How China Exerts Its Power
The country has developed a network of institutions designed to silence its critics, enhance its reputation abroad, and use the strengths of the American university system for its own benefit.
By Seth Kaplan and John Metz
Shortly before the Winter Olympics in Beijing this past February, students at George Washington University put up posters criticizing the Chinese government’s policies. The posters decried the internment and execution of Uyghurs, the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, and China’s lack of transparency during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. They would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for the firestorm ignited by the university’s response to a student petition.
In the petition, which was sent directly to the university’s president, Mark Wrighton, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association demanded that the university remove the posters, identify the students responsible, and “punish them severely” for “insult[ing] China.” In a leaked email response, Wrighton wrote that he was “personally offended” by the posters and promised to have them removed. Then, almost casually, he committed to “determin[ing] who [was] responsible.” There was a swift backlash both online, where freedom of expression advocates like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression condemned the email, and among students of the university, who organized a protest in response. Within days, Wrighton issued a statement promising not to punish the students involved.
Given the freedoms typically touted on college campuses, George Washington University’s effort to limit student criticism of China might stand out as unusual. But it is part of a larger pattern—one linked to a multipronged effort by the Chinese Communist Party to influence and control its image abroad. That image is particularly vulnerable now because, according to numerous countries as well as the U.S. Department of State, the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide against the Uyghur people, among other human rights abuses.
To help in this project, China has developed a vast network of overlapping institutions on campus designed to silence its critics, enhance its reputation abroad, and use the strengths of the American university system—particularly its research prowess—for its own benefit, often in a manner that directly undermines American national security. Simply put, no foreign government has ever had both the resources and the resolve necessary to override academic firewalls against malign foreign influence in the way China does today.
And then there is another, more direct tactic: China actively monitors the speech of Chinese nationals studying in the U.S. and their actions on campus. Chinese intelligence officers use a combination of online surveillance and an array of informants motivated by money, ambition, fear, or patriotism to scrutinize student behavior. Attending the wrong speech or rally or saying the wrong thing in class can lead to the students or their relatives back in China being pressured.
When Chinese students do risk speaking out publicly, they pay a heavy price. University of Maryland valedictorian Yang Shuping praised “the fresh air of free speech” in her commencement address in May 2017. Almost immediately, she was singled out for abuse by Chinese state media and forced to issue an apology. Quoted anonymously in Voice of America, one Chinese student at the University of Maryland said that he “wouldn’t feel safe to speak publicly” for fear that Chinese authorities might punish him; another reported that he was “afraid that when [he gets] back to China, they will search [his] phone.” When a student from Hong Kong at Cornell University posted signs critical of China’s crackdown in the territory, he was reportedly assaulted by a fellow student who shouted at him in Mandarin. Chinese students often find that American civil liberties are paper-thin. Even when they stand on American soil, it’s as if they never left China.
Few of these incidents are the direct responsibility of American universities. But universities often act in ways that help the CCP intimidate and control their students. When Vera Yueming Zhou, a U.S. permanent resident, was detained at an internment camp in Xinjiang for using a VPN to access her University of Washington email address, the university allegedly declined to assist her over concerns that doing so might jeopardize a valuable agreement with China.
One way that China exerts influence on American universities is through Confucius Institutes—language and cultural education centers funded directly by the Chinese government which focus outwardly on facilitating educational and cultural exchanges but ultimately function as the Chinese government’s proxies on campus. By effectively outsourcing Chinese language and cultural education to entities funded by the Chinese government, universities have been giving up control over hiring and curricula. This approach has allowed these institutes to guide student learning in a direction favorable to China by, for example, avoiding all mentions of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Confucius Institutes must abide by China’s laws, and contracts between universities and these institutes often feature broad nondisclosure requirements while mandating that educators do not damage China’s image abroad.
More subtle is the steady influence of the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which by some measures have a presence at upward of 100 universities in the United States. Like Confucius Institutes, Chinese Student and Scholarship Associations have an outwardly benign purpose, in this case to provide opportunities for Chinese students to gather and create a sense of community. Although they are nominally independent and outwardly similar to other student affinity groups, in practice, they function as the eyes and ears of the Chinese government on campuses—creating immense pressure for Chinese students not only to conform to their government’s standards but also to inform on one another to demonstrate their own loyalty. These associations routinely receive funding directly from Chinese diplomatic staff, with whom they communicate regularly, to provide information on fellow students or to receive instructions to help ensure ideological uniformity in the local Chinese community. At McMaster University in Canada, these problems became so acute that in September 2019 the Student Union voted to ban McMaster’s Chinese Students and Scholars Associations from campus after it intimidated and surveilled students and at least one Uyghur refugee on behalf of local Chinese diplomatic staff.
