September 19, 2018

JOHNS | China’s Effort to Influence American Academia Warrants Scrutiny

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The time has come to begin speaking frankly about China’s ongoing, wide-reaching and systematic human rights brutality, which now ranks among the world’s most troubling. For many years, in part because China was (wrongly) perceived to be navigating a complex liberalization process that assumed (again wrongly) that these conditions would ultimately improve and in part because China has spent vast millions of dollars buying influence and manipulating its global image to its strategic advantage, the nation has largely escaped the human rights scrutiny and consequences that its repressive policies properly warrant.

The list of human rights violations by the Chinese government is long and exhaustive. China’s suppression of Tibetans, its destruction of Christian churches, its jailing of political dissidents and its unrelenting control over Hong Kong have received some level of attention. The same cannot be said of one of China’s most egregious violations: its brutally repressive treatment of the nation’s largely Islamic Uyghur population.

Three Cornell University professors, Magnus Fiskesjö, anthropology, Jeremy Wallace, government, and John Weiss, history, should be commended for their constructive effort last Wednesday to bring some much-needed broader understanding to the depth of the human rights conditions confronting the Uyghurs. At a public roundtable, they called much-needed attention to the fact that roughly a million Uyghurs are now being held in political indoctrination camps built to “change them, transform them, [and] break their identity,” according to Fiskesjö. A world that properly says “never again” as it relates to Nazi Germany’s totalitarian practices of the mid-20th century needs to awaken to China’s repression and imprisonment of the Uyghurs, the tactics of which (mass imprisonment and “reeducation” of an ethnic minority) resemble those of Nazi Germany in hauntingly similar ways.

Although the crisis of the Uyghurs is ongoing halfway around the world, China’s human rights violations also are a campus issue, and they especially call out for condemnation from those in academia who study and interact with this repressive government. At the Cornell roundtable last week, Fiskesjö properly asked: “If our business school dean goes to China, should they just be able to schmooze around with all the companies and officials without ever mentioning that there are a million [Chinese] people in camps?”

It is an important question; it also is a timely one. The Chinese government currently is engaged in a vast effort to influence American academia and policy analysis at all levels in an expansive mission that so far has received little opposition from the Westerners it seeks to manipulate. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), has found China’s efforts troubling, noting in an August 2018 report that “the [Chinese Communist Party] has sought to influence academic discourse on China and in certain instances has infringed upon — and potentially criminally violated — rights to freedoms of speech and association that are guaranteed to Americans and those protected by U.S. laws.”

The most commonly-used method for expanding influence has been financial contribution, which China has thrown around liberally both on U.S. campuses and in influential Washington, D.C. research organizations. One of China’s most ambitious projects, its so-called “Confucius Institutes,” is a Chinese government-funded academic program that has been criticized widely for its role in advancing propaganda aligned with that of China’s official Communist Party.  Conveniently for China, details of the agreements between Confucius Institutes and U.S. universities are consciously never made publicly available. It is reasonable to ask: Why not?

Concerns about the Chinese government’s presence and influence in U.S. academia are shared by nearly every research organization that has evaluated them. An April 2017 report published by the National Association of Scholars, for instance, found that the deliberate goal of Confucius Institutes is not to educate Americans — instead, they are developed to “present China in a positive light … they avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, present Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and develop a generation of American students with selective knowledge” of the country. Once China-supplied “financial incentives” are in place, universities with these chapters stifle criticism of the Chinese government and create a culture in which U.S. professors “report pressure to self-censor,” the report alleges. The Wilson Center released a report last month echoing nearly identical concerns.

Existing financial relationships between American academics and the Chinese government creates a substantial conflict of interest, especially if hidden behind “extraordinary efforts to avoid scrutiny” that NAS experienced when reporting on this matter. Over a year ago, Foreign Policy magazine reported on a SUNY Albany professor who witnessed the removal of all references to Taiwan from campus following the Confucius Institute establishment. He said his “career and livelihood” were “on the line” if he publicly criticized this decision. This is not a far-flung story of autocracy from Beijing or Shanghai; this happened in Albany, New York.

The Congressional commission and subsequently Foreign Policy also have properly raised alarm over Chinese government funding of high-profile U.S. think tanks, including Brookings, CSIS, the Center for American Progress, the Carnegie Endowment and others. Most of this funding comes from the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a registered foreign lobbying organization for China. In the last five years, this group alone spent $2.7 million on efforts to advance the Chinese government’s agenda in the U.S.

Is such influence present at Cornell? The question warrants asking. The university operates several initiatives focused on China, including the China and Asia Pacific Studies program, which opened in 2006 with its own dedicated faculty and Chinese study abroad program, and the Lehman Fund for Scholarly Exchange with China, which also opened in 2006 ostensibly to “[build] research partnerships with Chinese universities,” according to its website. As the campus community advances its “full disclosure” campaign to open its records on student admission policy, it also should ask questions about how Cornell funds these programs at a time when the university is simultaneously emphasizing purported financial woes.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has a Cornell chapter, has potentially the most serious linkage. A Congressional report noted that this organization’s local chapters “routinely coordinate with the Chinese government and … [have] been involved in the suppression of free speech and the harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of Chinese student activists.” It also charged that “Chinese intelligence officers posted in diplomatic facilities are the primary point of contact for CSSA members.” These warnings must be taken seriously by the University, which must ensure that Cornell’s chapter does not function this way.

Foreign powers should not be permitted to influence any American educational institution, especially those like China, which are largely at odds with U.S. strategic and economic interests and engaged in systematic human rights violations. As Fiskesjö correctly said last week, “As Cornellians, if we are going to have those relations [with China,] business school or whatever, we should not be silent on these things.” If human rights and academic independence matter at all to Cornell, as they certainly should, the university would be wise to heed this counsel.