New York, July 1, 2019 – Reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is reaching out to U.S. universities to urge monitoring of Chinese students and scholars raises serious concerns about privacy rights, racial profiling, and academic freedoms, PEN America said.

Public reporting has revealed that FBI and other government officials have been advising American universities to develop protocols for monitoring Chinese students, researchers, and scholars. More than 340,000 Chinese students are reportedly studying in the U.S. as of last year.

“While the mounting global reach of Beijing’s tech-enabled authoritarianism is valid cause for concern, calls to monitor individuals solely based on their country of origin should raise alarms in a democracy,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “This is an area where the government should tread carefully, and where universities should zealously safeguard their independence, commitment to academic freedom and respect for the privacy rights of their students and faculty.  China’s government is notorious for its aggressive surveillance of minority populations it views as potentially disloyal. If the United States goes down a similar path, our efforts to fend off the global arm of autocracy may wind up simply mimicking the very tactics we profess to reject.”

Summer said: “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. Disclosure requirements, information sharing and export control enforcement all offer powerful means to protect against intellectual property theft and espionage without resorting to tactics that cast suspicion on potentially hundreds of thousands of students and scholars.  Federal agencies need to clarify and specify their concerns, and ensure that their efforts do not trample on individual rights nor on the principle of free and open academic inquiry and exchange.”

PEN America recently signed a joint letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concerns about reports that the State Department was considering stronger vetting procedures for Chinese students planning to study in the U.S. PEN America has consistently voiced its concern over the state of freedom of expression, press freedoms, and related rights in the People’s Republic of China. PEN America’s work in this area includes its multiple research reports on China, as well as several high-profile advocacy campaigns calling for the freedom of imprisoned Chinese writers.

PEN America’s work also includes its Campus Free Speech Project, which it initiated in 2016 with the goal of informing the national conversation around free speech and inclusion on American colleges and universities. PEN America has released two major research reports on the issue of free speech and related issues on college campuses,as well as leading multiple convenings on the issue at universities around the country.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.