A 20-year-old Chinese student, Zhao Qianli, was sentenced to prison recently for taking pictures of a U.S. naval base in Florida. Zhao’s sentencing has raked up the issue of Chinese student espionage yet again.
Arrest and sentencing of Chinese student
As per court documents, Zhao had entered the naval base’s Joint Interagency Task Force South military property on September 26, 2018, without permission. There is a fence line surrounding the property clearly noting that it is a restricted area.
Once inside, Zhao apparently went to an area that contained a large number of satellite dishes and antennas. It was here that Zhao took photographs and videos of the equipment. He was immediately arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. “At that time, Zhao Qianli, who speaks limited broken English, stated he was ‘lost’ and only a ‘dishwasher from New Jersey,’” his arrest affidavit states (FlKeysNews).
He was subsequently arrested by the FBI on November 30. Zhao claimed that he was in the U.S. as a part of a summer exchange program sponsored by the North University of China. The judge sentenced Zhao to one year in prison for photographing national defense installations without permission.
The Florida facility is one of the leading intelligence fusion centers of the world, tracking over 1,000 suspects every day. Intelligence images are turned into VR programs in the facility. The Joint Interagency Task Force is believed to monitor almost 42 million square miles of the planet and is tasked with tracking anti-U.S. threats. The facility also monitors narcotics shipments headed to the country. In addition to U.S. military personnel, representatives from 13 countries work at the Florida facility.
Chinese student espionage
“In a world where technology is available, where we are training their scientists and engineers, and their scientists and engineers were already good on their own, we are just making them able to not have to toil for the same amount of time to get capabilities that will rival or test us,” a senior official in the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement (CNN).
The problem of Chinese student espionage has been a hotly discussed topic in the U.S. intelligence community. Senator Richard M. Burr, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently stated that it was difficult to sort out Chinese students who genuinely wanted to learn and those who were sent here by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to steal American technology.
He predicts the U.S. to sharply reduce the number of visas given to Chinese students soon. In fact, he admitted to having already asked the universities in his state to prepare for a sharp drop in Chinese student enrollment. “I am more concerned with the fictitious effort to be educated in America — work for 10 years — with the full intent to bring back to China everything you can learn, store, or steal,” he said to The New York Times.
Last year, the U.S. State Department had reduced the visa term length for Chinese students who were studying in some select fields like robotics, aviation, advanced manufacturing, and so on. While earlier, the visa was valid for five years, the term length was reduced to just one year under the new rules. U.S. intelligence agencies will be closely watching suspect Chinese students as a part of their broader plan to block Beijing from stealing the intellectual properties and trade secrets of American companies.