Communist China’s Sprawling Plan to Infiltrate American College Campuses

Communist China’s Sprawling Plan to Infiltrate American College Campuses
A pedestrian passes by on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis on April 9, 2019. The university closed its Confucius Institute in 2019. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Venus Upadhayaya
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News Analysis

The Chinese regime is ramping up efforts to infiltrate U.S. universities to gain access to valuable research and mold the minds of the next generation of America’s thought leaders, advocates and experts warn.

American colleges’ ties to China have drawn heightened scrutiny in recent years, in particular over Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes that have been criticized for spreading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda and stifling academic freedom, and the revelation that universities received nearly $1.5 billion in gifts and contracts from China from 2014 to 2020.

But these examples form a small part of a multifaceted campaign to subvert the institutions that foster America’s technological and intellectual elite.

“The CCP sees the openness of our leading universities as a weapon that it can turn against us,” said John Metz, president of the Athenai Institute, a student-founded nonprofit focused on removing CCP influence from college campuses.

“It aims to use espionage and its financial influence over universities not only to control discourse and censor its critics, but also to acquire the advanced technology it needs to expand its military might and further its genocidal policies,” Metz told The Epoch Times in an email.

Meanwhile, Chinese influence operations targeting universities are but one aspect of the CCP’s global efforts to subvert all aspects of Western society to benefit the regime. And since the CCP wants to overtake the United States as the sole global superpower, the United States is a major focus of its operations.

“In a very literal sense, the CCP’s access to our universities endangers American lives,” Metz said.

“The CCP is targeting young people because it wants to control the minds of the next generation of leaders. We risk losing not just in the present, but in the future as well.”

A human rights group urges Tufts University to close its Confucius Institute in Somerville, Mass., on March 13, 2021. (Learner Liu/The Epoch Times)
A human rights group urges Tufts University to close its Confucius Institute in Somerville, Mass., on March 13, 2021. (Learner Liu/The Epoch Times)

Silencing Dissidents

A major part of Chinese influence operations in U.S. universities involves controlling public opinion about the CCP. This has always involved silencing those who speak out against the regime and its abuses.
To that end, Chinese international students themselves and Chinese student associations have become tools by which the regime can suppress dissenting voices on campus. Over the years, there has been a spate of incidents in which Chinese student groups with links to the Chinese consulate have successfully suppressed or attempted to suppress voices critical of the Party at U.S. universities.

“In my view, the newer generation of international students from China seems to be a lot more nationalistic than the ones I have met in college,” Se Hoon Kim, director of the Captive Nations Coalition of the Committee on Present Danger: China, said. The Captive Nations Coalition is an advocacy body representing groups victimized by the CCP.

By nationalistic, Kim means that these students deemed anything critical of the CCP as anti-nationalistic.

According to Kim, if one talks to Chinese international students on U.S. campuses about the CCP, they generally say, “Party is the people and we are the Party”—a propaganda line repeatedly espoused by the CCP in which it claims to be the sole representative of China and the Chinese people.

“If you have individuals like that occupying U.S. universities and who go taking part in everyday classes and taking part in everyday university activities, what tends to happen is that any type of discussion about the criticism of the Chinese Communist Party actually comes into jeopardy,” said Kim.

FBI Director Christopher Wray in a speech early this year offered an example of the Chinese regime threatening and harassing students at U.S. universities for merely exercising their right to free speech.

“In a recent incident at one Midwestern university, for example, a Chinese American student posted online praise for those students who were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. And almost immediately, his parents called from China, saying that Chinese intelligence officers had shown up to threaten them because of his post,” he said.

