The Naughty List

American Higher Ed and China’s Tsinghua University

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 12/11/2023


CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

Making lists, checking them twice, and keeping track of naughty and nice are just a few of the things totalitarian regimes have in common with Santa Claus. Add in the color red and a bearded figure, and communism and Marx share more with this jolly season. In elite higher education, Harvard and Yale may be notorious rivals in the world of football, but are happy bedfellows with China’s top-ranked Tsinghua University. Unfortunately for American higher education, Harvard, Yale, and other “elite institutions” sit uncomfortably on China’s Nice List

China’s Tsinghua University, founded in 1911 with the assistance of earmarked funds from the U.S. Congress, is intimately connected to the Chinese military. In 2014, Tsinghua began collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), the center of Beijing’s nuclear weapons program. Tsinghua University is home to multiple “defense laboratories,” such as the High-End Laboratory for Military Artificial Intelligence, the AVIC Air-to-Air Guided Missile Research Institute Measurement and Control Joint Laboratory, and the PLA Rocket Force University of Engineering. In 2002, Tsinghua’s International Technology Transfer Center, designed to “serve as a bridge for the bilateral connection between international technological resources and industrial fields” and China’s own “national technological innovation system” was acknowledged by the Chinese government.     

This year in the United Kingdom, 42 British universities were flagged for having concerning ties to the Chinese military by way of China’s higher education system. It was Tsinghua that helped develop AI technology to assist in the surveillance of China’s persecuted Uyghur minority. The Director of Tsinghua’s Institute for Contemporary China Studies even asserted the merits of a “single-race system” as beneficial to national stability in China. With such blatant risks involved, why is American higher education—centered as it is around ideas of social justice—on Tsinghua’s Nice List? 

The list of elite American colleges working alongside China’s crown jewel of totalitarian education includes: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell, Columbia, Yale, the University of Washington, the University of Southern California (USC), Temple University, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Harvard collaborates with Tsinghua on the collection of atmospheric data, and in the public health field. 

Ties between UC Berkeley and Tsinghua may offer an indication of the alignment taking place between the flagships of American higher education and communist China’s top university. This past July, the chairs of both the Congressional Workforce Committee and the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party wrote of their concern to the Berkeley administration over its ties with Tsinghua. In the cases of Berkeley, the school may have openly and willingly violated Federal restrictions on China. 

In 2014, Tsinghua and Berkely formed the joint Tsinghua-UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute (TBSI) as a “central hub of global research and education” focused on information technology and data science. Congress noted that TBSI’s research agenda eerily mimicked that of Tsinghua’s Five Year Plan. More distressing, TBSI works with Chinese business enterprises in the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List deemed dangerous to U.S. national security. Chinese companies such as Huawei are on TBSI’s advisory board. Beijing’s reach into Berkeley is deep—so far, the University has failed to disclose  $240 million in Chinese funding over the course of eight years for the construction of a research facility in Shenzhen. Berkeley also failed to disclose a $19 million payment from Tsinghua University itself. China received exclusive access to U.S. “semiconductor facilities” and the right to commercialize technology from the program.   

Ties between Tsinghua and Johns Hopkins University run doubly deep, with the two universities running joint programs in international affairs and biomedical engineering. These ties are not benign pursuits of knowledge by two scholarly institutes far-flung across the globe; rather, they are the product of China’s influence strategy to shape U.S. interests to match those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

In 2017, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies declared the opening of the Pacific Community Initiative, with funding from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). CUSEF is a registered entity affiliated with the CCP’s “united front” designed to influence policy and perception. Founded in 2008, CUSEF’s Chairman, Tung Chee-Hwa, was noted in 2020 to also be the Vice-Chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation noted the connection between the CPPCC and the Chinese government, stating that it is the “most prominent bureaucratic entity” controlled by China’s United Front Works Department, dedicated to exerting CCP influence abroad. 

Looking at Johns Hopkins University’s proximity to Washington’s halls of power, and the motivation for linking it to Tsinghua is clear. Shaping perceptions there feeds into shaping perceptions of future intelligence personnel, diplomats, and other careerists on the forefront of American foreign policy and national security. As for Tsinghua’s interest in Johns Hopkins’ Biomedical Engineering program, fundamental research in the areas of genomics, neuro-engineering, and immune-engineering are self-evident. China is making its lists. 

Earlier last month, China’s Xi Jinping and President Biden met in San Francisco in an effort to rekindle a deteriorating détente. With a focus on economic ties and joint actions on climate change as the main focus, Biden declared “connection, cooperation, and collective action” to be the focus of the future. This kind of high-diplomacy sits atop a mountain of deepening ties between the top bureaucrats in China and the U.S. thanks to the work of institutions like Tsinghua University, and its efforts to entwine with American universities. The connections are there, and the list is checked twice. 

Until next time, Merry Christmas!


Photo by Adobe Stock

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