As part of a broad effort to interfere in U.S. institutions, China tries to shape the discussion at American universities, stifle criticism and influence academic activity by offering funding, often through front organizations closely linked to Beijing.
Now that aspect of Beijing's foreign influence campaign is beginning to face resistance from academics and lawmakers. A major battle in this nascent campus war played out over the past six months at the University of Texas in Austin.
After a long internal dispute, a high-level investigation and an intervention by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the university last week rejected a proposal by the leader of its new China center to accept money from the China United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). The Hong Kong-based foundation and its leader, Tung Chee-hwa, are closely linked to the branch of the Chinese Communist Party that manages influence operations abroad.
The University of Texas debate erupted after the China Public Policy Center at the university's LBJ School of Public Affairs opened in August. Executive Director David Firestein proposed making CUSEF a principal funder of the initiative. Firestein, a former Foreign Service officer, had worked with the foundation before.
After several professors and university officials raised concerns about ties among CUSEF, Tung and the Communist Party, university President Gregory Fenves launched an investigation. Over several weeks, Fenves met with intelligence officials and experts to gauge the risk that accepting CUSEF money could compromise the university's academic integrity or give China undue access to and influence over academic products.
While the investigation was ongoing, Firestein held an event in November that was hosted by CUSEF and featured a former Chinese vice foreign minister. Shortly afterward, multiple reports highlighted that Tung is vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a party organ that self-identifies as "a united front organization." The CPPCC and the Communist Party's United Front Work Department collaborate on China's influence operations abroad.
"The party's united front activities are intended — still described in Maoist terms — to mobilize the party's friends to strike at the party's enemies," said Peter Mattis, a China fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and former U.S. intelligence analyst. "That has no place on a university campus in America."
Tung was also the first chief executive of Hong Kong after the territory returned to Beijing's control. His foundation has funded research at many leading academic institutions and think tanks, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the Brookings Institution. A CUSEF spokesman told me the foundation is not an agent of the Chinese government and is supported by private donors who believe a positive U.S.-China relationship "is essential for global well-being."
Before UT-Austin could become next on its list, Cruz weighed in. On Jan. 2, he warned Fenves in a letter that accepting CUSEF money could allow China to spread propaganda and compromise the university's credibility.
CUSEF and the United Front are the "external face" of the Communist Party's "internal authoritarianism," and giving them access to UT-Austin's education system could lead to "undue foreign influence and exploitation," Cruz wrote.
On Friday, Fenves told Cruz in a response that UT-Austin will not accept any funding from CUSEF for its China center. Before the senator's warning, the university had decided to reject "programmatic funding," Fenves wrote. After receiving the letter and inquiries from The Post, the university decided to ban all CUSEF funding.
Fenves shares Cruz's concerns that accepting CUSEF money "could create potential conflicts of interest or place limits on academic freedom and the robust exchange of ideas," he wrote. A Cruz aide said Fenves had preserved the integrity of the institution through his decision.
UT-Austin's decision has implications not only for the future of Chinese money in higher education but also for the greater effort to counter Chinese interference in free societies, known as "sharp power."
"This is one of the first examples of a university turning down money because it is tied to the Chinese Communist Party's united front activities," said Mattis, adding that the university's deliberative and informed process should be a model for other institutions.
Universities still face broader challenges in dealing with China. The Chinese government has sponsored hundreds of Confucius Institutes on college campuses that operate under opaque contracts and often stand accused of interfering in China-related education activities. Increasing numbers of Chinese students in the United States have come under pressure from their government when they have spoken against the party's narrative. Some have begun challenging professors who speak critically about Beijing's policies.
Due to the growing efforts of academics, government officials, lawmakers and journalists, the thin veil protecting organizations that do the Chinese Communist Party's bidding abroad is being peeled back. But the greater struggle to expose and then counter Chinese foreign interference in free societies is just beginning.
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