The Trump administration may expel thousands of Chinese graduate students enrolled at US universities in the latest sign of tensions between Washington and Beijing that are raging over trade, the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and the status of Hong Kong.
Four administration officials say President Donald Trump is currently considering a months-old proposal to revoke the visas of Chinese students affiliated with educational institutions in China that are linked to the People's Liberation Army or Chinese intelligence services.
The officials said Trump has not yet signed off on what would be a presidential proclamation to implement the rule, but he could do so as early as this week, as the most recent tensions flare over China's move to assert full control over Hong Kong.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Serious consideration of the proposal, first reported by The New York Times, has faced opposition from US universities and scientific organizations who depend on tuition fees paid by Chinese students to offset other costs.
In addition, those institutions fear possible reciprocal action from Beijing that could limit their students' and educators' access to China.
In a nod to those concerns, the officials said any restrictions would be narrowly tailored to affect only students who present a significant risk of engaging in espionage or intellectual property theft.
The officials could not say how many people could ultimately be expelled, although they said it would be only a fraction of the Chinese students in the country.
Still, the possibility that the proposal may be implemented has drawn concerns from educators.
“We're very worried about how broadly this will be applied, and we're concerned it could send a message that we no longer welcome talented students and scholars from around the globe," said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.
“We don't have a lot of details about how they are going to define ties to Chinese universities, what type of universities are they going to target, what would constitute a university having ties to the Chinese military," she said.
If the situation were reversed and another nation imposed limits on students from U.S. universities that receive Defense Department funding, she noted it would affect a wide range of schools.
The US hosted 133,396 graduate students from China in the 2018-19 academic year, and they made up 36.1% of all international graduate students, according to the Institute of International Education.
Overall, there were 369,548 students from China, accounting for 33.7% of international students who contributed nearly $15 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.
The proposal to revoke the visas is not directly related to the dispute over Hong Kong, nor is it tied to U.S. criticism of China for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rather, it is connected to various elements of trade and human rights issues that have seen U.S. officials complain about Chinese industrial espionage and spying and harassment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.
But the timing of a potential announcement could come at a time of increasingly heated rhetoric about the imposition of national security laws on the former British territory, which was supposed to have enjoyed 50 years of special status after it reverted to Chinese control in 1997.
The proposal first began to be discussed last year when the administration moved to require Chinese diplomats based in the United States to report their domestic U.S. travel and meetings with American scientists and academics.
At the time, U.S. officials said it was a reciprocal measure to match restrictions that American diplomats face in China.
Those limits were followed by a requirement that Chinese state-run media in the U.S. register as “foreign diplomatic missions” and report their property holdings and employee rosters to the government.
That was, in turn, followed by the limiting of the number of visas for Chinese journalists allowed to work in the United States.
China retaliated for the visa limitations by expelling several reporters from U.S. media outlets, including The Washington Post and New York Times.