WASHINGTON -- Amid heightened concern about Russian election meddling, the FBI on Tuesday warned U.S. universities about Chinese intelligence operatives active on their campuses, adding that many academics display "a level of naivete" about the level of infiltration.
At the same congressional hearing, several senators also voiced concern about China's efforts to obtain U.S. technology through investments and the rise of two of its own giants, Huawei and ZTE, telecom companies with a growing worldwide footprint and close ties to China's ruling Communist Party. Both companies have U.S. operations headquartered in Dallas-Fort Worth.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that China has aggressively placed operatives at universities, "whether its professors, scientists, students," and the bureau must monitor them from its 56 field offices across the nation.
"It's every field office, not just major cities. It's small ones as well," Wray said.
The FBI is also "watching warily" activities at dozens of Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-sponsored academies that are often embedded within universities and public schools to offer U.S. students Mandarin language classes.
Some 350,000 Chinese students are enrolled at U.S. universities, about 35 percent of the more than 1 million foreigners attending university in the country, the Institute of International Education estimates.
The Senate hearing to discuss an annual assessment of worldwide threats focused heavily on Russian hacking and the nuclear threat from North Korea. But several senators pushed the five intelligence agency chiefs and the FBI director testifying at the hearing about China's ambitions.
Wray described China as using a lot of "nontraditional collectors" of intelligence and technology, not only in the business community but also in academia.
"I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they're taking advantage of it," Wray said.
Having potentially unfriendly foreign companies inside the U.S. telecom network, Wray said, "provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information and it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage."
Huawei, founded in 1987 by a former People's Liberation Army officer, has galloped to a global lead in telecommunications, almost absent in the U.S. market but hugely popular in China, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. As recently as January, it was close to bringing its smartphones in the U.S. consumer market but Dallas-based AT&T scuttled the deal at the last minute.