By Sean Bigley
March 19, 2023
Obtaining a security clearance with relatives, financial interests, or other personal connections in China has been a challenging endeavor in recent years under the best of circumstances. As China has moved to supplant the U.S. as the dominant world super-power, the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly bellicose and the Chinese intelligence services increasingly brazen. U.S. government personnel security officials well know this, and they view any clearance-applicant ties with China as a serious risk.
Until the Chinese government broke their commitment to the United Kingdom and effectively invaded Hong Kong, clearance applicant ties there were generally viewed with somewhat lessened skepticism. That distinction has since evaporated, just as we’re now learning it also has for ethnic Uyghurs.
CHINESE OPPRESSION OF ETHNIC UYGHURS
You’ve probably heard by now that the Chinese government has for years been running a system of concentration camps in the East Turkistan region of the country, oppressing a minority group called ethnic Uyghurs that was little-known outside of China until the atrocities – which the U.S. State Department has deemed genocide – first started coming to light.
The restrictions on ethnic Uyghur freedom of movement are apparently so onerous that very few manage to make it out of the country. But those who do escape have often turned to the United States as a beacon of hope, and the result is a very small, but apparently thriving, community of refugees here.
CHINA MAKES SOME CASES A TOUGH SELL
In appreciation for the United States, and as a demonstration of their patriotism, some of those folks have sought cleared employment after obtaining their U.S. citizenship. Unfortunately, they’re learning the same lesson applicants with ties in Hong Kong have recently learned. Being an oppressed minority (or simply an anti-communist) from China doesn’t carry the same mitigating impact on foreign influence concerns as it might with other countries.
In many cases we encounter involving other countries, oppressed minority status helps us demonstrate that the client harbors a resentment of the foreign government that would serve as a counter-weight to any coercive efforts to recruit the individual as a spy, however far-fetched those efforts may be. But the Chinese government is so aggressive and so willing to flout international norms that a lot of the usual assumptions about rational behavior are reassessed. U.S. government security officials seem to assume that Chinese targeting of clearance holders with ties in that country is almost inevitable, and that there is a higher risk of it being effective. Proving those efforts will be rebuffed requires, among other things, demonstrating that the depth and breadth of ties in the United States so far outweighs the ties in China that the individual can be expected to act only in accordance with U.S. interests. Recent immigrants are thus already at an inherent disadvantage.
That’s not to say that an ethnic Uyghur is incapable of obtaining a U.S. government security clearance; it has been done. But it’s a tough sell with any ties remaining in China, and this regrettably adds insult to injury for a group that’s already suffered so much.