Call for action to combat China’s campus influence

United States universities should collaborate to counter growing Chinese government influence on US campuses which undermines academic freedom and promotes Beijing’s political views overseas, including on geopolitics, according to a wide-ranging report on China’s political influence on American higher education.

American universities should adopt practices to make the campus environment “less hospitable to China’s influence and interference activities”, including by sharing experiences among universities “to develop a collective awareness of challenges arising from engagement with the PRC [People’s Republic of China]”, as well as to create a reporting system for universities when they experience such incidents, including channels for faculty to report them to university administrations.

Apart from increased vigilance on campus, it also recommends putting mechanisms in place for university collaboration with federal law enforcement to report instances of diplomatic pressure and retaliation against universities.

“Experience sharing will help universities which might otherwise dismiss a single instance of diplomatic pressure, to recognise larger patterns of influence and interference that affect multiple institutions,” said the report, A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education, published by the Wilson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC.

The 150-page report presents a thorough analysis of Chinese government-backed activities on campuses, over the past two decades, and includes interviews with more than 100 scholars and researchers, in a comprehensive survey of the experiences of students, faculty and administrators dealing with the impact of China’s political agenda on their campuses.

It says government and academia should jointly convene a non-partisan team of researchers to investigate China’s influence and interference activities, but meanwhile develop tactics to rebuff pressures from China’s diplomats and others. This could include declaring persona non grata diplomats who pressure universities that extend invitations to figures like the Dalai Lama or threaten faculty members pursuing sensitive research topics.

The effects of China’s interference “are real”, it says, and adds that greater collaboration between academia and government against China’s influence “will bolster, not weaken academic freedom”.

Cases documented

The report by Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic documents many cases where China’s diplomats and “a small number of students” infringed on academic freedom and personal safety of individuals on campus.

Its findings, it says, “suggest a worrisome trend in which faculty, students, administrators and staff across a range of disciplines within American universities are encountering pressure to align their academic activities with PRC [People’s Republic of China] political preferences”.

“Such pressure may limit critical discourse about China on campus, harming the learning environment for other students from the PRC, the United States and third countries. If the infringements associated with PRC actors become widespread, faculty, students, administrators and staff in the United States may find themselves acclimatising to the PRC’s domestic censorship standards,” it says, referring to widespread curbs on academic freedom in China.

The report also notes that some US-based China scholars admitted to self-censorship, with the most commonly cited reason being the fear of being denied a visa to the PRC and the knock-on effects this might have on professional advancement.

But some faculty said they self-censored because they feared that their own institutions would not stand up for them if they were denied a visa or became embroiled in a controversy involving offended students from the PRC. Others changed their research topic to avoid the issues. This echoes the findings of a survey released last month on US China scholars and self-censorship.

“Declining to support research involving sensitive content for reasons of feasibility harms Americans’ broad knowledge of China,” the Wilson Center report said.

American universities may also reinforce the problem “by preferring to hire faculty who will not face political constraints on their scholarly output”, the report said.

The report features documented cases where Chinese diplomats pressured or offered inducements to faculty whose work involves content deemed sensitive by China, in order to make them change their approach. Others included “probing faculty and staff for information in a manner consistent with intelligence collection”; and using intimidating approaches, the report notes.

Controversial speakers and events

China diplomats in the US have complained to universities about invited speakers and events – particularly pertaining to subjects that Beijing deems sensitive, such as Tibet, Taiwan and the persecuted religious group, the Falun Gong.

These include retaliatory measures in at least three instances against American universities after they hosted such events. For instance, in response to the Dalai Lama’s 2013 visit to the University of Maryland, Beijing stopped groups of municipal- and provincial-level PRC government officials attending training programmes at the University of Maryland’s China Initiative.

“China did essentially turn off the taps for a period of time,” the then director of the Maryland China Initiative Robert Daly was quoted in the report as saying.

The well-documented Dalai Lama’s 2017 visit to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) led to “multiple forms of retaliation” against the university’s cooperative programmes and educational exchanges with China. Several China scholars expecting to study at UCSD had to cancel their plans after the China Scholarship Council notified them it would not provide funding.

The fallout also affected UCSD’s history department as well as the Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China when a Beijing government entity, thought to be the ministry of education, issued an oral directive ordering domestic universities to cease cooperating with UCSD.

The Fudan-UC Center’s China partners did not commit funds or renew the memorandum of understanding sustaining the research centre, a collaboration between Fudan University, Shanghai, and the 10 University of California campuses.

Since signs of recrimination became apparent, UCSD has repeatedly sought clarification on the retaliatory measures and the status of its programmes from the Beijing government, but received none, the report said.

Actions by China students

A small number of students who are China nationals – a tiny proportion of the more than 350,000 China nationals currently studying in the US – have “infringed on academic freedom” by demanding the removal of research, promotional and decorative materials involving sensitive content from university spaces; demanding faculty alter their language or teaching materials where they involve sensitive content; interrupting and heckling members of the university community who engage in critical discussion of China; and pressuring universities to cancel academic activities involving sensitive content.

The report also mentions students monitoring people and activities on campus about sensitive issues, probing faculty for information in a suspicious manner and using intimidatory approaches. Some of these are through China Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), which have official backing and are common on university campuses, with large numbers of Chinese students. But it might also be through party cells.

There are known party cells at a handful of US institutions, the report says, naming the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ohio State University, UCSD, the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, Northern Illinois University, and the University of North Dakota.

While China is not the only country that seeks to influence universities, what makes it different is its scale and its geopolitical ambitions, the report notes. “Moreover, PRC authorities view the threat emanating from American universities through the prism of their unique political situation,” it says, referring to the ideological chasm between the two nations.

The report notes activities have occurred not just at cash-strapped public university systems with high enrolments of China nationals, but also at wealthy Ivy League institutions and small liberal arts institutions. “This matters because it indicates that institutions across the spectrum of American higher education may eventually face pressure to align their academic activities with PRC political preferences.”

Nonetheless it warns that countermeasures should not undermine legitimate exchanges of culture, knowledge and business between the two countries.

Most importantly, the public discourse surrounding countermeasures must highlight the positive contributions of China’s students to the US “to make clear that a few bad apples do not spoil the barrel”, the report says. China students contributed US$12.55 billion to the US economy in 2017, and make significant contributions to the American economy, scientific innovation and culture.

Countermeasures should neither vilify these students as a group “nor lose sight of the fact that these students, along with faculty members of Chinese descent, are often the victims of influence and interference activities perpetrated by PRC diplomats and nationalistic peers”.

An ideal response would not target China students, but would be based on “impartially applied principles about what is acceptable for all students in the university environment”.

China in an official statement has described the report as “totally groundless, full of prejudice, discrimination and hostility”.