Feds Investigating Chinese Spies' Return to US Ahead of COVID Travel Ban

Chinese nationals' travel changes prompt espionage and pandemic concerns for national security agencies

Travelers at an Air China desk in Feb. 2020 / Getty Images
June 15, 2021

Intelligence officials are investigating why suspected Chinese spies returned to the United States on student and work visas at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to internal government documents reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.

Hundreds of Chinese nationals are the subject of a federal probe after law enforcement officials flagged their travel at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese nationals returned to the United States earlier than expected in January 2020, often having modified their travel plans. Then-president Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting entry from non-citizens and residents from China on Jan. 31, 2020.

The episode is recounted in an internal report that circulated among various national security and law enforcement agencies on June 3. That report surmises that the Chinese students returned to the United States earlier than expected in order to avoid future travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States recorded its first COVID-19 case on January 21, the same day a Chinese scientist said the virus could spread person to person.

"The team examined 58,000 inbound Chinese F/J visa holders in the [Passenger Name Record] database and identified 396 individuals whose return travel was [scheduled] after January 2020 but had returned in January 2020," the report reads.

Although intelligence officials have not concluded whether the hundreds of monitored students were confirmed spies, the students' modified travel suggests that many Chinese nationals were aware of the severity of COVID-19, in spite of assurances to the contrary from their government and U.S. health officials. The World Health Organization did not declare a global health emergency until Jan. 31, 2020, even though China ordered a quarantine for the entire city of Wuhan eight days before.

Education watchdogs say the memo highlights the risk to national security posed by America's lax student visa system.

"The Chinese government relies on nontraditional collectors of information as an important piece of its espionage efforts. Academia is not immune," said Rachelle Peterson, a senior research fellow at the National Institution of Scholars. "Cutting-edge research, technological inventions, and other forms of intellectual property are key targets for the Chinese government, which has sought to create in its foreign-based citizens a sense of obligation to bring back something of use for the Chinese Communist Party."

U.S. intelligence agencies have long warned universities and research facilities about the threat of Chinese espionage. Roughly 30 percent of all foreign students in the country come from China—totaling about 340,000 people. In September 2020, the United States canceled more than 1,000 student and research visas for Chinese students, claiming the recipients had ties to the Chinese military.

The Trump administration made confronting China's military and espionage practices a cornerstone of its agenda, with Trump spy chief John Ratcliffe calling China "the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II." Trump signed an executive order in May 2020 barring "certain graduate-level and above Chinese nationals associated with entities in China" from entering the country.

The National Institutes of Health opened an ongoing investigation into recipients of its research grants in 2019. The Free Beacon reported on June 14, 2020, that at least 54 scientists who received National Institutes of Health grants were fired for failure to disclose their ties to foreign governments, particularly China.

The investigation into the movements and purpose of the Chinese nationals remains ongoing, but the report serves as another indication that Chinese Communist Party officials deliberately obscured the origins and severity of COVID-19 while secretly taking precautions for themselves.

On May 26, Rep. Diana Degette (D., Colo.), the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, endorsed a GOP-led call for an investigation into whether COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese research lab. Other Democrats, as well as members of the media, have called for greater scrutiny into the virus's origins after having dismissed questions as part of a right-wing conspiracy theory.