Americans are increasingly wary of Chinese Communist Party influence on U.S. universities—and rightly so. Despite the Ivory Tower’s leftward slant, universities remain a wellspring of American scientific, technical, and engineering research and innovation.
China’s desire to tap that well is no secret. Its campus-based Confucius Institutes have received much attention of late, but that is just the ice cube on the tip of the iceberg. Several other Chinese programs also have the potential to influence and exploit American colleges and universities. Their activities—like those of the Confucius Institutes—are not fully known. But here is a snapshot of what we do know and why they are a problem.
Thousand Talents Programs. Beijing’s Foreign Thousand Talents Program aims to attract “high-end foreign scientists, engineers, and managers from foreign countries.” Invitations and advertisements to participate come directly from Chinese research institutions that manage individual programs. But those institutions report to and are overseen by the government and the party, which provides financial compensation for participation.
A 2020 State Department warning about Chinese Communist Party activities at U.S. universities noted that recruits to the Thousand Talents Program must sign “legally binding contracts that often compel recipients to conceal their PRC relationships and funding, facilitate the illicit movement of intellectual capital to duplicate ‘shadow labs’ in China, recruit other talent, publish in China-based science journals, engage in activities abroad that would violate export control regulations, and influence U.S. organizations.”
When the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation started looking into the Thousands Talent Program in 2015, Beijing abruptly ended all public discussions of the program and deleted all online references to it. The programs, however, continue.
Last year, Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber, a recipient of substantial research grants from the National Institute of Health and the Defense Department, was charged with crimes related to not disclosing funds received from a Chinese recruitment program.
Shortly thereafter, a similar case came to light at Emory University. Professor Xiojiang Li, and his wife, who managed the university’s neuroscience lab, were abruptly terminated when they came under federal investigation for not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Chinese Academy of Science.
The Chinese Government established Confucius Institutes for the stated purpose of teaching Chinese language and culture worldwide. In the U.S., the institutes are typically established in partnerships between Chinese institutions (overseen by Beijing) and schools for the stated purpose of offering language instruction, cultural events, and funding for China-related research.
While most Confucius Institutes are based at colleges and universities, several have been established in partnership with public school districts. A few others in the United States are independent, with no local affiliation.
A 2014 study by the American Association of University Professors examined twelve Confucius Institutes, surveying their hiring policies, funding arrangements, contracts, and pressure on affiliated faculty. The report flagged four issues of concern: intellectual freedom; transparency; entanglement with Chinese State policies; concerns that institutes are instruments of propaganda. For example, one professor claimed, “You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama—or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership—these are all off limits.” A 2019 Congressional Research Service report flagged additional concerns.
Unfortunately, vital information about the scope of institute activities, their financial and operational relationships with institutions and their impact remains largely unknown. In January 2019, then-Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais testified, “Nearly 70 percent of colleges receiving Chinese-government funding for Confucius Institutes never reported those donations to the Department of Education . . . contra federal law.” If the U.S. government doesn’t even know the extent of funding, then how can it ensure that safeguards against malicious exploitation are sufficient?
Chinese funding of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs). The Chinese government sponsors and funds events for CSSA organizations on American university campuses. Among other things, CSSAs provide services to help Chinese students adjust to life and academic activities in foreign countries. Those services range from finding housing and roommates to organizing study groups and community activities.
But the influence of CSSAs can be far from benign. “I came to the U.S. and thought, ‘Wow, great, I’m in a free country, now I hope that everything is cool and happy,’ one student recalled, “But I found out that the government extended their control to even Chinese students in America.”
A 2018 report from the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission identified at least 124 SCCA chapters in the United States. According to the report, the chapters appear to be directly subordinate to, and receive political direction from, the Chinese Embassy and consulates. The report also details instances—in the U.S. and elsewhere—of espionage, political intimidation, and other illegal or inappropriate activities based in CSSAs.
Not surprisingly, transparency is an issue here as well. The Commission report notes, “CSSAs often attempt to conceal or obscure their ties to the Chinese government, frequently omitting incriminating language from the English-language versions of their websites—the ones typically reviewed by university administrators.” What is absolutely clear is that the Chinese government has a means to directly interfere with freedom of expression at American universities.
Chinese Gifts, Contracts, and Partnerships with U.S. Universities and Funding of U.S. Universities by Chinese Enterprises. U.S. universities enter contracts with Chinese sources to foster collaborative partnerships. Part of these activities include contracts with Chinese companies. A Bloomberg analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that in six and a half years (through June 2020), 115 U.S. colleges received almost a billion dollars in gifts and contracts from Chinese sources. And that’s just the amount that had been publicly disclosed.
In 2018, the Woodrow Wilson Center sponsored a study assessing Chinese influences on universities. The researchers conducted approximately 180 interviews, including more than 100 with professors. The report concluded: “… concerns are warranted, even if they are sometimes overblown and fraught with potential for mischaracterization, or worse, racial profiling.” It seems abundantly clear there are instances where Chinese money may well come with strings attached.
The China Scholarship Council. A non-profit organization within the Chinese Ministry of Education, the council funds academic exchanges, Chinese scholars, professors, and other researchers. It also provides scholarships for Chinese students pursuing graduate and postgraduate degrees abroad. A study by the Georgetown University Center of Security and Emerging Technology estimates the government currently supports between 26,000 and 65,000 students in the United States. The Council also.
There is little question that the Chinese government is increasingly using these programs to influence the behavior of students studying abroad. “People have come to realize that there’s no longer any kind of great firewall between academic practice in China and academic practice outside of China,” one university professor noted, “There is this kind of increasing pressure on academics working outside of China and ironically, I think this increasing pressure is leading people to realize just how problematic the current system is in China.”
A great constant among all of these programs is that they can be manipulated by the Chinese government to exert influence over students for malicious, illicit, and illegal activity. These concerns are consistent with anecdotal concerns raised over other engagements of the Chinese government.
A former acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Chad F. Wolf is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. A Heritage vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations.