U.S. colleges may be blind to Chinese influence

Even as all eyes are focused on Russia’s attempts to unduly influence U.S. political processes, other analysts see China attempting to do the same, albeit through academia rather than directly.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in Feb. 13 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that China’s “use of nontraditional (intelligence) collectors, especially in the academic setting” was visible across the entire country, and across virtually all academic disciplines.

The Director also shared the concerns of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about the Confucius Institutes which are hosted by American colleges and universities. The purpose of these institutes, which are funded by the Chinese government, is the teaching of Chinese language and culture. However, they are also known to be tied to international efforts to spread Chinese government propaganda.

By all counts, the effort has been successful. A British media report in October 2017 said 158 Confucious Institutes existed in the U.S.; there are more in Europe. [source]

During his testimony, Wray claimed that many U.S. institutes of higher learning had simply been naive about the intentions behind the Confucious Institutes. But other analysts say that’s no longer a plausible assumption.

“An FBI report in 2011 already stated that foreign adversaries and competitors were taking advantage of the openness of U.S. colleges and universities, and said that a small percentage of students, researchers, and foreign professors were working ‘at the behest of a foreign government,'” American media reported. [source]

The Obama administration was wise to the Chinese. In 2016 the president “sought to restrict participation of foreign nationals in militarily sensitive research projects on campus, following a dramatic increase in the number of intellectual property cases under FBI investigation.” Several colleges complained; the Association of American Universities (AAU) , representing the 62 top U.S. research universities, plus Stanford, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania individually, most loudly.

Why? Partly because American universities are overwhelmingly liberal and thus averse to government claims of ‘national security.’ But there is also a financial factor involved: Foreign students are generally government-financed and thus pay their full ride, making them “cash cows” to schools competing for the next paying customer:

The Chinese government, through a purportedly semi-official cover entity known as Hanban, also has made ample use of financial incentives to spread its Confucius Institutes across the United States and the world, also establishing hundreds of Confucius Classrooms in U.S. K-12 schools.

Hanban provides start-up costs, annual payments, and instructors for courses that universities can charge for as their own offerings, though without being able to exercise academic supervision. There appears to be a link between hosting Confucius Institutes and benefiting from an influx of full tuition-paying Chinese students or receiving funding for U.S. students to conduct research in China. [source]

Analysis: U.S. intelligence is aware that China’s Communist leadership has openly proclaimed the Confucious Institutes to be instruments of Chinese influence. But some universities are also wising up. In 2014, for instance, “more than 100 University of Chicago faculty members signed a petition characterizing the university’s Confucius Institute as a ‘politico-pedagogical project that is contrary in many respects to (the University’s) own academic values’ enforcing ‘political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China.'” Other institutions have followed this lead and have not renewed Confucious Institution contracts. Chinese leaders managing this program must have detected a problem after few new institutes were established in the U.S. in 2016 and 2017; they have pledged “reforms.”

The only reforms will be in the approach; the program will be altered a little bit to make it appear as though Western concerns have been allayed. But the overarching objective — influencing American points of view — will remain. Or China will scrap the program and trying something else.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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