Beijing, in seeking influence on American college and university campuses, has been infringing on academic freedoms, violating American sovereignty, and breaking U.S. law. U.S. officials, neglecting their responsibilities to the American people, have allowed this injurious behavior to continue, in some instances for decades.
As an initial matter, some of this impermissible Chinese conduct is harmless, even amusing. As detailed by Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic in a landmark study for the Wilson Center, Chinese officials in 2004 and 2007 threatened then Columbia University professor Robert Barnett, the prominent Tibet expert, that if he did not adopt a more favorable view of China’s policies they would — heavens! — stop speaking to him.
Most of the time, however, impermissible conduct has taken on a more ominous tone. Barnett, for instance, was also the target of an effort, by a Chinese student at Columbia and a faculty member from China (at another institution), to “depose” him for trying to protect Tibetan exiles from harassment by Chinese students and Chinese consular officials.
In 2009, an official from the Chinese Consulate in New York got in touch with Ming Xia, a faculty member at City University of New York, and demanded he stop work on a documentary on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The official, saying China could offer more “financial rewards” than he was getting for the documentary, essentially offered Xia a bribe; when that did not work, the official directly threatened him.
Then there was the Yang Shuping incident in June 2017. Yang gave the commencement speech at the University of Maryland, criticizing Beijing’s environmental record and praising American democratic values. She was targeted by the infamous Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which called her speech “intolerable”, a word inconsistent with the notions of an open campus. Her family back in China was threatened.
China’s Communist Party, especially its United Front Work Department, has targeted institutions of higher learning as part of an intensive, multi-decade effort to influence American society. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has placed great emphasis on international propaganda efforts, in May 2015 identified students as “a new focus of United Front Work,” suggesting they should be promoters and implementers of Party efforts.
As a result of this direction from the top of the Chinese political system, United Front Work Department activity, according to one “senior US official” quoted in the Financial Times, has “reached an unacceptable level.”
Unacceptable? What the official may have found “unacceptable” was that students from China have acted in ways that have intimidated faculty, staff, and other students at American universities. Chinese students have done this by, among other things, demanding schools remove research materials, by insisting that faculty change teaching content to suit Beijing, by trying to prevent others from criticizing China, and by trying to force the cancellation of academic activities.
Chinese students, not surprisingly, are becoming a part of what is known as “China’s long arm.” Far more worrying than the activities of students, however, are the actions of Chinese diplomats. Chinese diplomats, as Lloyd-Damnjanovic wrote in her September 2018 report, have been “employing intimidating modes of conversation.”
Diplomats have also infringed on academic freedom by complaining about on-campus speakers and events, by trying to coerce faculty, and by threatening retaliation against American university programs in China.
The main instruments of Chinese power on American campuses are the Confucius Institutes and CSSA chapters.
CIs, as the Confucius Institutes are known, were first established in 2004 to provide Chinese language instruction, but they now teach Chinese society, culture, and other topics. They have also, incredibly, organized demonstrations on American soil, often to welcome Chinese leaders or to hound the Dalai Lama.
The CIs operate at Beijing’s direction. The 107 or so Confucius Institutes in the U.S. formally report to the Hanban, the National Chinese Language Office, “affiliated” with the Chinese Ministry of Education.
In reality, the Hanban appears to be a front for the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which is charged with managing relations with other organizations and individuals. Liu Yunshan, once head of the Party’s Propaganda Department, in 2010 exhorted CIs to “actively carry out international propaganda battles.” CIs appear, in fact, to be funded by the Propaganda Department. A party-state, especially one as problematical as China’s, disseminating information as a formal unit of an institution of higher learning is nothing short of alarming, especially considering the Party’s renewed emphasis on undermining freedom and democracy worldwide.
Possibly even more alarming are the arrangements between China and American educational institutions. The contracts establishing Confucius Institutes are rarely public. One might well wonder why.
According to Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the National Association of Scholar:
The contractual language the Hanban pushes on universities poses a more substantive threat to academic autonomy. The Confucius Institute constitution requires all universities to avoid “tarnish[ing] the reputation of the Confucius Institutes” — an offense punishable by revocation of the contract, immediate loss of all Hanban funds, and potential unspecified “legal action.” I examined eight signed contracts between American universities and the Hanban, all eight of which duplicate this language almost verbatim.
