Congressional Report Raises Concerns: Could Chinese Students and Scholars Association Members Be Denied Green Cards?

A new Congressional report asserts that Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) at U.S. colleges appear to be directly subordinate to and receive political direction from the Chinese Embassy and consulates. This report raises concerns: could the U.S. government deny green cards to CSSA members?

The report, entitled China’s Overseas United Front Work: Background and Implications for the United States (Aug. 24, 2018), was prepared by staff of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan commission made up of 12 congressional members. CSSAs (中国学生学者联谊会 ) are student groups established at many universities worldwide to provide social and cultural activities for students and scholars from China. CSSAs help their members with issues related to studying and living abroad. CSSAs also serve as a bridge between the Chinese and other communities and promote Chinese culture. Some CSSAs describe themselves as “supported by” “recognized by,” or “closely connected with” the Chinese government. Others describe themselves as “independent.”

Yet under immigration laws, a person may be ineligible for a green card due to current or former membership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as I’ve written about here. That extends to membership in organizations “affiliate[d]” with the Party.[1]

So the question is whether CSSAs are “affiliated” with the Party.[2] Regulations define “affiliate” to mean an organization that has a “working alliance” with the Party meant to accomplish the Party’s goals.[3] “Ad hoc cooperation” isn’t enough to constitute affiliation. The cooperation must be on a “fairly permanent basis.”[4]

The new congressional report states that:

Despite the useful social services CSSAs provide for their members, they [CSSAs] receive guidance from the CCP through Chinese embassies and consulates—governmental ties CSSAs frequently attempt to conceal—and are active in carrying out overseas Chinese work consistent with Beijing’s United Front strategy. Journalists and activists have also shown CSSAs to routinely coordinate with the Chinese government and to have been involved in the suppression of free speech and the harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of Chinese student activists…. In addition to funding, ties indicating supervision of CSSAs by the Chinese Embassy or consulates have also been documented, raising serious concerns about the organizations’ operational independence. The nature of the ties appears to involve direct subordination and political direction rather than mere affiliation or cooperation.

The FBI[5] has previously reported that that

Foreign students can easily become coerced by their governments to engage in behavior, on behalf of their home country, while in the United States. Chinese diplomatic establishments allegedly subsidize groups such as the Chinese Student and Scholars Association and provide these organizations with direction. Thus, seemingly innocuous organizations can be co-opted into foreign government appendages. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked by Senator Marco Rubio to comment on “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics,” Wray responded, “I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.”

Vice President Mike Pence has echoed that CSSAs “alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.”

Similarly, the New York Times cites Jeffrey Henderson, a professor at the University of Bristol in England as saying that the CSSA is “clearly … controlled by” the Chinese government. The story cites these examples of cooperation with the government:

The groups have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on Western campuses. At Columbia a decade ago, the club mobilized students to protest a presentation about human rights violations in China, urging them to “resolutely defend the honor and dignity of the Motherland.” At Duke, the group was accused of inciting a harassment campaign in 2008 against a Chinese student who tried to mediate between sides in a Tibet protest. More recently in Durham, England, the group acted at the behest of the Chinese government to censor comments at a forum on China-Hong Kong relations.

This year, the University of California at San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to deliver its commencement address. The school’s CSSA threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.” The Chinese government accuses the Dalai Lama of promoting Tibetan independence from China, and the CSSA said it had consulted with the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles on how to oppose the speaking invitation.

Part of the CCP’s outreach to Chinese students abroad is through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the wake of the 1989 student protests, the Ministry emphasized that diplomats should not merely engage in “routine management of student affairs” but must engage in ideological “struggle.” “Party organization in the United States” was to be done “underground.” “Control” of the CSSA was “given priority.”[6] Although students initially formed their own organizations, after 1989 branches of CSSA were established on various campuses around the world with the Ministry’s support. Chinese embassies and consulates also frequently finance CSSAs, including through dinners, parties, and travel, according to Forbes and Foreign Policy. Individual students were to be categorized dependent on their loyalty to Beijing. Pro-CCP students would be maintained and strengthened. For the less patriotic, propaganda methods would be used to win them over. Those students deemed dangerous to PRC national interests would be exposed and attacked.[7]

