White House hawks earlier this year encouraged President Donald Trump to stop providing student visas to Chinese nationals, but the proposal was shelved over concerns about its economic and diplomatic impact.
As the administration debated ways to tackle Chinese espionage, Stephen Miller, a White House aide who has been pivotal in developing the administration’s hardline immigration policies, pushed the president and other officials to make it impossible for Chinese citizens to study in the US, according to four people familiar with internal discussions.
The debate about Chinese students intensified after the White House in December released its national security strategy, which said it would “review visa procedures to reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors” and consider restrictions on foreign students in science-related fields.
While the debate was largely focused on spying, Mr Miller argued his plan would also hurt elite universities whose staff and students have been highly critical of Mr Trump, according to the three people with knowledge of the debate.
The issue came to a head in an Oval Office meeting in the spring during which Mr Miller squared off with administration opponents, including Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor who is US ambassador to China.
According to the four people familiar with the discussions, ahead of the Oval Office meeting Mr Branstad argued that Mr Miller’s plan would take a much bigger toll on smaller colleges, including in Iowa, than on wealthy Ivy League universities.
US embassy officials in Beijing also made a broader economic argument that most American states enjoy service-sector trade surpluses with China, in part because of spending by Chinese students.
Mr Branstad succeeded in convincing the president that Mr Miller’s proposal was too draconian, according to one person familiar with the White House showdown. At one point, Mr Trump looked at his ambassador and quipped: “Not everyone can go to Harvard or Princeton, right Terry?”
A spokesperson for Mr Branstad declined to comment.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “The US government had agency, White House principles, and presidential agreement on the final decision. It was supported by relevant stakeholders.”
While Mr Trump opted not to take the more radical approach, some officials, including Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser and a China hawk, continue to push for a harder stance.
One person familiar with the debate said Mr Miller’s opponents were worried the president might return to the issue, particularly as he takes an increasingly tough line on China over everything from trade to cyber security.
“Turning away foreign students would do enormous damage to the US economy,” said Edward Alden, an immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “The US has long attracted the lion’s share of the world’s most talented immigrants because they come here initially to attend the world’s best universities. If we shut off that pipeline, the US will become poorer and weaker.”
China was the biggest source of international students for the US in the 2016-17 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. More than 350,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled at American colleges and universities over that period, compared with 186,000 from India, according to IIE data.
The state department, whose deputy John Sullivan also attended the Oval Office meeting, declined to comment on the debate over Mr Miller’s proposal. A spokesperson said it “uses a variety of tools to enact the president’s 2017 national security strategy”, without providing details about the changes in policy.
While many officials pushed back against Mr Miller, there is broad concern across the US government about the rising espionage threat from China, including from Chinese students and researchers at US universities.
In February, Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, said his agency was increasingly worried about China’s use of “non-traditional” intelligence collectors, including students, professors and scientists.
“It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across . . . every discipline,” Mr Wray told the Senate intelligence committee, adding US academics had a “level of naïveté” about the problem.
Michael Green, a Georgetown University professor who was the top White House Asia adviser in the Bush administration, said that while Chinese espionage was a growing concern, it was important not to overreact.
“There is a problem, but this is a case where you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The overwhelming majority of Chinese students studying in the US become bridges, not threats,” said Prof Green, who agreed with Beijing embassy officials that colleges in states that Mr Trump won in 2016 would suffer the most from an absence of Chinese students, rather than elite universities.
A senior official last week said the US was pushing back because activities by the United Front Work Department— the Chinese Communist party branch that oversees influence operations across the world — that had “reached an unacceptable level”. He said the department was trying to intimidate everyone from China experts at US colleges and think-tanks to some Chinese students in the US.
Another person familiar with internal White House deliberations said John Bolton, the national security adviser, had in recent months urged US intelligence agencies to provide information about Chinese information operations in America, as part of an effort to build a case against Beijing that the administration wants to make publicly.
Mike Pence, the US vice-president, is preparing to give a speech in Washington in which he is expected to outline some of the Chinese activities that the US is pushing back against. Speaking at the UN General Assembly last week, Mr Trump also singled out China and accused it of meddling in the US midterm elections.
Asked about Mr Miller’s proposal, a Chinese official said it was “ridiculous” and would be “very short-sighted”, pointing out that Chinese students had contributed $18bn to local economies in 2017 alone.
“To politicise the normal exchange of students and shut the door for exchanges and co-operation goes against the trend of globalisation,” the official said. “It stands little chance of hurting China without hurting the US.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
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