Recently a China sponsored student organization (Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association or CUCSSA) at Columbia University (in New York) was shut down for violations of rules concerning finances and operational policies. The university administrators had been informed, apparently, apparently by the U.S. government and Columbia students, of the frequent use of CUCSSA for political and espionage functions.
China has long used “social organizations” of Chinese citizens overseas to achieve Chinese intelligence and diplomatic goals. It was also no secret that any Chinese citizen going overseas, to study or on business, was obliged to cooperate with requests (often benign) from Chinese intelligence. All this begins when Chinese intelligence officials examine who is going overseas and for what purpose. Chinese citizens cannot leave the country legally without the state security organizations being notified. The intel people are not being asked to give permission. They are being alerted in case they want to have a talk with students, tourists, or business people before they leave the country. Interviews are often held when these people come back as well.
Those who might be coming in contact with useful information are asked to remember what they saw or bring back souvenirs. Over 100,000 Chinese students go off to foreign universities each year. Even more go abroad as tourists or on business. Most of these people were not asked to actually act as spies but simply to share, with Chinese government officials (who are not always identified as intelligence personnel) whatever information they obtained. The more ambitious of these people are getting caught and prosecuted. But the majority are quite casual and, individually, bring back relatively little but are almost impossible to catch.
In the case of the CUCSSA some Chinese believe the students running the organization (or the intelligence officials back in China who supervise the students) got sloppy, corrupted or both. No one in China thinks the shady and illegal activities of the CUCSSA were unusual, but in America they are illegal.