Battle Continues on Clearing Up China’s Influence on US Campuses

Narration: The Confucius Institute is causing concerns about America’s academic freedom.

Matt Salmon: The answer is not to walk away from that relationship. The answer is not to fold up and get rid of these kinds of programs. To me, the answer is to have more of this.

Sen. Marco Rubio: I think every college should be aware of what these institutes are used for and that they are in fact consistently being used as a way to quash academic freedom on campus at the behest of a foreign government.

Narration: The newest defense bill bars Confucius Institutes from Pentagon funding, but is it enough?

Rachelle Peterson: The National Defense Authorization Act is an important step in the right direction … But, unfortunately, it is not sufficient in itself.

Narration: The University of Minnesota closed a program hosted by Dr. Kirk Allison, who confronted China on human rights issues.

Dr. Kirk Allison: If you’re wanting to be one of the top three universities or one of the whatever, it’s hard to do all of that and not play ball with a fifth of the world’s population.

Narration: But the fight goes on.

Simone Gao: In October 2012, the University of Minnesota granted an honorary doctorate to Dr. Chen Zhu. I think he was the Minister of Health from China. You were against it, why?

Dr. Kirk Allison: It’s not proper to provide an honorary doctorate for an individual who was sitting administratively at the top of a system in which there’s been confirmed reports of prisoners of conscience being executed or being sources of organs, et cetera, to receive an honorary doctorate.

Simone Gao: Why is this important to you?

Title: Battle Continues on Clearing Up China’s Influence on U.S. Campuses

Simone Gao: Academic freedom is the cornerstone of American academia. It protects the rights of teachers and students to research and discuss their subjects without fear of censorship or discipline. But what happens to academic freedom when a foreign, authoritarian government like China takes root on U.S. campuses? This is the controversy surrounding China’s Confucius Institute. But does China’s influence on American campuses extend past Confucius Institutes? In this episode, we’ll take a look at how China’s influence on American campuses affects professors, students, and academic integrity.

Part 1: How Confucius Institutes Threaten Academic Freedom

Narration: The Confucius Institute was established in 2004 by Hanban, which is overseen by 12 national level government bodies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education, the State Council Information Office, and more.

Narration: There are currently over 100 Confucius Institutes on U.S. university campuses and over 500 K-12 Confucius Classrooms in the U.S.

Narration: According to “Outsourced to China,” a research paper on Confucius Institutes by the National Association of Scholars, Hanban provides operating funds and screens and pays Confucius Institutes’ Chinese teachers and staff members. Hanban also provides textbooks and approves Confucius Institute courses, which are sometimes offered for credit.

Narration: By whitewashing history and censoring content, the Confucius Institute strives to educate a generation of Americans to know little more of China than the regime’s official history.

Narration: In a 2011 speech at the Confucius Institute’s Beijing headquarters, Standing Politburo Committee member Li Changchun said: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

Narration: Everything looks reasonable and logical to some American politicians too. At a forum on U.S.-China educational exchanges in April this year, when asked about the rising concerns over Confucius Institutes on American campuses, former member of the Congress Matt Salmon said this.

Matt Salmon: There is plenty to be concerned about with our relationship with China. But the answer is not to walk away from that relationship. The answer is not to fold up and get rid of these kinds of programs. To me, the answer is to have more of this. So that there can be more mutual understanding, more dialogue, more interaction with one another. So I believe these kinds of programs, they need proper oversight. We need to have mechanisms to ensure that they are doing what they are doing, but I believe those mechanisms are in place.

Narration: The Department of Defense granted 3 years of funding to the Confucius Institutes at the University of Arizona, Stanford, and the University of Washington. Mr. Salmon argued this is solid proof that CIs are harmless.

Matt Salmon: And again I would go back, if the DoD believed or had serious reservations that the Confucius Institute was some kind of a threat to national security, they wouldn’t have in their wildest dreams decided to provide grant funding for them to do that.

Narration: But all this changed quickly. Around the same time Mr. Salmon defended the Confucius Institute, two congressmen wrote to Texas A&M raising concerns about its Confucius Institute. Days later, the school said it would terminate its agreement. In May, Senator Marco Rubio also sent a letter to three colleges in Florida regarding their Confucius Institutes.

