Edward Snowden

An American at Tsinghua University, the cold war campus

Pinpointing the American students who have ties to the US intelligence community has become a seeming obsession at the top echelon of the university

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 3:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Full-disclosure, I’m not a spy...

But in the late summer of 2011, I was given fair warning. It was my first day as a master’s student at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and I was inside the red-brick, ivy-covered journalism building where former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji studied electrical engineering 63 years ago.

“This programme is intended to help connect the global journalism community,” the associate dean of international development told us at orientation for the two-year global business journalism programme.

“If you are a spy, don’t think about continuing,” he said, in precise English.

At the time, overwhelmed with syllabi and registration forms, I laughed off the remark, half-wondering if he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The South China Morning Post reported on Saturday that IT-nerd-turned-leaker Edward Snowden claimed the US National Security Agency had extensively hacked Tsinghua University’s computer network, gleaning valuable data from the world’s largest educational network, the China Educational and Research Network (Cern). 

It’s a network that I log into every day from my dorm room at Tsinghua, and that I curse just as often for its inconsistency, glacial speed and heavy-handed firewall. Experts noted that if Snowden’s allegations hold water, the NSA was probably interested in grabbing data from Cern because it connects the mainland’s premiere research universities and harbours a potential treasure trove of data on China’s internet users.

The news followed months of US-led barking about Chinese cyber-espionage, leading to what many Chinese consider supreme hypocrisy by Uncle Sam. But more important for me, this news and the possibility that Tsinghua’s servers could have been compromised from Beijing have led to a whiff of cold war-esque suspicion among university officials and students that the campus is rotten with American spies.

According to Tsinghua’s International Student office, in the fall of last year, there were 3,530 international students, several hundred of whom are Americans. Most were studying Chinese language short-term or through exchange programmes (the exact breakdown of nationality is not provided).

Pinpointing the American students who have ties to the US intelligence community has become a seeming obsession at the top echelon of the university, which known as a bastion of Communist Party support. After all, it is the alma mater of two of the past three Chinese presidents.

“Just tell everyone you’re Canadian,” one Chinese classmate told me straight-faced, after hearing about Snowden’s latest revelations.

For me, it’s not that easy.

I have a strong and colourful bond to my country that seems to perpetually ping China’s interest. I was born and raised in Iowa, graduated from university there and worked with Teach for America. My brother is a sergeant in the US Army’s intelligence unit, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict.

I’ve been visiting China on-and-off since 2007, as a language student, journalist and now, graduate student. As a blonde-haired foreigner with a penchant for adventure and a habit of going places alone, I’d always attracted some scrutiny, but now, the intensity has been cranked up to 11.

In the past few days, my university network connection has been slowed to a grinding schlep. Web pages that once appeared freely for me are getting blocked or timing out before they’re loaded, and my antivirus software is perpetually discovering new nasties trying to creep into my hard drive.

My classmates and professors have, on the whole, taken the news of NSA hacking on Tsinghua with great affront. Most of my classmates, born in the late 1980s or early 1990s, cannot remember the uncertainty and suspicion wrought by the espionage-efforts of the cold war, but now, with these revelations, I’m afraid a new chapter of sorts has been torn open.

Nick Compton is an American graduate student at Tsinghua University