By David Meyer
October 2, 2018

A couple months back, President Donald Trump was reported to have told a group of executives, in the context of a rant about China, that “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.” Now, a new report suggests Trump’s team almost convinced him to stop all Chinese students from studying in the U.S.

According to a Tuesday piece in the Financial Times, Trump’s far-right political advisor, Stephen Miller, earlier this year tried to get the president and other top officials to scrap visas for Chinese nationals who want to study in the U.S. Miller reportedly said the idea would not only combat spying, but would also cause trouble for elite universities where criticism of Trump is rife.

However, Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, apparently countered by pointing out that such a move would harm smaller colleges, and U.S. embassy officials in China noted that spending by Chinese students contributes to the service-sector trade surpluses that most U.S. states are running with China.

The FT reported that, while Trump rebuffed Miller’s entreaties, officials such as White House trade advisor Peter Navarro are still calling for tougher action on Chinese students.

The threat of economic espionage provides one of the key themes of the Trump administration’s anti-China stance. Earlier this year, the State Department cut visa periods from five years to one for Chinese grad students working in sensitive fields, after FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of a “whole of society” spying threat.

While this hostility didn’t go all the way to banning Chinese students from studying in the U.S. altogether, it has been cited as a factor in the reversal of China’s brain drain—though rising pay in Chinese academia is another reason for students in that country to stay at home rather than heading to the U.S.

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