Sen. Marco Rubio: I think every college should be aware of what these institutes are used for and that they are in fact consistently being used as a way to quash academic freedom on campus at the behest of a foreign government. And I would encourage every college in America to close them. There’s no need for these programs.

Narration: In August, President Trump signed the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It prohibits Pentagon funding for Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses. In the future, any universities that have Pentagon-funded and Chinese government-funded Chinese language programs will have to secure a Pentagon waiver if they want to keep both. A few days later the University of North Florida said it would close its Confucius Institute.

Simone Gao: What will happen to the Confucius Institutes on American campuses? I had a discussion with Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars. She wrote: “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.”

Simone Gao: Do you think the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 does enough to counter the Chinese Communist regime’s influence on American campuses?

Rachelle Peterson: The National Defense Authorization Act is an important step in the right direction in incentivizing colleges and universities to disentangle their Confucius Institutes from the rest of the college campus. But, unfortunately, it is not sufficient in itself. The NDAA forbids the Department of Defense from funding Chinese language programs that are entwined with Confucius Institutes on campus. But as long as the university completely separates its Pentagon-funded program from its Confucius Institute, then the university can continue to operate both. So more needs to be done to encourage colleges and universities to cut their ties with their Confucius Institutes.

Simone Gao: What else needs to be done then?

Rachelle Peterson: The federal government should condition more federal funding on colleges and universities closing their Confucius Institutes. It should be a condition to receive federal funding to close that Confucius Institute down. The Higher Education Act is currently up for reauthorization, and the National Association of Scholars has encouraged Congress to include language to that effect. We’ve also said that there needs to be more transparency. Right now colleges and universities are signing secret contracts with the Chinese government for the purpose of setting up their Confucius Institutes. There should be no secret contracts between American colleges and the Chinese government. Those contracts need to be made public, and the American people need to know the amount of money that the Chinese government has invested into these Confucius Institutes. All of this needs to be made publicly available for the sake of transparency and for protecting the integrity of American higher education.

Simone Gao: Talking about the integrity of American higher education, how do you think Confucius Institutes impact American scholars? Say, if these scholars are not staff members of the Confucius Institutes but are on the same campus with the CI, will they be able to publish on topics critical of the CCP?

Rachelle Peterson: I did case studies at 12 colleges with Confucius Institutes, and I talked to the scholars on those campuses. And what I found is that many, many professors felt that the presence of a Confucius Institute increased the pressure on them to avoid talking about sensitive topics. They felt that pressure from China, but they also felt that pressure from their own university administrations who didn’t want to jeopardize the funding stream that Confucius Institutes had generated. The universities themselves had turned into enforcers of China’s speech codes and had effectively passed those on to the professors. So it was limiting their academic freedom and their freedom to teach their students openly on issues related to China.

Narration: Coming up: Besides academic freedom, what else has the Chinese regime’s presence on American campuses done to scholars?

Part 2: How China’s Presence on U.S. Campuses Affects Scholars

Narration: China’s influence on U.S. campuses is not limited to Confucius Institutes. Many universities rely on Chinese international students to make up for dwindling enrollment. According to data from the Institute of International Education, there were over 350,000 Chinese international students in the U.S. from 2016 to 2017. China is the number one country of origin, making up 32 percent of all international students in the U.S.

Narration: This gives China leverage over universities, both with funding for CIs and sending students to the U.S. One side-effect of this is self-censorship. The most obvious area is China studies, but business schools, law schools, and even medical schools can feel the pressure, which is what happened at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.

Narration: The U of M has strong ties to China. Its China Center was established in 1979, making the U of M one of the first U.S. universities to resume ties following the normalization of U.S.-China relations. In 2008, it established a Confucius Institute. According to College Factual, there are almost 3,000 students from China at the U of M.

Narration: Dr. Kirk Allison directed the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Rights and Health from 2006 to 2016. He’s an outspoken critic of China’s organ transplant system, which persistent and credible reports indicate supports a systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience including Falun Gong practitioners and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups. In 2012, the University of Minnesota granted an honorary doctorate to Chen Zhu, Minister of Health from China. Dr. Allison openly objected to it.

