UW System foreign influence prevention bills approved

The Wisconsin Senate passed three Republican-backed bills Tuesday aimed at preventing Chinese spies from infiltrating University of Wisconsin campuses, moves that opponents called racist and targeting a nonexistent problem.

Republican lawmakers countered the measures were needed to provide another layer of protection from spies from China infiltrating universities in the state.

"We’re not doing this because we hate Chinese people," said bill sponsor State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills.) "We’re doing this to take on the Chinese Liberation Army."

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Bill sponsor State Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) said that universities are a "soft target" for China as it seeks to exploit openness on campuses to steal intellectual property and research and advance their own objectives.

Democratic opponents argued the bills were xenophobic, attempting to have the university do screening that is the job of federal authorities and wouldn't stop Chinese spies from entering the country.

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

"This is a waste of time," said State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point.) He said the bills were "playing on the darkest of fears out there."

UW System official Jeff Buhrandt said in testimony provided to a Senate committee that the university already takes steps to curb foreign influence on campuses. He argued that the proposals add burdensome regulations on UW and that any additional regulations should come from the federal government.

All three bills passed on party line votes, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.

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One bill would prevent UW System schools from admitting or employing any members of China's armed forces known as the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

Another proposal would prohibit any foreign mission of China be established or recognized at a UW school. It would also block the UW System from being part of any Communist Chinese recruitment or propaganda programs and require the system to report any funding it received from foreign missions of China.

A third bill would create new disclosure requirements for UW institutions and employees related to research, contracts and gifts involving foreign governments, companies, and individuals.

The bills now head to the Assembly. If passed there, they would have to be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers before becoming law.

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