Questioning Ties to China

Rachelle Peterson

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted by RealClearEducation and is posted here with permission.

The Department of Education is probing the University of Texas for its ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese lab under investigation as a possible source of the coronavirus outbreak. UT’s Galveston National Laboratory has participated in “short- and long-term personnel exchanges” with Wuhan, as well as “collaborative scientific investigations in biocontainment.” In 2018, UT’s Galveston lab said it had “succeeded in transferring proven best practices to the new Wuhan facility.”

The probe doesn’t concern itself with whether the Wuhan lab really did start the pandemic. The U.S. intelligence community’s looking into that. But the Department of Education’s investigation underlines further critically important questions: How closely entwined are American colleges with the Chinese government? And how much undue influence has China thereby acquired over American higher education?

The answer is: too much. For years the Chinese government has worked to co-opt American students, scholars, and institutions of higher education.

The Chinese government has sought to shape American students’ knowledge and beliefs through programs such as Confucius Institutes—Chinese government-sponsored centers on college campuses. In exchange for sponsoring a Confucius Institute, the Chinese government gets to vet teachers and textbooks, exercise veto power over course offerings and events, and select what gets taught Chinese language and culture courses. Thirty-eight American universities have closed down their Confucius Institutes, but 78 are still open—despite warnings from  FBI Director Chris Wray and a ban on Pentagon funding to universities with Confucius Institutes.

China has also co-opted scholars. This February, Charles Lieber, the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was arrested and charged with lying about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan. China had been giving Lieber monthly $50,000 payments, a stipend for living expenses, and the use of a $1.5 million lab at Wuhan University of Technology. The Thousand Talents Plan lures scientists and researchers to bring sensitive intellectual property and proprietary knowledge to China.

And it’s not just Lieber. Last week, FBI agents arrested University of Arkansas professor Simon Saw-Teong Ang for defrauding NASA and his university by secretly participating in the Thousand Talents Plan. A University of Florida professor who participated in the Thousand Talents Plan quietly rose to simultaneously become vice president of a Chinese university. The National Institutes of Health has been investigating 180 researchers at 65 American colleges and universities for unlawful participation in the Thousand Talents Plan and theft of research.

Whole universities have been entangled—by Confucius Institutes, by branch campuses in China, by the influx of Chinese nationals enrolling as students. China has been the leading source of foreign students for years, with nearly 370,000 enrolling in the 2018-2019 school year. As foreign students, they are ineligible for in-state rates or other discounts, so they pay full tuition. Many colleges and universities are now excessively dependent on those students, some so much so that they have taken out insurance policies to cover a potential drop in Chinese students.

American colleges and universities for years have opened their arms wide for Chinese government funding—but that funding has come at a price. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts higher education, colleges and universities feel even greater pressure to seek additional funding from their foreign benefactors. The American government must cut the bonds between China and our colleges.

The National Association of Scholars has laid out a blueprint for any federal bailout of higher education. Critical Care addresses the myriad issues at hand in the pandemic, ranging from establishing student loan buyback programs to requiring steep cuts in college administrations. But Congress should pay particular attention to how it can spur our colleges and universities to serve the American national interest and American citizens, rather than foreign patrons. Here’s how it can do so.

Colleges and universities should limit their foreign enrollment such that no more than 20% of their tuition revenues come from international students—and should ensure that no more than 5% of tuition revenue comes from students of any single foreign country. No more than 5% of undergraduate students and 35% of graduate students in any department should be foreigners.

Congress should bring an end to international branch campuses. American colleges and universities operate 84 international branch campuses—15 of them in China and Hong Kong. Congress should require bailout recipients to terminate all ties with these branch campuses no later than December 31, 2021.

And Congress should specifically target the sources of undue Chinese government influence. No bailout recipient should host a Confucius Institute; employ a professor who has received money from the Thousand Talents Plan or similar Chinese influence and espionage organizations; possess a branch campus in China; or receive any undisclosed funds from the Chinese government or Chinese citizens.

Increasingly, members of Congress are questioning the propriety of American higher education’s close relationship with the Chinese government. Recently seven House Republicans, each a ranking member of a House committee, sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, noting that China’s efforts to infiltrate American higher education “bring into question” whether American institutions of higher education who are “receiving federal taxpayer dollars should be allowed to accept funds from China, the CCP, or other affiliated organizations.”

Bravo. Now it’s time for Congress to act.

Rachelle Peterson is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Tim Boote, Public Domain

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