Simone Gao: In October 2012, the University of Minnesota granted an honorary doctorate to Dr. Chen Zhu. I think he was the Minister of Health from China. You were against it. Why?

Dr. Kirk Allison: In my view it’s not proper to provide an honorary doctorate for an individual who was sitting administratively at the top of a system in which prisoners in a death penalty system in which there’s insufficient representation, in particular, in which there’s been confirmed reports of prisoners of conscience being executed or being sources of organs, et cetera, to receive an honorary doctorate.

Narration: In 2016, Dr. Allison’s Program on Human Rights and Health was closed by the university.

Simone Gao: You were the director of the Program in Human Rights and Health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. And now that program was closed, right?

Dr. Kirk Allison: Right. And there are various justifications given for the closure of the program. I’m not wanting to get into too much detail, but I would say some of the justifications given have not, in my view, added up. And requests for transparency, particularly on financial claims and things, have not been forthcoming.

Simone Gao: So how much money did your program need?

Dr. Kirk Allison: It was not a great deal, in terms of these things. And, ironically, the year when it was closed, our income from tuition, even from the courses we did, far exceeded what our budget was and had been going up.

Simone Gao: Is the closure of your program connected to your research into this forced organ harvesting of Chinese prisoners of conscience in any way?

Dr. Kirk Allison: Probably not primarily. Though there’s a question of, if something is a bur under the saddle for some time in various areas, maybe does that count against, you know? So it’s a little hard to say.

Simone Gao: Even if the university didn’t say this is related to China, one cannot help thinking there’s an opportunity cost of getting China upset because the university is dependent on Chinese students. On the other side, there’s you.

Dr. Kirk Allison: There’s been a lot of discussion about this kind of thing … Even when David Matas came one time to talk, there was a situation in which somebody in an administrative structure wanted to look at the flyer that was being used to advertise the talk, which was extraordinary. Because at the time there was some sensitive program that was about to launch that was related to China. And so there can be a kind of self-censorship that kicks in. And if you’re wanting to be one of the top three universities or one of the whatever, it’s hard to do all of that and not play ball with a fifth of the world’s population.

Simone Gao: The university is paying a price. And part of that price is you and people like you.

Dr. Kirk Allison: Well, it may be in certain circumstances. And in that sense, one may end up being, quote, collateral damage.

Simone Gao: But do they care about the price they pay? The cost of you and your program?

Dr. Kirk Allison: It depends on what they think the cost-benefit analysis is.

Simone Gao: But what do you think?

Dr. Kirk Allison: Well, I feel sorry for the students is what I think.

Simone Gao: Are you going to continue on this path to investigate?

Dr. Kirk Allison: I intend to. And we’ll see what happens and in what format.

Simone Gao: Why is this important to you?

Dr. Kirk Allison: Well, I think human beings are important.

Narration: As of today, Dr. Kirk Allison’s program remains closed despite numerous letters of support from university staff members and individuals in human rights programs in the U.S. and internationally. The University of Minnesota has not responded to Zooming In’s request for an interview about the closure of the Program in Human Rights and Health.

Narration: Coming up: How the Chinese government interferes with student activities.

Part 3: How the CCP Interferes with Student Activities

Simone Gao: Most discussion about China’s influence on campus, focuses on professors and academic freedom. But students also feel the pressure. Even on American campuses, the Chinese regime uses intimidation tactics on students involved in clubs or activities deemed sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party. Zooming In writer Jess Beatty proposed this episode based on her own undergraduate experience as a member of the Falun Gong student club at the University of Minnesota. We reached out to other students and clubs across the country, but as of this broadcast, we couldn’t find anyone else to go on record. So, here is Jess.

Jess Beatty: In either 2006 or 2007, I was walking to Walter Library and a big white van stopped in front of me, right here, and six or seven Chinese guys got out, shouting in Mandarin, and they all started taking pictures of me, and then they got back in the van and drove off. But it reminded me of the Tiananmen Square videos where you see plainclothes police officers putting people in big white vans because they’re protesting. But I was really shocked that they would try to intimidate an American student on a U.S. campus because of their involvement in the Falun Gong student club. And you can imagine what they might do to a Chinese international student or maybe scholars who are trying to research topics that are sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party. I’m able to talk about this openly because I don’t have friends or family in China that they could harass or intimidate.