Wray was talking about a 2020 incident involving Kong Zhihao, a Chinese graduate student at Purdue University in Indiana who was subsequently accused by other Chinese students on campus of being a CIA agent. Due to harassment received from the CCP, Kong reluctantly decided to cancel a planned speech for an event commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“I think some of the Chinese students in my school are CCP members. I can tell they are not simply students. They could be spies or informants,” Kong told ProPublica at the time.
The Confucius Institute building on the campus of Troy University, in Troy, Ala., on March 16, 2018. (Kreeder13/Wikimedia Commons)
The Confucius Institute building on the campus of Troy University, in Troy, Ala., on March 16, 2018. (Kreeder13/Wikimedia Commons)

Confucius Institutes Simply Rebranded

Confucius Institutes, the Beijing-funded language centers criticized as conduits of propaganda, have drawn considerable pushback in recent years, resulting in the closing of 104 of the 118 centers across U.S. colleges and universities.
But the National Association of Scholars said in a June report that many of these closures have simply resulted in a re-branding of the programs. Confucius Institute-like programs have since emerged under other names or have reappeared in other forms, the report said.

Universities are generally eager to replace their Confucius Institutes with similar programs. According to the report, out of those closed, 28 have replaced their institutes with a similar program, 58 have maintained close relations with the former Confucius Institute partner university, and five have kept their Confucius Institutes alive by transferring the center to a new host.

The report said after the closure of the institutes, some host institutions were made to refund money to the Chinese regime, in certain cases in excess of $1 million.

Espionage

China’s theft of research and technology from American universities has been a direct assault on U.S. innovation leadership. Recently, there has been more clamor about the theft of sensitive technology adding another angle to China’s meddling in U.S. universities.
The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, last year voted unanimously to approve its final report (pdf) to Congress recommending that American universities take steps to prevent the theft of sensitive technology by the Chinese military.

“On a level playing field, the United States is capable of out-innovating any competitor. However, today, there is a fundamental difference in the U.S. and China’s approaches to AI innovation that puts American AI leadership in peril,” said the report, adding that, unlike China, the U.S. innovation model is based on the open exchange of ideas, free markets, and limited government involvement.

“China is executing a centrally directed systematic plan to extract AI knowledge from abroad through espionage, talent recruitment, technology transfer, and investments. It has ambitious plans to build and train a new generation of AI engineers in new AI hubs,” it said.

During the Cold War, technology competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was characterized by research and development programs that were divorced from one another. But in today’s interconnected world, U.S.-China competition is more complicated because both countries’ research ecosystems are deeply connected through shared research projects, talent circulation, and commercial linkages that include supply chains, markets, and joint research ventures, according to the report.

Growing awareness of the threat of technology theft rose amid the Trump administration, which launched the China Initiative, a Department of Justice program aimed at combating economic espionage and other malign actions emanating from the communist regime.

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves federal court following his arrest in Boston, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves federal court following his arrest in Boston, on Jan. 30, 2020. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)

Dozens of U.S. or Chinese researchers or academics have been prosecuted or convicted under the initiative, with charges ranging from theft of trade secrets to grant fraud.

Late in 2021, former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department Charles Lieber was convicted by a jury of lying to federal agencies about his ties to the Thousand Talents Plan, the Chinese regime’s talent recruitment plan accused of facilitating the transfer of American know-how to China.
However, the Biden administration ended the China Initiative in February 2022 amid allegations of racial discrimination. While an internal review found no racial bias in the department’s approach, the program was shuttered over the concern of a perception of bias, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division Matthew Olsen said at the time.

Chinese Funding

Ian Oxnevad, a program research associate with the National Association of Scholars and one of the authors of the above-mentioned report on Confucius Institutes, told The Epoch Times that China’s influence operations on U.S. universities align with the CCP’s goal of becoming a global superpower.

“Part of China’s sort of grand strategy is not only stealing economic and security-related secrets, specifically in technology from around the world, but it’s also shaping how China is viewed,” Oxnevad said. This means that discussions on subjects like human rights violations, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and atrocities like the Great Leap Forward will continue to get censored. This concern has brought up a louder debate about Chinese funding to U.S. universities.

Metz said that Chinese funding is a “massive source” of university funding, and it is attractive because it deceptively appears to be freely given and there’s a need to root it out by preventing universities from accepting such funding.

He pointed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as one example of Chinese money flowing to American colleges. The university received more than $100 million in contributions from various Chinese sources between 2015 and 2019, according to a 2020 Department of Education report.

