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American Universities Are Now The Front Line Of The China-U.S. Cold War


The Trump administration has taken several steps to address the growing threat of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) influence on U.S. college campus last week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Confucius Institute U.S. centers as a foreign agent for Communist China.

His action was followed by a letter to the governing boards of American universities from Under-Secretary Keith Krach. Krach warned these board members that their institutions are at the forefront of a serious challenge “brought on by the authoritarian influence of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Within the same week, the Wall Street Journal reported that some professors at several elite American universities, including Harvard and Princeton, are taking steps such as using anonymous online chats to protect students from prosecution by Chinese authorities under the new National Security Law in Hong Kong.

In Article 38 of the NSL, the CCP claims to grant itself unprecedented power to punish any person anywhere in the world. Persons can find themselves in trouble with the CCP for advocating democracy in Hong Kong, calling for foreign intervention, or criticizing the Hong Kong government or the CCP on any topic—especially sensitive ones like Beijing’s inhumane treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Remarkably, American professors have to self-censor on American campuses to protect their students from the CCP’s long arms.

Whether they like it or not, American universities now find themselves at the forefront of the new Cold War between the United States and Communist China. Unfortunately, if past performance is an indicator of the future, American universities may not be up to the challenge.

‘Confucius Institutes’ Promote CCP Misinformation

For decades, the CCP has relied on three main pillars to exert its influence, spread its propaganda, and conduct espionage on American college campuses: Confucius Institutes, Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, and direct financial donations.

Confucius Institutes are the CCP’s propaganda machines on foreign campuses, disguised as education centers. The Chinese government fully funds and manages these CIs, including supplying teachers and teaching materials with the stated goal of teaching Chinese language, culture, and history to Americans from K-12 to universities.

Since launching in 2004, CIs have quickly expanded their worldwide presence. At the beginning of 2020, there were about 1,000 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents, including more than 100 in the United States. According to China expert John Fitzgerald, one key contributor to the rapid growth of CIs is that many universities “are willing to set aside academic principles to build good relations with China,” so they “accept [Confucius Institutes] on Beijing’s terms, with all the compromises they entail,” as long as the price is right.

Confucius Institutes present students only the CCP sanctioned version of Chinese history, which omits the CCP’s human rights violations, including its persecutions of Christians and Muslims, and avoids certain political events such as the Chinese famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Some universities that have a Confucius Institute on campus even practice self-censorship. In 2009, for instance, North Carolina State University canceled a planned appearance by the Dalai Lama after the Confucius Institute director on its campus warned his visit could hurt the university’s relationship with China.

As early as 2014, the American Association of University Professors urged American universities and colleges to either terminate their involvement with Confucius Institutes or renegotiate their contracts to protect academic freedom on college campuses. AAUP’s warning and recommendation that universities close Confucius Institutes were echoed again in 2017 by the National Association of Scholars. These warnings were ignored by most American universities that host CIs on their campuses until the passing of the 2019 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a special clause restricting the Department of Defense’s language study funding if a university hosts a CI on campus.

Since money talks, about 35 American colleges and universities closed CIs on their campuses by early 2020. There are still 86 Confucius Institutes remaining in the United States as of May 1, 2020, including seven at K-12 public school districts.

‘Protect the Motherland’s Honor’

The CCP exerts also influence and control on American campuses through Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs). As of the 2018-2019 academic year, there were about 369,000 Chinese students in the United States contributing $15 billion to American universities. CSSAs were initially created to provide social, economical, and cultural support to these students and scholars, and there are at least 142 CSSA chapters on U.S. college campuses.

Unknown to the general public, Chinese embassies and consulates provide direct supervision to CSSAs. For example, the Southwestern CSSA, a coalition of 26 CSSAs in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Hawaii stated in Chinese in its organization chart that the Chinese Embassy in Los Angeles guides the organization and must approve any candidate for the organization’s presidency before he or she could officially run for the position.

The CSSA at the University of Tennessee requires members to “fervently love the motherland” and “protect the motherland’s honor and image.” Members from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan must “support [China’s] national reunification” and “recognize the ‘One China’ principle.” These statements suggest the CSSAs’s mission has gone far beyond providing social and economic services to Chinese students to endorsing China’s controversial foreign policies.

It is important to note that not all CSSAs are comfortable with supervision by Chinese diplomats, nor do CSSAs represent all overseas Chinese students. Still, in recent years, the close ties between some CSSAs and Chinese diplomats have raised a serious alarm. In 2017, the University of California, San Diego’s announcement that the 14th Dalai Lama would give the commencement speech prompted angry responses from the CSSA of UCSD, which staged a protest after consulting the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles for guidance.

Last year, when Hong Kong students and their supporters engaged in peaceful protests on American campuses in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, CSSAs organized counter protests. Some Chinese students reported that they were monitored either by fellow Chinese students who are members of CSSAs or by Chinese spies posing as students.

Stifling Speech and Debate Abroad

The Chinese government also counts on the self-censorship of both Chinese and foreign scholars. Inside Higher Ed reports that “Chinese scholars who speak out against the party line are subject to harassment and imprisonment. American scholars who research China also have to monitor what they say and write, or risk being barred from researching in China.” Therefore, many professors and scholars choose their research topics carefully and stay away from sensitive subjects, so they stay on the “good” side of the Chinese government.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “since 2011, Chinese sources have participated in at least 1,186 donations or contracts worth more than $426 million to seventy-seven American universities.” Such gifts seem natural given the increasing wealth of the Chinese population and the growing number of Chinese students. Unfortunately, sometimes those seemingly innocent gifts are tainted by donors who work closely with the Chinese government.

In November 2017, Foreign Policy reported that the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization, bestowed a new professorship and a new research project on The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. The gift raised questions because CUSEF was founded by former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who has close ties to Beijing and at the time was vice chairman of The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Chinese government.

Tung’s foundation also funded similar programs at several prominent think tanks including the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the Carter Center, and the East-West Institute, just to name a few. Funding programs at elite universities and leading think tanks is all about influencing the “influencers” — aimed at getting the CCP’s preferred narratives presented through influential policy advisers and future policymakers. Peter Mattis, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, explained: “If they [the CCP) cultivates enough people in the right places, they start to change the debate without having to directly inject their own voice.”

For years, the CCP has exerted influence on American universities through various covert means, threatening academic freedom and free speech on American campuses. Yet many American universities have been willfully ignoring such threats to avoid jeopardizing their revenue stream from Chinese students and donations. Now that the new Cold War between the United States and China has pushed American universities to the front line, these institutions must choose between freedom or tyranny.

In his letter, Krach reminded every board member of his or her moral duty of “ensuring academic freedom, honoring human dignity, protecting university.” In doing so, Krach proclaimed, “it is imperative that we distinguish between the CCP’s totalitarian regime and the Chinese people, whom we must steadfastly defend from abhorrent acts of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, including those from the PRC government.”