China & American Universities: Administrators Must Fight Beijing’s Authoritarian Influence

China & American Universities: Administrators Must Fight Beijing’s Authoritarian Influence

(Illustration: Edgar Su/Reuters)

The CCP seeks to make American campuses less conducive to open inquiry, and more dangerous for students and professors. It can’t be allowed to succeed.


ith many American universities conducting classes online during the fall semester, some college professors are worried that the Chinese Communist Party will attempt to monitor lessons about topics that are politically sensitive to Beijing. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday on the steps that instructors are taking to protect their students from CCP surveillance as U.S.–China relations continue their downward trajectory amid the coronavirus pandemic and China’s Draconian crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

The digital classroom is ripe for potential security breaches. Video-conferencing platform Zoom, which is widely used by universities, has in recent months faced allegations that it bows to pressure from the Chinese government. In June, for example, Axios reported that the company had temporarily suspended the account of a U.S.-based dissident for his participation in a virtual panel about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. But even for universities that use different video-conferencing software, the possibility of surveillance still exists. Under the new Hong Kong national-security law, Beijing claims the authority to prosecute anyone, Chinese or otherwise, who engages in what it deems subversive speech outside of China. Beijing has already charged American citizens for such actions. And while Chinese students have been hassled for things that they do and say in the United States before, the law’s astounding claim of universal jurisdiction puts them at greater risk.

All of this has alarmed a number of American educators. Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, told the Journal that he will warn his students that his course touches on topics of concern to the Chinese government. He’s also introducing a system whereby students will submit work labeled with numeric codes, not their names, so that they are not linked to the views that they express in written assignments. In a commentary for China File, Truex and four other instructors have also offered advice for how educators should navigate the difficulties of securing their online classrooms against CCP surveillance by, among other things, setting policies on recording class sessions.

Some on Twitter criticized Truex’s comments, describing them as an accommodation of the CCP’s authoritarianism. But Truex isn’t one to back down in the face of Chinese pressure. Just a few months ago, he called on professors to conduct “freedom-of-speech operations,” events at which pressing human-rights issues that make Beijing uncomfortable can be discussed. The steps he and other professors are taking this semester merely reflect reality: The CCP is attempting to chill speech in classrooms at home and abroad, and shielding students is the best way to preserve a safe, open academic environment.

That Truex and other professors feel compelled to safeguard basic freedoms on campus by themselves suggests that university administrators have failed to do so. The Wall Street Journal’s team reached out to the schools named in the piece — Princeton University, Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Amherst College — but each of them declined to comment. It would have been incredibly simple for their press offices to issue boilerplate statements reaffirming their commitment to academic expression and offering support to students who might face legal difficulties stemming from their participation in college courses. Instead, they remained silent.

Are U.S. institutions of higher learning up to the task of insulating themselves from foreign interference? If recent history is any guide, the answer is no.

Take the prominent example of Confucius Institutes. These Chinese government-funded research centers exist at universities around the world, and focus mainly on culture and language studies. Few of them have actually exerted influence in a heavy-handed way, but they have been known to shape research projects to reinforce CCP narratives, harming academic freedom and improving local perceptions of the Chinese government in the process. Most of them were established between 2007 and 2010, through opaque agreements with university administrations. The lack of transparency in these agreements, in addition to their restrictive non-disclosure clauses and the control they grant to third-party personnel, led the American Association of University Professors to recommend that universities close Confucius Institutes in 2014. Yet the AAUP’s warning largely fell on deaf ears — until the U.S. government got involved.

Confucius Institutes have started to face heightened scrutiny from American officials over the past two years. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 prohibited institutions that host the Institutes from receiving funds for research from the Department of Defense. From the enactment of that provision to today, dozens of them have closed. Whereas there were once over 100 of them in the United States, there are now 75, according to the latest count by the National Association of Scholars. The State Department last week announced new rules that will treat the organization that coordinates the activities of U.S.-based Confucius Institutes like any other foreign-government entity on American soil, subjecting it to stricter disclosure rules. In the near future, the 75 that remain could well end up closing — but this will largely be to the credit of government officials, not university administrations.

Confucius Institutes are just one small part of American higher education’s engagement with China, though, and the Trump administration is prodding university administrators to address the full range of issues created by that engagement. A top State Department official recently wrote to the governing boards of U.S. institutions of higher learning, offering a laundry list of steps they can take to limit Chinese authoritarian influence. There are specific government actions that can make a huge difference — strengthening disclosure rules for foreign gifts to universities, for instance — but in the end university administrators themselves will need to step up.

As universities prepare for the fall semester, the lesson from the Journal’s report is clear: Too many administrations have failed to combat CCP influence on their campuses. Too many professors have been left to fend for themselves. A recent report by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations found that China-focused faculty are rarely consulted in administrative decisions involving the country. “This disconnect runs a range of risks, from simple policy errors, to a failure to anticipate the effects of major university decisions, to compromising core values of academic freedom and open inquiry,” says the report. Several universities, including Harvard and Columbia, operate facilities in China, often in conjunction with Chinese universities, giving rise to worries that they’ve sacrificed bedrock principles of academic integrity to gain a foothold in the country.

Individual professors shouldn’t feel as if they have no choice but to step into the breach left by administrators. The Chinese government seeks to make American campuses less conducive to uninhibited inquiry, and more dangerous for students and professors. If its efforts are to be thwarted, schools themselves — not educators or the federal government — must lead the way.

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