Last year, Michelle Bethel, a board member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, resigned over ethical concerns about the institute’s partnerships with Chinese research bodies.

“By conducting research with institutions in China, the McGovern Institute unwittingly could be aiding the country’s repressive security apparatus or its military, whose officers have published articles declaring biology a new domain of warfare,” Bethel wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed explaining her resignation.

“My concerns about how Beijing might be using our findings were dismissed as racist and political,” she wrote.

To Metz, American universities’ collaboration with Chinese institutions and their financial links to China is an untenable situation.

“That vast financial leverage creates an incentive for universities like MIT to look the other way while the CCP abuses human rights and threatens U.S. national security,” he said.

In this April 3, 2017 file photo, students walk past the "Great Dome" atop Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
In this April 3, 2017 file photo, students walk past the "Great Dome" atop Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

An MIT spokesperson told The Epoch Times that MIT has “strong processes for evaluating and managing the risks of research involving countries, including China, whose behavior affects U.S. national and economic security.”

Earlier in response to Bethel’s op-ed, the university issued a statement jointly by Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Nergis Mavalvala, dean of MIT’s School of Science, and Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research at the university.

They said that of the dozens of research projects at McGovern Institute, only one on developing treatments for severe forms of autism or neurological disorders is with China, and MIT receives no funding from China for it.

“Every proposed engagement that involves an organization or funding source from China, once it has been evaluated for compliance with U.S. law and regulation, is further reviewed by committees of senior administrators to consider risks related to national security, economic competitiveness, and civil and human rights,” the statement said.

What Should the US Do?

The question of how the United States should respond to the Chinese regime’s interference on U.S. campuses has prompted varying recommendations from experts, ranging from cutting federal funding to universities that partner with the Chinese regime to stepping up information sharing with like-minded countries.

Greg F. Treverton, a professor at the University of Southern California and a former chairperson of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, told The Epoch Times that incidents of the CCP trying to censor criticism on U.S. campuses are “occasional, worrisome, but not worth cutting off cooperation” with China.

“I think there are two sorts of cooperation that ought to be beefed up, there ought to be more and more explicit cooperation between universities and for instance, the FBI,” he added. Treverton said such cooperation doesn’t come “naturally” because generally many people in the universities are skeptical of the government.

The second kind of cooperation should be between the United States and its “friends around the world” like Australia, another popular country with Chinese international students. Treverton said that’s important because if the United States closes its doors to Chinese students, they’ll go elsewhere.

“We can share information about what’s happened with various countries, by way of connections between China, Chinese authorities, and their students,” he said.

The National Association of Scholars report recommended that, in the short term, the federal government should amend the National Defense Authorization Act to target Confucius Institute-replacement programs and should institute “new limits on other sources of federal funding to institutions that maintain a [Confucius Institute] or similar program.”

In the long term, the report said that authorities should levy tax on the Chinese funds and contracts received by U.S. institutions, and take other measures to build transparency in funding processes.

This will cap the “amount of Chinese funding a college or university may receive before jeopardizing eligibility for federal funding, and prohibiting funding to colleges and universities that enter research partnerships with Chinese universities involved in China’s military-civil fusion,” the report said.

Metz said that he’s started to witness a shift in universities, which, for the first time, are starting to reconsider their investments in China.

“Universities like CUA [The Catholic University of America] and Yale are already investigating their endowments links to the Uyghur genocide; others, like Harvard, are rolling back these investments more quietly,” he said.

“By the end of the 2022-23 school year we expect other universities to begin to divest at an accelerating rate,” Metz said, adding that university leaders including trustees and other administrators are reaching out to Athenia asking how they can reduce their exposure to the worst actors in China.

Athenia plans to launch a new, interactive online tool that will help students, policymakers, and other stakeholders actually begin to measure their universities’ exposure to China.

Metz said that online tool will look at everything from gifts and research partnerships to Confucius Institutes, investments, and state-supported harassment and censorship of students.

Venus Upadhayaya reports on India, China, and the Global South. Her traditional area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her other areas of interest.
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