ICYMI: Barrasso Op-Ed: It’s Bigger than a Balloon: Chinese Spying in US Includes Research Labs & Universities

February 15, 2023

By: U.S. Senator John Barrasso

Feb. 15, 2023

USA Today 

Like many Americans, residents of my home state of Wyoming could not understand how a Chinese spy balloon could lazily and brazenly pass over their heads. They are rightfully angry that an adversary’s spying platform was able to violate and then linger over U.S. airspace for an entire week. They are angry our commander-in-chief did nothing to stop it until it reached the Atlantic Ocean. 

Senior government officials in the People's Republic of China claimed their balloon was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.” This isn’t the first time Beijing has offered this lame excuse. They tried the same line after Chinese military balloons were caught flying over Taiwan a year ago.

In recent days, the U.S. military has shot down three other unidentified objects flying over the United States and Canada. 

The Chinese really don’t care what others may think or say. It doesn’t matter as long as they keep getting away with it. 

There is a reason China repeatedly uses “science” as cover for its spying. It adds a superficial layer of legitimacy that is often accepted and perpetuated by America’s leaders and decision-makers. It helps China steal $600 billion per year of America's intellectual property. 

It isn’t just our airspace China is penetrating. American academic and scientific institutions are routinely weaponized by the PRC for its own military and economic benefit. 

U.S. national labs develop state-of-the-art technology and conduct pioneering research funded by American taxpayers. Many of these scientific breakthroughs have military applications. Too often, China has a front-row seat to their creation. 

A 2022 report by Strider Technologies revealed that from 1987 to 2021, the Chinese government successfully targeted at least 160 Chinese researchers working at Los Alamos, our top nuclear weapons lab. These scientists later returned to China to “advance key military and dual-use technologies in areas such as hypersonics, deep-earth penetrating warheads, unmanned aerial vehicles, jet engines, and submarine noise reduction.” 

Every piece of this sensitive knowledge now in the hands of China was developed and paid for by Americans. 

The Congressional Research Service, using data supplied by the Department of Energy, found that, as of 2021, more than 4,000 non-resident Chinese foreign nationals work within America’s national laboratory system. Most foreign nationals are incredibly gifted and work hard to benefit America's scientific enterprise. The Chinese government is tenacious in its efforts to threaten and blackmail these individuals. Weak Department of Energy security protocols have become a chronic issue. 

It’s clear the Chinese government is intent on capturing as much U.S. research and development as possible. In their book, "China’s Quest for Foreign Technology: Beyond Espionage," Georgetown University's William C. Hannas and former New York Times reporter Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote that common slogans used by the PRC to lure Chinese nationals into intellectual thievery at American institutions include, “Loyal overseas Chinese repay the country with intellect” and “Pick flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China.”  Chinese President Xi Jinping has said he wants Chinese scholars embedded overseas to “have a gateway to serve their country.” 

There are not adequate safeguards in our national labs to overcome the obvious risks to our national security. This is also the case with researchers from other hostile nations, such as Russia and Belarus. 

American research institutions have been blind to this threat for far too long. China treats science as a means to an end. It’s seen as a cog in the wheel to hasten China’s rise to global domination. 

Congress must take action to confront this issue. I’ve introduced legislation to mandate greater safeguards to prevent foreign nationals from adversarial nations from gaining access to our nation’s groundbreaking research. 

It’s not the incursion of great white balloons we should be most worried about. It’s the permitted incursion of the PRC under the guise of “scientific collaboration” that does us much more harm. It is imperative that our top research institutions and national labs employ rigorous safeguards when engaging in “scientific exchange” with rival nations. 

Americans cannot allow our scientific breakthroughs or discoveries to be stolen by our enemies. 

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.