heterodox: the blog
Concealed Crackdown: China’s Influence Across Campus
The influence of the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. university campuses is a unique threat to free expression, student wellbeing, and national security.
Shortly before the Winter Olympics in Beijing this past February, students at George Washington University (GWU) put up posters criticizing the Chinese government’s policies. The posters decried the internment and cultural genocide 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 were quickly removed and 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 GWU’s president, Mark Wrighton, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) 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 (FIRE) condemned the email, and among GWU students, 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, GWU’s reactionary effort to limit student criticism of the Chinese government might stand out as unusual. But it is part of a larger pattern — one linked to a multipronged effort by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence and control its image abroad. That image is particularly vulnerable now because, as the U.S. Department of State and numerous other countries have concluded, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is committing genocide against the Uyghur people, among other human rights abuses.
A recent HxA piece by Shaun O’Dwyer highlighted the restrictions on academic freedom across East Asia — restrictions that go largely unnoticed here in the U.S. That’s a shame because recent events show that U.S. institutions are just as vulnerable to the CCP’s ideological strictures and what O’Dwyer calls a “vaguely defined system of censorship, with ambiguously drawn and arbitrarily enforced ‘red lines.’”
In 2019, Columbia University canceled an event on human rights featuring panelists from Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang hours before it was scheduled to occur, calling it “politically sensitive” and citing pressure from Chinese student groups. When Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian was invited in 2018 to give a keynote address at Savannah State University, she found that her biography had been censored to exclude references to Taiwan at the request of the codirector of the campus’s Confucius Institute (CI). After North Carolina State University rescinded a speaking invitation to the Dalai Lama in 2009, a provost explicitly stated that the decision was the result of pressure by the university’s CI.
The Chinese government has developed a vast network of overlapping institutions, including CIs, CSSAs, and so-called talent programs aimed at recruiting the most brilliant scholars and transferring their know-how to Chinese firms and state entities. Simply put, no foreign government has ever had both the resources and the resolve necessary to override academic firewalls against foreign malign influence in the way the CCP does today.
And there is another, more direct tactic: The CCP 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 authentic patriotism to scrutinize student behavior. Attending the wrong speech or rally or saying the wrong thing in class can lead to pressure against students or their relatives back in China. O’Dwyer notes similar concerns for students in Australia.
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 viciously threatened 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 PRC authorities might punish him; another reported that he was “afraid that when [he gets] back to China, they will search [his] phone.” When one student from Hong Kong at Cornell University posted signs critical of the Chinese government’s crackdown in the territory, he was reportedly assaulted by a Chinese student. Chinese students often find that American civil liberties are paper-thin. Even when they stand on American soil, it is 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 over concerns that doing so might jeopardize a valuable agreement with the Chinese government.
CIs are emblematic of the problem. 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 CIs to guide student learning in a direction favorable to the Chinese government by, for example, avoiding all mentions of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. CIs must abide by the PRC’s laws, and contracts between universities and CIs often feature broad nondisclosure requirements while empowering the CIs to mandate that educators not damage China’s image abroad.
More subtle is the steady day-in, day-out influence of the CSSAs, which, by some measures, may have a presence at upward of 100 universities in the U.S. 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 to inform on one another to demonstrate their own loyalty. CSSAs routinely receive funding directly from PRC diplomatic staff, with whom they communicate regularly, often to provide information on fellow students or to receive orders 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 CSSA from campus after it intimidated and surveilled students, including at least one Uyghur refugee, on behalf of local Chinese diplomatic staff.
Why do universities run the risk of entanglement with the CCP? In large part, because they rely on funding from CCP-connected sources — including gifts, donations, investments, CIs, and research partnerships. These create a dangerous incentive for university administrators to silence student speech critical of the Chinese government’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 accounted not for the $15.5 million reported by universities, but for more than $113 million — a figure more than seven times higher. And these figures don’t include funds from United Front-linked sources outside of China, like Charoen Pokphand (CP) 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, much of it from China.
Nor do these numbers include revenue from Chinese students, who mostly pay full tuition and are thus more lucrative than American students. In the 2019-2020 school year, they were a major source of revenue at many schools, accounting for more than one-third of the over 1 million international students studying in the country and generating over $40 billion. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s business school, for example, was receiving fully 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 its $695 million in revenue through tuition and fees, and Chinese students accounted for 69% of the school’s international student population.
