Japanese Version of China Initiative Raises Questions for Universities

Earlier last month, Japan’s parliament passed an economic security bill to increase government oversight of science and technologies. Of the four broad areas the law is set to cover, securing and protecting research data and patents on advanced technologies is one of them. The Japanese government primarily introduced the law following its closest ally — the United States — to decouple technologically with China for security purposes. With the physical realization of Russia’s increasing aggression on the world stage through its invasion of Ukraine, the parliament had another great cause to pass the law.

Now, Japanese universities are complying with the new law putting greater scrutiny on foreign students and faculties, often those of Chinese or Russian origin, to prevent technology leaks. They are being asked to keep track of people of interest and to perform background checks, especially for those with previous or ongoing connections to a foreign government or defense-related institutions. The screening can now act as an extra procedure in the visa application process, while its usage was limited to only those attempting to send security-sensitive information or data out of the country.

By following the law, the universities also hope to strengthen global academia’s trust in their reliability and security. An official at the Japanese trade ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “We want Japanese universities to be trusted for their security and trade controls so that joint research with the United States or Europe can continue.”

The Japanese government’s measure looks somewhat similar to the China Initiative, an espionage-detection program the U.S. implemented during the Trump administration in 2018. Among other embarrassing and devastating — for the accused — attempts by the government agencies to counter Chinese espionage, the arrest of Gang Chen, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, in early 2021 may be the most well-known case.

Jeff Sessions — then-attorney general under the Trump administration — announced China Initiative in 2018. Less than four years later, the program was ended as a result of its de facto racial profiling with numerous unfounded accusations of Asians and Asian Americans for taking part in Chinese espionage. Photo: Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Marshals Service / Licensed under CC BY 2.0

About a year after the arrest, federal prosecutors dropped charges on the professor. A month after that, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an end to the controversial program, leaving the question of reparations for victims of racial profiling and wrongful accusation unanswered. Although the Japanese guidelines to counter Chinese espionage infiltrating its academic institutions do not yet seem as severe as that of the U.S., penalties against violating companies do seem quite grievous. The new law states that the offenders can be sentenced to two years in prison or one million yen (approximately $7400) at maximum.

The Japanese government did not point to any specific security breach that had led to the introduction of the new law. The officials only briefly mentioned that the country needed to implement more stringent guidelines to protect its national interest, including maintaining close ties with the U.S. and other Western allies.

With its continuing tension with China, the U.S. welcomed its strongest Asian partner’s step against China. The U.S. embassy in Japan said in its communication with Reuters that both countries and their academia are facing “real and serious” security challenges. It also noted that the U.S. will continue supporting Japan, adjusting accordingly to the ally’s new course of action. During his first visit to Asia as a head of the state, President Joe Biden met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last month to further emphasize the two nation’s cooperation on technology and supply chains.

However, the new measure by Japan may create another problem for its universities. Japan is known for its “super-aged” society with 28.7 percent of the population being 65 years old or more. As the number of elderly people is growing for the 17 consecutive years setting a record high of 36.4 million last year, the government’s efforts to raise the fertility rate seem to have been ineffective. This would Japanese universities are destined to experience a shortage in student numbers, worsening every year.

The number of international students in Japan sharply decreased since the pandemic started. While many countries have already reopened their borders months ago after seeing stabilizing infection numbers, Japan has just now started to accept tourists on June 10. Entering the country will be much less inconvenient for international students. Yet, with the new law, the country may not see as many foreign students as before. Source: Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO)

One viable solution for the Japanese higher education institutions to save themselves from under-enrollment is to host more international students. Even after going through the highs of the pandemic and consequent border lockdowns, international students represented 9.58 percent of total college students in Japan in 2021. And of them, Chinese students accounted for 47.1 percent. Once the government’s new law starts affecting international students, especially those from China, Japanese universities may end up with one less solution to tackle decreasing student numbers.

More importantly, some academics expressed their concerns about the effectiveness and practicality of the government’s new policy. Without providing specific instructions, the law does not require but only recommends universities to take voluntary security measures. As a result, it is practically relying on a simple survey checking for international students and faculties who can be suspected to have connections to any foreign government regarding defense technology.

Takahiko Sasaki, a professor of materials research who also manages export controls at Tohoku University, reported that his school requires writings from its researchers pledging not to provide sensitive technology without permission to other members of the school with reasonable suspicion of having ties to foreign governments. He noted that the school’s written pledge requirement is probably nothing but an unproductive repetition of an already existing procedure under the Security Export Control policy. He said, “We are not intelligence operators. Checking resumes and academic records — that should be the extent of our job as a university.”

One university professor researching state-of-the-art battery technology commented to Financial Times that potential research data leakage has long been a serious concern for him. He reported that he was told by a few Chinese researchers that they have no choice but to provide their knowledge to their government as they will face retribution otherwise.

Masahiko Hosokawa, a former official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry of Japan, said, “Universities need money so they keep bringing in international students but some have little sense of crisis.” He continued, “They should find ways to operate without Chinese nationals.”


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