COLLEGES “BOUGHT BY BEIJING”
“So many of our colleges are bought by Beijing.”
I imagine that assertion caused jaws to drop and eyes to widen when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it in a recent speech. After all, he was giving his remarks at a leading research university — Georgia Tech.
It certainly caught my attention. Not because the remarks were critical of China — Pompeo has repeatedly made the case for urgent attention there. No, I was struck by the allegation that American higher educational institutions were complicit.
Pompeo made sure to clarify that his concerns were specific to the the Chinese government, not Chinese Americans or Chinese people under the rule of their country’s regime. That being said, Pompeo had much to say about the practices of the communist government. He wished aloud that “freedom-loving places like Georgia Tech and institutions and scholars all across the world… would be more up in arms about the Chinese Communist Party’s outright theft and flagrant violation of freedoms.”
But such outcry was rare, he said.
“Well, why? Why do schools censor themselves?” Pompeo asked. “They often do it out of fear of offending China.”
That made me wonder why these schools should fear. And I admit I was intrigued even more after I read the retort of one education association leader discourteously dismissing Pompeo’s remarks as “absurd and insulting” and simply being “political red meat for the Republican base.”
Here’s the thing. Concern about the influence the People’s Republic of China (PRC) holds over U.S. institutions, including colleges and universities, is not simply a “red meat” issue. Not long ago, the Wilson Center — named after President Woodrow Wilson and certainly not a right-wing ideological institution — issued a report titled, “A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education.” In that study, Wilson Center researchers found that Chinese “authorities have historically perceived foreign academic institutions as a threat to their legitimacy because of the space such environments create for the interplay of critical analysis and activities.”
The study adds that its “primary sources show that PRC authorities have viewed diplomatic staff, scholars, and students abroad as strategic resources for influencing foreign discourse about China.”
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students — a significant market for college recruitment — study at U.S. colleges and universities each year. Certainly, most are not agents or activists for the PRC, but some clearly wish to leverage their voices on behalf of Beijing.
For example, just weeks ago Voice of America (VOA) — again, not a conservative organization — reported on a virtual event hosted by Brandeis University exploring the human rights debacle in China’s Xinjiang region where more than a million Uighur Muslims and other minorities (including Christians) are in prison camps. Sadly, the event was overtaken by hackers smearing a Uighur advocate and her cause.
The university had previously been warned not to hold the event through letters VOA confirmed to come from a template of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). According to a 2018 Hoover Institution report:
With the direct support of the Chinese embassy and consulates, Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) sometimes report on and compromise the academic freedom of other Chinese students and American faculty on American campuses. American universities that host events deemed politically offensive by the Chinese Communist Party and government have been subject to increasing pressure, and sometimes even to retaliation, by diplomats in the Chinese embassy and its six consulates as well as by CSSA branches.
Clearly, pressure from people loyal to the PRC is an issue. Then there is the matter of the money.
Bloomberg News earlier this year reported that 115 colleges and universities received gifts or contracts worth nearly $1 billion from mainland China sources since 2013. While the $93.7 million that went to Harvard University is very noticeable, the article quoted one observer who suggested smaller donations to schools with less resources could be even more influential.
Of note, while releasing a report in October suggesting a “massive failure” of schools to accurately report their actual financial ties to countries like China, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, “The threat of improper foreign influence in higher education is real.”
The jury may be out on the allegation that some universities are “bought” by China, but this matter does certainly appear to be more than just simple “political red meat.”
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena. He reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com. (Photo Credit: Unsplash.)
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