Experts' report on Chinese interference a cop-out

06 Dec 2018
Author: Robert Precht

Last week a group of distinguished China experts released a report warning of  China’s interference in various sectors of American government and society. Among its findings, Beijing is undermining academic freedom on US college campuses. The regime uses vague threats to induce US professors and students to self-censor what they say and to discourage research on topics that might embarrass the Communist Party. While the report is a useful wake up call, its recommended solution of extra due diligence is a cop-out. The only way to stop interference is for universities to decline funding from the Chinese government.

Misdiagnosing the problem

Contrary to report, the problem is not Beijing's desire to influence American opinion. Many countries seek to promote their agendas. Until recently the US State Department gave millions of dollars to nonprofits to run programs in China promoting Western notions of rule of law. I worked in Beijing at one of the NGOs, and it was my job to try to convince Chinese lawyers to act more like American lawyers and challenge the government.

The problem, rather, is economic dependence on China. In the past decade, US universities have become ever more reliant Chinese money. They recruited Chinese students in massive numbers.  Enrollments soared nearly 400 per cent from less than 100,000 in 2009 to over 350,000 students in 2017. Chinese pay tuition worth an estimated $12 billion per year, according to the US Department of Commerce. Meanwhile, universities went into business with the Chinese Communist Party. New York University, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and others formed joint enterprises with government-run universities to establish branch campuses, receiving generous donations of cash and land to do so. At home, colleges solicited Chinese money to start new programs. All told, since 2011, Chinese sources have contributed over $426 million to 77 American universities, according to disclosures made to the US Department of Education.

Conflict of interest 

Reliance on Chinese money places the universities in an impossible conflict interest: adhering to academic freedom vs. honoring Beijing’s wishes. Self-censorship is rife. Researchers avoid studying or teaching topics that might be critical of the Chinese government, i.e, Tibet, Taiwan, the Tiananmen deaths, the stability of the Communist Party and so forth.  A recent survey of more than 500 China studies scholars in the US revealed that about 68 percent of the respondents identified self-censorship as a problem in the field.  Self-censorship not only erodes academic freedom. When researchers avoid studying topics that might be critical of Beijing, knowledge about China is impoverished. Policymakers, businesspeople, and the public are deprived of information and analysis with which to make decisions.

False solution

The experts say that the solution is for universities to scrutinize donation agreements more carefully to make sure they do not contain restrictions on academic freedom. But this recommendation is hollow. Chinese donations have never contained explicit restrictions on academic freedom. Instead, it is the fear that Beijing will end support that creates a culture of self-censorship.  

Ultimately, the experts report is an evasion of responsibility. It documents the danger of interference, but doesn’t ask American institutions to do anything painful to reduce the danger. The only way to reduce interference is for universities to prioritize their historic mission of telling the truth. Universities should still welcome Chinese students, but they need to wean themselves from dependence on Chinese money.  

Many American complaints about China are difficult to solve because they require us to try to change China -- to convince leaders to abandon entrenched practices such as as state ownership of industries and forced transfers of intellectual property. But we don’t have to change China to reduce the danger of interference. We simply have to stick to our values.