US colleges willfully blind to China's influence

US colleges willfully blind to China's influence
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The Mueller indictments of Russian individuals and entities, along with the recent “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” confirm a view of Russia as the current arch practitioner of influence and information operations. But China is no slouch, and U.S. higher education is among its targets of choice, as FBI Director Christopher Wray recognized in Feb. 13 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Responding to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Fla.), Wray said that China’s “use of nontraditional (intelligence) collectors, especially in the academic setting” was visible across the entire country, and across virtually all academic disciplines.

Wray also said he shared Rubio’s concerns regarding the Confucius Institutes hosted by U.S. colleges and universities. Funded by the Chinese government, the stated purpose of the institutes is the teaching of Chinese language and culture, but they are considered part of the PRC’s international propaganda effort. The scale is impressive. In October 2017, the Financial Times counted 158 Confucius Institutes in the Americas, and even more in Europe.

The FBI Director spoke of “naïveté on the part of the academic sector” when it came to Chinese intelligence efforts, but it is frankly too late for college and university leaders to claim ignorance. An FBI report in 2011 already stated that foreign adversaries and competitors were taking advantage of the openness of U.S. colleges and universities, and said that a small percentage of students, researchers, and foreign professors were working “at the behest of a foreign government.”

In 2016, the Obama administration, certainly much better liked on most campuses than its successor, sought to restrict participation of foreign nationals in militarily sensitive research projects on campus, following a dramatic increase in the number of intellectual property cases under FBI investigation. The Association of American Universities (AAU) , representing the 62 top U.S. research universities, plus Stanford, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania individually, loudly protested the sacrifice of academic freedom to national security concerns.

The long-term, multi-generational effects of the Vietnam-era university-based protest movement, along with the end of the Cold War, the subsequent absence of a comparably unifying national objective or narrative, plus globalization, have largely diminished higher education’s connection to any shared concept of U.S. national interest. The unquestionably strong prevalence of liberal political views among college and university faculty members also may contribute to an institutional culture that treats appeals to U.S. national security concerns skeptically.

But you also need to “follow the money.” Academe is not detached from the harsh and messy realities of the “real world.” In an era of ever tougher competition for resources, higher education leaders are accustomed to making hard-headed business decisions. A representative of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, for example, proclaims “the reality that international students are essential to our educational institutions, and we must avoid deterring future students.” The underlying financial reality is the role of full tuition-paying international students as cash cows, especially for the more prestigious institutions with international reputations.

Between 2006 and 2016, the economic impact of international students in the U.S. more than doubled, to almost 37 billion dollars and support for 450,000 jobs. China long has been the number one source of international students in the U.S., almost 351,000 in 2016-17, close to a third of all international students here. There is real money at stake for higher education institutions and surrounding communities.

The Chinese government, through a purportedly semi-official cover entity known as Hanban, also has made ample use of financial incentives to spread its Confucius Institutes across the United States and the world, also establishing hundreds of Confucius Classrooms in U.S. K-12 schools.

Hanban provides start-up costs, annual payments, and instructors for courses that universities can charge for as their own offerings, though without being able to exercise academic supervision. There appears to be a link between hosting Confucius Institutes and benefiting from an influx of full tuition-paying Chinese students or receiving funding for U.S. students to conduct research in China.

Members of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China have publicly portrayed the Confucius Institutes as instruments of Chinese influence, and stressed the imperative of conformity with socialist core values and requirements. The institutes enforce internally and promote publicly Chinese government positions on issues such as the Tiananmen Square massacres, religion (including the Falun Gong movement), Tibet, or Muslim discontent in the Xinjiang region.

In 2014, more than 100 University of Chicago faculty members signed a petition characterizing the university’s Confucius Institute as a “politico-pedagogical project that is contrary in many respects to (the University’s) own academic values” enforcing “political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China.”

It was an apt description. Chicago’s relations with Hanban in fact deteriorated, and the university did not renew its Confucius Institute contract, a step that McMaster University in Canada had taken earlier. Other universities that have terminated their relationships with Hanban include Pennsylvania State, Stockholm University, and the University of Lyon.

In fact, few new Confucius Institutes were established in 2016 and 2017, and the Chinese authorities evidently perceive a problem. They are promising “reforms” of the Confucius Institutes.

Whether the problem is really academic naïveté, baseline skepticism regarding universities’ part to play in national security, or powerful economic motivations, the concerns of FBI Director Wray about Chinese intelligence and information warfare activities at U.S. higher education institutions are at their core well-founded.  

Despite some efforts to downplay the problem, the academic world is not a “safe space,” insulated from international rivalries, and the Chinese clearly understand the increasingly central role in such competition of shaping intellectual capital and elite perceptions. At U.S. colleges and universities, Chinese efforts both exploit and violate academic freedom.  Academic and governmental authorities should be looking for common ground to address this challenge.

Eric R. Terzuolo was an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, and since 2010 has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State. He completed a doctorate in education at the George Washington University, focusing on international dimensions of higher education.