer break.

Li (not his real name), who studies international affairs, said he will clear any content that could potentially raise red flags from his smartphone before returning to China. "I will just delete some of the specific information, like the photos, videos" and group chats, he said.

"Our consensus is ... don't go on the record," Li said.

He had not been so thorough when last visiting his hometown in mainland China three years ago. But Li, like many others from China, increasingly worries that his words and actions in the U.S. could carry negative consequences back home.

Li acknowledged that the Chinese authorities likely lack the resources to screen everyone studying abroad. But "right now it's kind of a sensitive time," he said.

China greatly expands the scope of what it considers spying under an updated counterespionage law that takes effect in July. The U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, has voiced concern that mundane business activities, such as conducting due diligence before an investment, could run afoul of the new law. Burns also warned that researchers and journalists could be affected.

A Hong Kong student studying at a Japanese university was recently reported have been detained while in the city, allegedly over her social media posts.

"For me personally, I just want to play it safe," Li said.

"We should always consider the possibility that they may look up your phones when you go through the border control," he said.

Chen (not her real name), Li's classmate from Hong Kong, also has concerns about returning home for the summer.

Large-scale demonstrations broke out there in 2019 in response to the Chinese Communist Party's tightening grip, including the introduction of a bill to allow extraditions to the mainland. China has since imposed a sweeping national security law in the city, and many students involved in the protests have been detained.

"Since 2019 I've deleted everything," Chen said.

Of particular concern for Chen and Li is the Telegram messaging app. Originally developed by Russian engineers to bypass censorship, it is now a favorite platform of dissidents and anti-establishment media in China and Russia. In China, it is impossible to use Telegram over the internet without a virtual private network.

This is not to say that the two students have anti-establishment leanings themselves. For people who grew up in China, using different apps or devices in different contexts is an ingrained habit -- WeChat for communicating with parents, and Telegram to privately criticize the government's zero-COVID policy to friends, for example.

"Telegram has been classified, categorized, by Beijing as a very high-danger application," Li said.

Even while studying in the U.S., where freedom of speech is a constitutionally guaranteed right, the students feel that they need to watch out for surveillance -- not least from their compatriots.

At many American universities, "there is an 'association' of Chinese students," Li said. "And the rumor goes that they will send at least a name list to the embassy" when suspicions arise.

"At least in our school, there is no ... iron-hard fact that they do this, but we're all believing that," Li said.

Chen is similarly wary.

"When we go to, like, some political gathering in D.C., we still wear a mask or something, because we see someone using a camera taking pictures," she said.

Both students have the sense that members of the associations are in the minority among Chinese exchange students but that those who are involved in them have close ties to the Chinese Embassy.

As for where the authorities draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable, Li argues that "their technique is precisely they don't have a red line."

"They just pick up people randomly to threaten us," Chen said.

The result, according to both, is that students censor themselves, enabling the authorities to keep a tight rein with less resources.

For the foreseeable future, Chen has no intention of going back to live in Hong Kong. She said that, according to a friend studying at a university in Hong Kong, "19 among 20 students in her class choose to go out."

Li had wanted to become a diplomat or enter public service at a young age but said his values shifted after studying in the U.S.

"I did have an illusion that you can go into their institution and change from inside, you know, of an incremental reform approach," Li said. "But gradually I found that this is just an illusion." As a result, many people end up self-censoring, they both said.

Li's and Chen's generation, those born in the late 1990s, spent their teenage years amid the government under Chinese President Xi Jinping tightening its grip on power. Their status as digital natives makes it that much harder for them to hold out hope for the future of a home country that has become a leader in surveillance technology.


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