Narration: In 1968, the American Association of University Professors published a Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. It states, “Students and student organizations should feel free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express options publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means which do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of the institution.”

Narration: Many Chinese international students don’t enjoy these rights. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is the official Chinese international student organization. In 2004, Chinese Consulate officials from Chicago went to the University of Minnesota to intervene in CSSA activities.

Simone Gao: Chris was on the CSSA board at the time. I had a discussion with him about what happened back then. For security reasons, he asked us to not show his face or publish his last name.

Simone Gao: So Chris, tell me what happened to the CSSA when you were on the board of it.

Chris: When I was [in] the student governing body for the Chinese Student Scholars Association at the University of Minnesota, in my conversation with the president at the time, he said he’s getting contact from the Chinese Consulate based in Chicago, and he’s getting even funding from them. It was through a check that’s directly deposited into his personal account. So I don’t know if there’s any record or tracking, but he’s getting money from the consulate in Chicago, he’s getting phone calls, he’s getting different directions from the consulate.

Simone Gao: In 2004, a Chinese student who practices Falun Gong campaigned to be the CSSA president at the University of Minnesota. Something happened when Chinese officials heard that she practiced Falun Gong, right, tell me about it?

Chris: She’s very, very enthusiastic to serve the students at the university. So she decided to campaign for the president post. Obviously, it was not secret that she was practicing. It was known to everybody, including the consulate people. So then I think there was a couple of weeks after that dinner hosted by the communist Consulate from Chicago, a Chinese student from the University of Minnesota who used to serve in the association before, several years ago, all of a sudden put up a social media post in one of the websites saying he “got the news Falun Gong wanted to take over the Chinese Student and Scholars Association in the University of Minnesota. We cannot let it happen, I decided to run for the president as well, please support me.” And so it was sort of spread across the students within the University of Minnesota. When the election day came, normally there wasn’t many students, Chinese students coming for that kind of election in the past years, but in that particular year, there’s almost a hundred people coming. And I think–we didn’t have hard evidence, but based on the conversation that the Chinese student who run for the president or run for the chairman against the Falun Gong student, there was a strong push from the Chicago consulate asking him to reach out to different Chinese students. And even the consulate officials themselves make phone calls to whoever they knew that are studying in the university.

Narration: At a Congressional hearing in February, concerns about academic freedom changed into concerns about national security. FBI Director Christopher Wray said Chinese spies are almost everywhere in the academic sector.

FBI Director Christopher Wray: I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting–whether it’s professors, scientists, students–we see in almost every–in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities, it’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline. And I think the level of naiveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole of society response by us. It’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.

Simone Gao: Are Chinese spies everywhere? Are overseas Chinese students collecting intelligence for the Chinese government as well? Here is what Chris has to say.

Simone Gao: You know In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said China is using students and others in the academic setting to gather intelligence. So as a former Chinese international student, to what extent do you think China is using students and professors to gather intelligence?

Chris: A lot of students, out of sort of perceived patriotism, they wanted to do things for the Chinese, sometimes they’re forced, but sometimes they sort of semi-voluntarily do things for the Communist Party. They will be asked to collect information, asked to collect intelligence transfers without knowing, and they could be violating the U.S. law, doing the work that a spy would do, and then I think the Western universities should let them know that whatever they do like that, they are at risk of being a potential–violating the U.S. law, being a spy for the Communist Party. They could be getting into a lot of troubles in the U.S. And I think not many people knew about that.

Simone Gao: The Chinese Communist regime’s apparatus has been operating in America for decades without Americans realizing what is really going on. Now things are changing. A lot of the wishful thinking towards China is gone. To a certain extent, that’s sad because China does have a rich history and a brilliant culture. But today’s China under Communist rule is no longer what it used to be. Until the ruling party and its impact is gone, the world should keep a realistic view of this once great country. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I am Simone Gao. See you next week.

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