House bill seeks to prolong higher ed’s China hangover

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Last month, the House Rules Committee unveiled the America Competes Act, which promotes semiconductor production and boosts domestic research funding. The bill is part of a broader effort to better position America to compete strategically with China in technology and other related sectors. This bill, along with its Senate companion, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, supports the Biden administration’s goal of showing “China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century — forged by the ingenuity and hard work of our innovators, workers, and businesses.”

For its part, China has also announced multi-billion-dollar investments to domestically develop new and emerging technologies. But, for all of Beijing’s talk of tech self-sufficiency, Chinese leader Xi Jinping remains committed to exhausting “all means necessary” to lure global talent to China to support his country’s technological modernization. This includes enabling military-civil fusion (MCF), a strategy aimed at acquiring the world’s cutting-edge technologies — including through theft — to achieve Chinese military dominance.  

China’s civilian university system, its students, and professors figure prominently in China’s strategy. But, so do foreign academics and universities. Such endeavors, including China’s Thousand Talents program, are focused on obtaining everything from foundational knowledge taught on U.S. college campuses to cutting-edge research, much of which is not technically classified but has potential military applications. Recently, these efforts have ensnared several prominent academics, including Harvard University professor Charles Lieber, who was convicted in December 2021 on six felony tax evasion charges stemming from his undisclosed consulting relationship with the Chinese government.  

The Lieber case and others like it lay bare the importance of improving transparency around malign Chinese influence throughout academia. Which is why Congress needs to address major blind spots in both bills, namely by enhancing foreign funding disclosures and regulating Confucius Institutes (CIs).

Unsurprisingly, U.S. universities have long bristled at demands for increased transparency surrounding foreign funding and gifts. However, a 2020 Department of Education (DoE) compliance report found that U.S. higher education “massively underreported while also anonymized much of the money it did disclose, all to hide foreign sources (and, correspondingly, their influence on campus) from the Department [of Education] and the public.”  

On the transparency front, the Senate-passed bill is far more stringent than its House counterpart. The Senate bill would lower the annual threshold for when colleges must report foreign gifts from the current $250,000 to $50,000, whereas the House bill would only lower the funding disclosure threshold to $100,000. The House bill also significantly scales back a common-sense Senate proposal requiring U.S. research universities that receive $5 million or more annually in federal science funding to create a database of the foreign gifts and contracts received by individual faculty and staff. Moreover, the House bill weakens a proposed Senate measure that enables DoE to levy fines on universities that refuse to comply with enhanced disclosure requirements.  

While the House bill requires U.S. universities to track and report on some faculty and staff activities, those disclosures only apply when foreign gifts or contracts exceed $50,000 annually. Unsurprisingly, U.S. universities have lobbied against such proposals, arguing that they could inhibit collaboration with international partners.   

The House bill also takes aim, albeit narrowly, at U.S. universities hosting CIs. These Chinese-government entities have come under fire for promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred political narratives and encouraging the harassment of those on campus who criticize the regime. A recent Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) report revealed that CIs also advance MCF, namely by promoting academic and research partnerships between U.S. universities and Chinese schools overtly supporting China’s military modernization.   

On a positive note, the House bill would authorize a new $10 million per year program to promote the study of Chinese languages as an alternative to CIs. However, it does not bar U.S. universities from receiving these or other taxpayer funds if they continue hosting CIs, nor if they collaborate on joint research with Chinese schools supporting China’s nuclear weapons program, its cyber-espionage platforms, or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  

Even worse, neither bill prevents U.S. universities from accessing new funding while they partner with Chinese universities on the Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List, which restricts the exportation of sensitive items to designated entities and individuals deemed a national security risk.

Congress clearly understands that more must be done to harness the technology and talent Washington needs to win its strategic competition with Beijing. What remains unclear, however, is whether Congress is prepared to address, once and for all, China’s weaponization of academia or whether it will instead rely on half measures, thereby enabling China to underwrite its own modernization at our expense.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute focused on foreign policy and national security. He recently published a research monograph entitled, “The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education: How U.S. Universities Support China’s Military Industrial Complex.”  

Tags China Confucius Institutes U.S. Innovation and Competition Act

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