Many institutions of higher education are not taking the threat of China seriously. A recent report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) makes clear that Confucius Institutes (CIs) are not the only way the Communist Chinese Party (CCP) is trying to gain a foothold in the United States. There are multiple other ways the CCP is infiltrating college campuses, including leveraging Chinese researchers and students studying in the U.S. to steal sensitive research and intellectual property on behalf of the CCP’s military.
Unfortunately, the report highlights how many colleges and universities are still willing to turn a blind eye to the threat of partnering with the CCP despite clear evidence that these partnerships pose a major national security threat.
Below are key excerpts from FDD’s report by Craig Singleton entitled “The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education: How U.S. Universities Support China’s Military-Industrial Complex.”
What are Confucius Institutes and why are they dangerous
“Confucius Institutes are Chinese government-sponsored organizations offering Chinese-language, cultural, and historical programming at the primary, secondary, and university levels worldwide. CIs are also a key element in China’s “united front,” a network of groups and key individuals that seek to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. CIs further serve as platforms that advance facets of China’s military-civil fusion (MCF), a national strategy aimed at acquiring the world’s cutting-edge technologies — including through theft — to achieve Chinese military dominance. China’s CI-enabled initiatives include the establishment of academic and research partnerships between top-tier American institutions and Chinese universities supporting Beijing’s military-industrial complex.
“At the subnational level, CI programs allow the CCP to propagate its own version of China’s political history, blur its record of human rights abuses, and portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed Chinese possessions. CIs also provide Chinese civilian universities under the control of the Chinese party-state — and, by extension, the CCP itself — with access to U.S. college campuses and academic elites. Unfortunately, such access typically endures long after a CI is shuttered.
“The academic and research associations that flow from a CI relationship involve three parties: the U.S. university, the CCP, and a Chinese sister university selected by the CCP to support the CI’s programming. U.S. universities enter into separate, multi-year contractual relationships with both the CCP and the Chinese sister university. The CCP retains final approval over the contract between the U.S. university hosting the CI and the Chinese sister university.
“The CCP’s selection of the U.S. and Chinese universities associated with each CI program is not indiscriminate. The CCP focuses on establishing CIs at America’s top R&D centers rather than at the 4,000 non-research-focused colleges and universities across the country. Specifically, of the 113 CIs active in 2018, 71 (or 63 percent) were at America’s top research universities.
“Of the 28 universities currently hosting a CI, 10 maintain sister-university relationships with Chinese universities directly supporting China’s MCF program and/or China’s broader defense establishment.”
China’s Influence does not end when Confucius Institutes close
“Between 2018 and 2021, the number of CIs operating in the United States fell from 113 to 34. Only four of these 79 closures were attributed to national security concerns, despite ample evidence that China leverages relationships with U.S. universities to acquire the technology and talent Beijing needs to win its strategic competition with the United States…
“Troublingly, a CI closure often does not result in the severance of ties between its American host and the CCP-selected Chinese sister university that supported the CI’s programming. Following at least 28 of the 79 documented closures, U.S. universities that shuttered their CIs chose to maintain, and in some cases expand, their relationships with their Chinese sister universities, many of which support China’s defense industry. This support includes directly enabling Beijing’s intelligence apparatus as well as underwriting China’s nuclear weapons sector and cyber-espionage platforms.”
The cost of doing business with China
“In 2020, William Evanina, the then-director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, stated that Chinese IP theft costs U.S. companies between $300 billion and $600 billion annually… [I]ncreasingly, China has acquired IP and other sensitive R&D through academic channels in ways that are both active and passive. Such efforts include leveraging Chinese researchers and students studying at U.S. universities to acquire sensitive information on Beijing’s behalf.”
What the United States should do to resist Chinese influence on college campuses
“The closure of 79 CIs over the last three years is a net positive in terms of combating Chinese influence on U.S. college campuses. These closures hindered the CCP’s “united front” objectives, including its efforts to shape public perceptions about China. These closures also diminished the Chinese government’s ability to undermine free-speech protections and academic freedom on U.S. college campuses.
“Nevertheless, CI closures alone are unlikely to meaningfully erode China’s grip on U.S. higher education. Nor will they block Beijing from accessing foundational knowledge taught at U.S. universities or cutting-edge research being conducted on U.S. college campuses. The reason is straightforward: While CI closures can degrade some of the collaboration between U.S. universities and the Chinese government, that collaboration often endures via separate partnership agreements. Moreover, U.S. universities have been reluctant to terminate their ties to Chinese entities absent threats of financial cuts from the federal government.
“[W]hile U.S. higher education institutions assiduously track (down to the cent) funds owed to them by students, they have failed to accurately report anonymous donations from countries such as China, Qatar, and Russia, which exceeded $1.14 billion since 2012.
“American efforts should include increasing transparency surrounding CI-enabled agreements between U.S. and Chinese universities and better educating U.S. universities about the risks of partnering with entities affiliated with China’s defense buildup. Additionally, the U.S. government should foster alternative Chinese-language initiatives to outcompete CI language programming. The U.S. government should also establish legal and regulatory guardrails to neutralize China’s ability either to acquire foundational knowledge or to access more sensitive research being conducted on U.S. college campuses.”