The institutes, therefore, have been set up from the get-go to be exempt from criticism. This immunity, by itself, undermines the ability of administrators to supervise the CIs.
Even more dangerous are the 150 or so chapters of the CSSA and their closely affiliated groups. These organizations are sometimes covertly sponsored, funded, and, most disturbingly, directed by China’s embassy and five consulates in the U.S.
Sometimes these links are openly admitted, but often the chapters try to hide their connections to Beijing. The website of the University of California San Diego chapter once said it was “a subordinate organization” of the Los Angeles Chinese Consulate. The George Washington University chapter says it is “directed by” and “works with” the Chinese embassy. The chapter at the University of Tennessee requires members to swear adherence to certain positions advocated by the Chinese government. The constitution of Southwestern CSSA — a group of chapters in Arizona, California, Hawaii, and New Mexico — states that all local CSSA presidential candidates must be approved by China’s Los Angeles consulate.
The main points of contact for CSSA chapters are often intelligence officers in the embassy and consulates. China’s Ministry of State Security uses CSSA students to inform on other Chinese on campus. Sulaiman Gu, a student at the University of Georgia, told Radio Free Asia that MSS agents tried to get him to inform on fellow Chinese. Gu actually provided RFA with tapes of MSS agents giving him requests for information on certain targets.
Moreover, the Chinese state has, for several decades, been organizing — and paying for — Chinese students to engage in demonstrations on U.S. soil outside campuses, thereby impermissibly interfering in the American political process.
So, what should be done about all this?
Let us start with what should not be done. America should not, as President Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller proposed this year, ban all Chinese students. The U.S. is an open society, and Americans should keep it open. That is why their country is so strong. Americans do not need to create a climate of intimidation and fear against a racial group.
Americans also should not vilify Chinese students as a group or forget that Chinese students and faculty members of Chinese descent are often the targets of Beijing’s influence and interference operations. In short, let us not punish victims.
So what should America do?
First, universities can take over many of the functions of CSSA chapters. In addition to their malign activities, CSSA chapters provide important support services, such as helping Chinese students adjust when they first arrive on campus. The Communist Party should not be the only institution providing those services. U.S. colleges and universities benefit from the tuition of about 340,000 students from China, and these institutions can certainly offer services to support their stay.
Second, Washington should rely on existing norms, rules, and laws. American institutions certainly can deal with whatever Beijing throws at them. So, for instance, any CSSA chapter that hides funding from Beijing — a violation of college and university rules — should be disbanded.
Most of all, let us get the FBI to round up Ministry of State Security agents who, up to now, have been given free rein to operate in America. Putting these agents behind bars or even just revoking their visas will end many of the activities that endanger American campuses. The Chinese kill CIA agents in China. The least Washington can do is declare China’s agents personae non gratae.
The Chinese feel emboldened to violate American sovereignty and break laws because American administrations have let them do these things — sometimes openly — since at least the early 1990s. This is as much a Washington problem as a Beijing one.
Third, Congress can also change laws to make life inhospitable for Confucius Institutes. The John McCain 2019 National Defense Authorization Act provides that an educational institution cannot receive Defense Department funds for any program that involves a Confucius Institute.
That is a good start, but the Trump administration should try to extend the prohibition. Legislation should bar an educational institution from receiving any federal funds if it hosts a CI.
Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars told Gatestone that there are now three bills before Congress — the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act, and the Aim Higher Act — addressing the problems posed by Confucius Institutes.
Fourth, U.S. and campus officials must make sure that Communist Party members do not abuse their First Amendment rights. The First Amendment gives China’s Party committees the freedom to convene, but they do not have the freedom to intimidate others, especially Chinese and American students and scholars, a violation of civil liberties.
The existence of a Party cell on a U.S. campus — there are now several of them — signals to Chinese students and faculty that, although they are in the United States, they are still subject to Beijing’s supervision.
This issue of Chinese intimidation on campus for me is personal. My father, born in China, came to Cornell University in 1945 on a Chinese government scholarship. For Chinese students in the United States, I wish for them what my father had, the experience to study — and live — without fear.