The PRC has used its ties with academic institutions to leverage them in its own military buildup and human rights abuses. According to a report released by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at least 28 U.S. universities have research partnerships with Chinese universities that have known ties to the PRC’s military industrial complex, including nuclear weapons research and cyberespionage. MIT, for instance, signed a research partnership in 2018 with iFlytek, one of the firms tied to the PRC’s mass surveillance of ethnic minorities. Many of the country’s 43 national-level “talent programs,” shorthand for Chinese government-sponsored programs aimed at recruiting experts in science and technology from around the world to accelerate China’s economic development, 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 risk of espionage, universities have shown little willingness to pare back their research partnerships with entities in the PRC. When Michelle Bethel, a board member of MIT’s prestigious McGovern Institute for Brain Research, expressed concern that the lab’s research partnerships with Chinese entities, including the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, might not have been properly vetted for ties to the PRC’s military, her concerns were dismissed as “racist” and “political.” She resigned in protest in December 2021, her concerns unaddressed.
Some of this reticence to act is explained by universities’ fear that legitimate efforts to protect students and cutting-edge research will earn them accusations of racism. 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 the Chinese government’s staunchest critics in the U.S. have vehemently condemned racism against Asians. In GWU’s case, the university’s initial reaction was driven by assertions that the posters were racist. 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; in short, we cannot solve a problem if we cannot talk about it. What, then, can we do to turn things around?
Student pressure and government action together can open up a path forward, with two goals working in tandem: protecting individuals’ right to free speech and limiting the CCP’s influence on campus.
One of the most visible areas of progress is the push to close the CIs. As recently as 2018, more than 100 CIs were operating in the U.S. Today, just 18 remain, of which four have announced plans to close. In 2018, notably, Congress passed a National Defense Authorization Act, which limited Department of Defense funding to universities operating CIs. Some states banned CIs outright. And at colleges and universities across the country — from Tufts and Bryant to William & Mary and Alabama A&M — students on both sides of the aisle mobilized for their universities to break their ties to the CCP.
Sever Institutional Ties
But progress has been uneven, and civic solidarity won’t be enough. Even as dozens of CIs have closed, many erstwhile host universities have sought to preserves their ties to China in other forms, often retaining many of the trappings of a CI while changing little more than the name. Altogether, 28 universities that closed their CI have re-created many of the same harmful entanglements in a new form, allowing CCP-linked entities to retain influence over university operations.
To date, no American university has replicated McMaster University’s decision to abolish its CSSA. But around the country, students have begun to take the lead in demanding that their universities disentangle themselves from the Chinese government. In May 2020, members of the national boards of the College Democrats of America and the College Republican National Committee signed a joint statement, the Washington Appeal, demanding that universities close their CIs and disclose their financial ties to the Chinese government; in April 2022, the two organizations signed an open letter demanding that the country’s leading public universities end their financial ties to the Chinese government.
Divest and Restrict Future Funding
In October 2021, students at the Catholic University of America voted to urge their institution to become the first university ever to divest from entities complicit in the genocide of Uyghurs, which it agreed to do. Since then, students at universities like Yale, Georgetown, and UCLA have joined the growing movement for divestment. Fittingly, students at GWU responded to President Wrighton’s abortive attempt at censorship by petitioning GWU to divest. This growing divestment movement has coincided with a flurry of activity in Congress, including bills to limit university endowments’ investments in sanctioned Chinese companies, restrict university research partnerships with Chinese entities, restrict government funding for universities that retain ties to CIs, and overhaul the review process for foreign contributions to U.S. universities. Many of these efforts are bipartisan.
Ask, Do We Value Free Speech?
Ultimately, changing the way universities relate to the Chinese government will require both a thicker understanding of free speech and deeper constraints on their relationship with the CCP and Chinese government. Today, university administrators are too eager to compromise the former to maintain the latter, often acting in ways that undermine their values and basic responsibilities to students. As a start, they must disclose sources of foreign funding and establish clear guidelines for how they will safeguard the freedoms of students from China and other authoritarian countries. They will also need ethical guardrails in place 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. Perhaps most important, they must protect their students by doing everything in their power to kick the CCP and its proxies — from CIs to CSSAs — off their campuses for good.
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