The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress shines light on Georgetown’s CCP-linked foreign funding

Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)
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As awareness of Chinese influence efforts grows in Washington, officials are taking a closer look at the issue of Chinese Communist Party-linked funding at U.S. universities. The latest top educational institution to face scrutiny is Washington’s own Georgetown University, which took $10 million from a CCP-linked Thai corporation for its China initiative.

Georgetown, which is a revolving door for senior U.S. government national security officials, has a long history of fulfilling the Jesuit tradition of promoting discourse among people of different faiths, cultures and countries. The university’s involvement with China dates back to the 19th century. Chinese students and teachers make up the largest international contingent on its campus.

In 2016, Georgetown inaugurated a new “Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues,” supported by a $10 million gift from a Thai corporation with extensive links not just to China but to the specific CCP organizations that manage overseas influence operations. Georgetown officials insist the grant from the Spring Breeze Foundation, which is financed by Bangkok-based CP Group, does not constrain the program’s academic independence, although they declined to make the contract public.

An October report by the Education Department noted that CP Group “has ties to the Chinese government through multibillion dollar agreements.” But that report neglected to explain how CP Group officials are directly involved in China’s overseas influence efforts, which are part of a massive coordinated campaign run by the CCP’s United Front Work Department, still described in Maoist terms as mobilizing the party’s friends to strike at the party’s enemies.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who got his PhD at Georgetown, wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Nov. 30, detailing ties of CP Group executives to CCP united front groups. For example, Chinese-Thai billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont, the longtime senior chairman of CP Group, was honored by a United Front group called the Chinese Overseas Friendship Association during a conference in Beijing last year, where he sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

CP Group Vice Chairman Yang Xiaoping, who signed the letter announcing the Georgetown donation, sits on the board of CITIC Limited, the main subsidiary of China’s huge state-owned conglomerate CITIC Group. Yang was also a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a premier CCP united front organization and a member of the standing committee of the China Association for International Exchange, which is run by the CCP’s International Liaison Department.

“This significant gift by a foreign entity with clear current ties to the CCP, to say nothing of historic ties to the regime, demands close scrutiny by the Department of Education,” Gallagher wrote. “This gift is of particular concern because the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues employs in senior roles former senior U.S. officials who held key roles relating to U.S. policy towards China.”

Gallagher is referring to the Georgetown initiative’s managing director Dennis Wilder, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked in George W. Bush’s National Security Council and as senior editor of the Presidential Daily Brief for most of the Obama administration. Wilder was a top CIA Asia official for the last two years of the Obama presidency.

Since becoming managing director of Georgetown’s China dialogue, Wilder has appeared regularly on Chinese state media promoting smooth U.S.-China relations, criticizing the Trump administration’s more hawkish approach to China and claiming that China is “really becoming … a responsible stakeholder in the world.” Wilder’s prospects for returning to government are unclear. He has been on leave for unspecified reasons from the university for several months and did not respond to several requests for comment.

The Georgetown Dialogue also employs as a senior fellow Evan Medieros, who was a top NSC Asia official during the Obama administration. Medieros has written critically about the Chinese government, especially this year. Unlike Wilder, he does not use his platform to reliably promote the Beijing-friendly line. But his past work for an Obama NSC seen as reluctant to confront China means that China hawks nevertheless view him skeptically.

Gallagher’s letter stated the CP Group funding raises concerns the “CCP may be using proxies to weaponize the ‘revolving door’ between the public and private sector to elevate individuals more inclined to advocate that the U.S. prioritize cooperation with a brutal dictatorship over taking determined action to check its excesses.”

Georgetown University spokesperson Meghan Dubyak told me the Georgetown initiative is independent and has often produced work that is critical of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. “The University utilizes a careful, methodical process to report all foreign gifts and contributions in accordance with Department of Education guidelines and ensures that all gift agreements retain full institution independence for the University,” she said.

In an interview, Gallagher told me that, given that the donation came from a company with so many links to CCP influence operations, the university should go beyond the letter of the law and demonstrate more transparency about the money and the programs it funds.

“The CCP uses the D.C. swamp to advance a broad array of its objectives,” Gallagher said. “Those who adopt pro-CCP talking points and policies receive lucrative rewards and those who challenge the party orthodoxy are punished. This is part of the overall united front framework.”

Before the Trump administration, there was a lax attitude toward foreign money in Washington. Congress and the U.S. national security community now regard opaque foreign funding as a systemic issue and regard China as the most significant abuser of gaps in the system. Fixing that system is a challenge for the Biden administration and all U.S. institutions that are taking money from foreign governments and their proxies.

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