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As Washington grapples with security threats associated with China’s military modernization and its tightrope approach in the Indo-Pacific, it has averted its eyes from more subtle threats closer to home. One such threat is Beijing’s infiltration of American educational institutions.
The best-known example of this decades-long campaign is the infamous Confucius Institutes, but these instruments of Chinese “soft power” are just one manifestation of an even bigger problem. According to Bloomberg, 115 universities in the United States, including Harvard and Stanford, received nearly $1 billion in combined donations and grants from Chinese sources between 2013 and 2020. These are only the donations that have been made public.
That’s troubling, given a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Education that found that foreign donors often influence institutional teaching and research. Any American familiar with the Chinese communist regime’s vehement opposition to American values shudders at the thought of CCP-linked donors influencing teaching and research at American universities.
Yet no law prevents this form of soft infiltration. Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, higher education institutions are expected to report all foreign donations of $250,000 or more. However, universities have historically underreported these donations.
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Under the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos launched what was probably the strongest push yet to enforce the reporting requirement, resulting in the disclosure of billions of dollars in gifts and foreign contracts not previously declared. Since Joe Biden became president, however, most reporting seems to have stopped altogether. Universities brought in a total of $1.6 billion in foreign donations in the last semester of Donald Trump’s presidency; that number fell to a miniscule 4.3 million in the entire first year of Biden’s presidency.
Beijing’s influence on American universities is not just hypothetical. China’s funding is one of the often-cited reasons for what observers see as a breakdown in free speech in American institutions.
Recently, at Cornell University, a Uyghur student spoke about her brother’s imprisonment in a re-education camp in Xinjiang (read: gulag) and was taunted by Chinese students, at least 40 of whom left the event while the woman was talking. Reportedly, Cornell officials have not contacted the speaker to “inquire about his welfare” or “hear his views.” They did, however, send out an email urging students to “engage with views they disagree with” and calling the walkouts a “legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval.” The Uyghur student told the media that the incident put her in danger.
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Another incident occurred in 2017, when a University of Washington undergraduate student was detained in China, allegedly for using illegal software to access her assignments. The student reported that the university provided no support during her two-year ordeal of re-education and house arrest, which then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed to the the university’s fear of losing a multi-million dollar deal with China. The university issued a statement denying Pompeo’s allegation.
The primary US government response to the infiltration of our universities by foreign adversaries has been a reporting regime under a 1965 law. One exception has been targeted government opposition to the Confucius Institutes. In particular, restrictions on Department of Defense funding are widely credited with helping to end these programs, most of which have closed in recent years, although many continue to operate under different names. The lack of more resolute action to deal with this clear and present threat posed by our greatest geopolitical rival is distressing.
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Federal and state legislatures should formulate laws to defend American higher education institutions from the influence of China and other foreign adversaries. Such legislation will not come overnight, however. In the meantime, elected officials and freedom-loving Americans of all persuasions should push the Biden administration to actually enforce the law now in place. As flawed as the Section 117 reporting regime is, it’s currently all we have, and the administration’s failure to enforce it makes us less certain.
China is clearly interested in taking advantage of the abundant resources and materials in US colleges and universities. The least the Biden administration can do is show how “interested” the CPP is.
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Jonathan Butcher is a Will Skillman Scholar in Education at Heritage.