China's incursion on American campuses is nothing to take lightly

China's incursion on American campuses is nothing to take lightly
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Last October, Xi Jinping told his colleagues at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), “Government, the military, society, and schools — north, south, east and west — the party leads them all.” CCP branches have long exerted the party’s power over government bureaucracy, labor unions, schools, and state-owned enterprises. The party has prioritized installing branches in ever smaller private companies over the last decade, and demands their formation in foreign companies operating in China. So it should come as no surprise that the CCP extends its reach overseas and onto foreign university campuses, as Foreign Policy reported in April.

In the new era of U.S.-China competition, it is tempting to frame all party-state encroachment as a national security issue. Rising to China’s challenge, however, is as much about being a better America as it is finding the appropriate strategic response. Sometimes they are the same thing. In the case of party branches, bringing national security tools to bear risks what makes America exceptional. As the CCP tightens its grip, the United States should extend an open hand. It means ensuring Chinese students, scholars, and perhaps future Americans do not have their right to liberty impeded on American soil.

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In the CCP’s own view, the formation of party branches is linked to national security. The party’s objective is to protect itself as head of China, not simply protecting China. The CCP cells remind overseas Chinese that while the party’s power may not be so visible, its presence ubiquitous. As such, they fall within what the CCP calls “ideological security” and “cultural security.” The party branches organize salons and party event viewing parties. Party branch members submit reports on themselves as well as other students. The cells are tools to strengthen ideological guidance over Chinese scholars and students, helping them keep party discipline even while directly exposed to Western ideas.

 

If clear evidence of harassment is hard to find, it is because the ideological work of any post-totalitarian regime conditions people to make the symbolic gestures of loyalty in order to continue with their daily lives. Chinese students in the U.S. may fully appreciate American freedoms and feel ambivalent toward CCP doctrine, but the very existence of a party branch on a U.S. campus signals to overseas Chinese that they are still subject to the CCP’s restrictions.

Even though party branches are an extension of the CCP’s power and a direct part of China’s national security strategy, the United States cannot ban the formation of CCP cells on university campuses or anywhere else. Nor should concerned citizens and politicians seek such a ban. Doing so would sacrifice our fundamental democratic values.

Nevertheless, responding to the CCP’s tactics requires demonstrating that our democratic system cannot be abused to coerce by the CCP. Party committees have the freedom to convene, but they ought not have the freedom to do whatever they want. Intimidating Chinese or American students and scholars — keeping them from expressing themselves — is a question of civil liberties, not simply academic freedom on campuses. To wit, U.S. Code Title 18 defines conspiracy against rights as two or more people who “conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person” anywhere U.S. law applies, because they are exercising rights and privileges secured by the Constitution or U.S. law, or because they have done so. And this is only one of the tools available to protect both Chinese and American people on U.S. campuses.

Using the appropriate legal tools solves only part of the problem. Cases of clear intimidation do not usually take place on American soil. Often, such intimidation involves the harassment of family back in China of the overseas Chinese individual. State security organs in China pressure family members to ask the overseas individual to fall in line. We must design ways for students and scholars to report these abuses without fear.

In other cases, there is not always clear wrongdoing. For instance, political and social activity in the U.S. implicitly affects whether Chinese students pass a background check for a future job in China. This simple knowledge that the party is present is an incentive for most to stay apolitical.

CCP interference takes many forms, but the proper responses are rarely so clear. Treating CCP organizations on U.S. campuses as a challenge to civil liberties, and not as a national security issue, also requires understanding how our own efforts can be impeded. The best way to respond is to enhance elements of our systems for civil liberties protection.

At a minimum, the same universities that readily accept increasingly high numbers of Chinese students must assist students with effective services and protections. Visible, accessible, transparent outlets as well as safe academic environments for students who wish to avoid the party’s presence in their everyday life are a start. There should be clear avenues and resources for dealing with any student or scholar who wishes to report intimidation. Ensuring Chinese individuals can live free of surveillance while in the United States is the best way in which we can extend our welcome.

Samantha Hoffman is a visiting academic fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. Peter Mattis is a research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.