Another aspect of the CCP’s outreach to Chinese students abroad is through the Party’s United Front Work Department. At a 2015 United Front meeting, President Xi Jinping stressed that Chinese students studying abroad are a focal point for the United Front’s work. The overall mission of the United Front is to unite non-CCP groups such as students, intellectuals, and overseas Chinese in support of the CCP’s political goals. According to Prof. Gerry Groot of the University of Adelaide:

The UFWD attempts to harness them to the aims of the Party and prevent them from becoming a problem in the first place. The Department’s work abroad extends beyond reaching out to foreign citizens of Chinese ethnic origin and recent emigrants, to trying to influence foreign nationals to accept the Communist Party’s point of view on a plethora of topics.

The Ministry of Education also seeks to encourage those studying abroad to follow the Party line. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a directive handed down in 2017 by the Ministry of Education emphasizes the importance of “patriotic education” in ensuring all university students – even those studying overseas – “always follow the Party”:

Assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy…. Build a multidimensional contact network linking home and abroad — the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad — so that they fully feel that the motherland cares.

Some of the Party’s work among Chinese students at foreign universities is offense: reminding them of the Mainland’s economic boom and its rising global status, appealing to their “Chineseness” and bonds to their “motherland.” The goal, according to Congressional testimony of Professor Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, is to “turn them into propaganda bases for China.”

Some of the Party’s work is defense: preventing students from becoming conduits of what it considers  “polluting:” Western political ideals  such as include “universal values,” electoral democracy, and academic freedom (including the right to critique the Party’s historical mistakes).

In sum, there seems to be strong evidence that the Party–through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Front, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of State Security–seeks to have a working alliance with CSSAs, and there is some evidence of some CSSAs’ willingness to cooperate. But the extent of that cooperation may well vary from campus to campus, as each CSSA is a campus organization with a degree of autonomy.

Most importantly, to my knowledge, there has been no denial by the U.S. State Department of an immigrant visa application or by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) of a Form I-485, Application to Adjust Status, solely on the basis that membership in the CSSA constitutes membership in an organization “affiliated” with the Party.

Still, the Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa Application, used by the State Department and the Form I-485, Application to Adjust Status, both ask about membership in the Communist Party or affiliated organizations. The Form I-485 also asks for an applicant’s history of participation in any organizations, so membership in the CSSA may need to be disclosed.

And in light of the new congressional report, U.S. immigration authorities’ views about the CSSA could change. In the United States, President Trump has called for stricter ideological litmus tests for immigration. And in China, President Xi has called for tighter ideological control over universities. That could mean that the Party may want tighter control over CSSAs at the same time that U.S. immigration authorities may want to more closely scrutinize CSSA membership.

Even if immigration authorities were to determine that CSSAs are affiliated with the CCP, that does not mean all members and former members will be denied green cards. Many or most will fall within the exceptions to ineligibility. For more about these exceptions, see Communist Party Membership Makes Some Ineligible for U.S. Green Card and Citizenship.

  1. INA § 212(a)(3)(D)(i).
  2. Organizations affiliated with the CCP include, for example, mass organizations like the Communist Youth League, All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, All-China Federation of Trade Unions, All-China Women’s Federation). Such organizations are led by the Party, which uses them to reach society at large and encourage popular support for Party policies. Robert L. Worden, et al, China: A Country Study (GPO 1987),
  3. 22 C.F.R. § 40.34(a).
  4. Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135, 142 (1945).
  5. See FBI, National Security Concerns for Study Abroad Students (Feb. 26, 2016), citing “Neutralizing China’s Student Spy Network,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 25, no. 2.
  6. See Nicholas Efitimiades, Chinese Intelligence Operations (1994).
  7. See James To, Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese (2014).

One response to “Congressional Report Raises Concerns: Could Chinese Students and Scholars Association Members Be Denied Green Cards?”

  1. […] activity that doesn’t conform with the CCP’s conception of truth, both well documented occurrences. As my own experience establishing a business in Beijing with a former local official attested, the […]

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