China has also leveraged its ties with academic institutions to further military buildup and human rights abuses. According to a report released by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at least 28 American universities have research partnerships with Chinese universities that have known ties to China’s military-industrial complex, including nuclear weapons research and cyberespionage. MIT, for instance, signed a research partnership in 2018 with iFlytek, a firm that has been credibly accused of providing surveillance technology that China uses to suppress its ethnic minorities. Many of the country’s 43 national-level “talent programs”—Chinese government-sponsored programs aimed at recruiting experts in science and technology from around the world—operate extensively on U.S. university campuses. Charles Lieber, the famous Harvard chemist who was convicted of lying to federal officials about research he conducted for Chinese entities, was a talent program recruit.
Despite the clear risks to free speech, academic liberty, and domestic security, universities have shown little willingness to pare back their partnerships with entities in China. Why do universities run the risk of entanglement with the CCP?
In large part, because they receive funding from CCP-connected sources—including gifts, donations, investments, Confucius Institutes, and research partnerships. These create an incentive for university administrators to silence student speech critical of China’s conduct. As one intelligence official concluded, “I used to think universities were victims. But now I think those that take money from China and don’t protect their students from [People’s Republic of China] harassment may be complicit.”
Between 2015 and 2019, U.S. colleges and universities reported just over $1 billion in donations from mainland China. But the real numbers are likely much higher. A 2019 staff report to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations noted that “[n]early seventy percent of U.S. schools with a Confucius Institute that received more than $250,000 in one year failed to properly report that information to the Department of Education” despite a legal obligation to do so. In 2020, the Department of Education estimated that between 2012 and 2018, Hanban—the Chinese government entity overseeing Confucius Institutes—accounted not for the $15.5 million reported by universities, but for more than $113 million. And these figures don’t include funds from CCP-linked sources outside of China, like the Charoen Pokphand Group, which donated $10 million to Georgetown University in 2016. Altogether, the Department of Education estimated that universities had failed to report more than $6 billion in foreign donations—significant amounts of which came from Chinese entities.
These numbers also do not include revenue from Chinese students, who are more lucrative than American students because they typically pay full tuition. In the 2019-2020 school year, Chinese students accounted for more than one-third of international students studying in the country, who together generated over $40 billion in revenue. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s business school, for example, was receiving one-fifth of all tuition revenue from Chinese nationals before the pandemic. At the University of California Davis, international students contributed almost two-thirds of the $695 million that the school receives from tuition and fees, and Chinese students accounted for 69% of the school’s international student population.
Along with the financial concerns, there is also a fear that expressing concerns about Chinese influence could be perceived as prejudiced. When Michelle Bethel, a board member of MIT’s prestigious McGovern Institute for Brain Research, expressed concern that the lab’s research partnerships might not have been properly vetted for ties to the Chinese military, her concerns were dismissed as “racist” and “political.” She resigned in protest in December 2021, her concerns unaddressed. In the case of the posters at George Washington University, too, the university’s initial reaction was driven by assertions that the posters were racist.
The CCP has cynically exploited this tendency, arguing through state media that criticism of its policies is a form of “McCarthyist” anti-Chinese bias, even though many of China’s staunchest critics in the U.S. have vehemently condemned racism against Asians. Sulaiman Gu, a University of Georgia graduate student, explains that “American universities tend to treat these issues as issues of racism and diversity … [Instead] the university should support students against the surveillance of a foreign government. They should take measures to let educated and legitimate opinions be expressed without fear.”
The CCP’s campus influence has dangerous implications for free speech, student safety, industrial espionage, ethical scientific practices, and national security. But the silencing of student speech is perhaps the key factor making all of this possible because we cannot solve a problem if we cannot talk about it.
To this effect, the most significant thing that universities could do with regard to the threat from China would be to remove its proxies—from Confucius Institutes to Chinese Students and Scholars Associations—off their campuses for good. There has been some progress on this front. In 2018, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which limited Department of Defense funding to universities operating Confucius Institutes. Some states have even banned them outright. And at colleges and universities across the country—from Tufts to William & Mary—students on both sides of the aisle mobilized for their universities to break their ties to China. So while as recently as 2018, more than 100 Confucius Institutes were operating in the U.S. Today, just 18 remain, of which four have announced plans to close.
But progress has been uneven. 28 erstwhile host universities that closed their institutes have sought to preserve their ties to China in other forms, often retaining many of the trappings of these institutes while changing little more than the name. To date, no American university has followed McMaster University’s decision to abolish its Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
Beyond the issue of these institutes and associations, universities should disclose sources of foreign funding and establish clear guidelines for how they will safeguard the freedoms of students from China and other authoritarian countries. Similarly, they should establish clear ethical guardrails to ensure that advanced research is not contributing to human rights abuses or to the military development of the world’s most powerful authoritarian state.
Ultimately, however, such changes will only take place once university administrators are willing to commit to protecting free speech and academic liberty. Today, they remain too eager to compromise such principles in order to maintain their relationships, especially financial ones, with the Chinese government.
Seth D. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He lived in China for seven years.
John Metz is the President of the Athenai Institute, a student-founded nonprofit devoted to removing the influence of the Chinese Communist Party from U.S. university campuses.
A version of this article was originally published by Heterodox Academy.
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