American higher educational institutions—perhaps the most important purveyors of American soft power and liberal-democratic norms—are often unwitting hosts for Chinese “discourse power.” Highly publicized statements by Sen. Cruz , Sen. Rubio and others have brought the collaboration between U.S. higher education institutions and the party-state’s Confucius Institutes into the news lately. A recent report found that “since 2004, the Chinese government has planted Confucius Institutes that offer Chinese language and culture courses at colleges and universities around the world—including more than one hundred in the United States. These Institutes avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.” In other words, higher ed is inviting the Party-State to bring its safe spaces directly to American colleges. One should note that the director of the Confucius Institutes’ parent organization— Hanban—sits on the State Council (at the same meetings with the State Premier). Hanban has crudely and actively worked to marginalize Taiwanese scholars at international conferences that it has provided funding for. Some rich and powerful American Universities, like the University of Chicago and University of Texas, have sufficient autonomy that they have been able to expel the Confucius Institute off their campus, but that was mainly the work of concerned academics, not money-conscious administrators.
“American Universities are addicted to Chinese students,” Matt Schiavenza wrote for The Atlantic in 2015. Large numbers of Chinese government-funded students also have the potential to bring the party-state with them. Party-owned Chinese companies are buying up entire cash-strapped American colleges. It also means that these institutions must be willing to toe the Party line. Any potential restrictions on this cash cow, such as limiting visas for Chinese students, are met with spasms from university administrators. With increasingly large concentrations of students at American Universities, China is seeking to export its surveillance system abroad. It is setting up party cells at American universities . China actively polices Chinese students studying under party-state scholarships, including scholarships offered through Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), and encourages them to report on their fellow Chinese-nationals who fail to support the party line in discussions in American classrooms or openly disagree with party actions on American campuses.
If technical innovation and artistic creativity is causally-linked to free society with the development of autonomous citizens, then American industries, media conglomerates, and educational institutions are allowing China to outsource its national creativity while retaining a politically-oppressive system domestically. This is obvious in the case of American surveillance companies providing the high-tech know-how to sustain and deepen the Party’s police state in Xinjiang as well as in the large numbers of party-state-supported STEM students studying in American graduate schools and interning in American laboratories and research centers. More subtle is the willing provision specially-party-tailored versions of the products of an innovative, free society. Anyone who has used China’s lackluster Baidu search engine to do research knows how off-point most of the findings are. The same is true of Baidu maps (i.e., walking into a wall) versus Google Maps (i.e., finding your destination). The price free society pays for the type of creativity that created these excellent platforms is having to tolerate (and be informed by) one another’s discordant voices. With its the help of American industry, Chinese society can stay restricted and still have full access to the products of innovation and creativity (minus the free expression), even relying on American innovation to find new ways to keep the safe space safe. In other words, the products of a free society are re-purposed to de-universalize the norm of free expression. If the Chinese people want to get accurate search results and not walk into walls, they should demand freedom from their government—and, in fact, recent events suggest they would.
America’s educational institutions pushed back hard against America’s own armed forces when they disagreed with the Department of Defense’s policy towards LGBT soldiers. These universities could refuse to accept large numbers of students who have party-state-funded scholarships, decline to renew Confucius Institutes, refuse to sell themselves to Chinese-owned companies, be more careful about the organizations on campus, and keep a more watchful eye when Chinese students are bullied on campus by other Chinese.
Federal and state governments should commit to robustly funding the humanities and social sciences with public money, at least robustly funding China regional and linguistic education, giving full academic freedom to the universities. For other American hosts of Chinese “discourse power,” the lack of public outrage can be partly explained by the fact that these important American institutions are low key in their dealings with China. The public should openly debate the merits and dangers in their actions and the government should consider potential regulatory measures. A recent change in U.S. government tone more critical of China could serve as needed catalyst to begin addressing the problem. For instance, the U.S. government was right to call out the Chinese ordering all international airlines to reclassify Taiwan as “Orwellian nonsense.”
Because America is a free society, this change in tone need not automatically lead to characterizing China as an enemy. Rather, it should spur on the many voices of America’s civil society in conjunction with government actors to consider how best to reaffirm liberal-democratic values and norms while engaging on friendly terms with a party-state that understands those values as fatal to its very existence.
Eugene (John) Gregory, JD, PhD is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He is director of the Chinese Academic Program in the Department of Foreign Languages at the United States Military Academy and director of the Center for Languages, Cultures, and Regional Studies ( [email protected]).
The views expressed here are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Military Academy, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.