America’s universities have been slow in coming to terms with the problems posed by Chinese influence. They are now finally beginning to work with the national security community to respond to China’s attempts to infiltrate the United States’ higher-education system and abuse those relationships to advance Beijing’s strategic agenda. But that pushback is just beginning.
On Wednesday, two major universities independently took steps to disentangle their cooperation with Chinese entities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced it would end all collaboration with Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE. Both firms stand accused by the U.S. government of sanctions-busting, and the U.S. intelligence community believes both are susceptible to Chinese government influence.
What hasn’t yet been reported is that Indiana University on Wednesday decided to immediately close the Confucius Institute at its Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus. “This decision ensures ongoing operations of some programs within IU impacted by federal changes surrounding Chinese language programs,” university spokesman Chuck Carney told me.
The Confucius Institutes are Chinese government-sponsored language and culture schools embedded inside U.S. educational institutions. They are wholly controlled by China’s education ministry and are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s “United Front” foreign influence operations. There are about 90 of the institutes on U.S. campuses.
Indiana University hosts several Pentagon-funded language programs and is responding to legislation Congress recently passed that is meant to ensure U.S.-government language programs aren’t being mixed with Chinese-government ones. The university is now one of about a dozen U.S. educational institutions to cut ties with their Confucius Institutes.
When national security professionals first sounded the alarm about Chinese partnerships in U.S. universities last year, the academic sector was skeptical and resistant. Now, through a mixture of external pressure and internal debate, more U.S. colleges and universities are taking a sober look at the Chinese government’s presence on their campuses — and are deciding to curtail it.
“Indiana University and MIT are leading the way as examples for other colleges to follow in untangling themselves from dangerous Chinese influences like Confucius Institutes and Huawei,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “Undoubtedly more universities will follow suit as they better understand the threats.”
In February 2018, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray publicly accused the academic sector of naivete about the counterintelligence vulnerability posed by Confucius Institutes. Last June, Banks and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) led 26 lawmakers in calling on the Education Department to examine Huawei research partnerships on more than 50 U.S. campuses.
The issue of Chinese influence in U.S. academia is complex. Not all Confucius Institutes operate the same. Not all research partnerships carry security risks. Chinese student groups on campus are often connected to the Chinese government, but instances of their direct interference in academic freedom are few and far between.
That is why policymakers and academic leaders are coalescing around a strategy that calls for Chinese-government-linked programs on U.S. campuses to demonstrate more transparency, accountability and reciprocity. A February report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealed huge deficiencies in all three of these areas.
The investigation found that nearly 70 percent of universities with Confucius Institutes were failing to properly report their Chinese government funding to the Education Department as required by law. The State Department doesn’t even track how many visas have gone to Confucius Institute teachers. Last year alone, the State Department revoked 32 research visas for Confucius Institute instructors because they were teaching K-12 classes rather than actually doing research. (One Confucius Institute was caught coaching instructors to lie about it.)
Meanwhile, investigators found that the Chinese government is blocking the corresponding but much smaller State Department program to open “American Cultural Centers” at Chinese universities.
“Our investigation found that schools in the United States — from kindergarten to college — have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that the Chinese government refuses to provide to the United States,” Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said at a recent hearing.
All countries attempt to spread soft power and many countries conduct espionage inside the United States. What makes the China case special is the comprehensive manner in which Beijing uses various arms of influence to infiltrate U.S. institutions and gradually bend them toward its political and strategic aims.
“Confucius Institutes exist as one part of China’s broader, long-term strategy,” the report states. “Through Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government is attempting to change the impression in the United States and around the world that China is an economic and security threat.”
The Chinese government influence campaign inside the United States is difficult to understand and even more difficult to talk about — but that’s by design. It will take all sectors of the U.S. government and society working together to further comprehend Beijing’s strategy and then respond smartly to protect our society.