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As Washington grapples with security threats associated with China’s military modernization and brinkmanship in the Indo-Pacific, it has taken its eyes off subtler threats closer to home. One such threat is Beijing’s infiltration of American educational institutions.
The best-known example of this decades-long campaign are the notorious 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 U.S., including Harvard and Stanford, received almost $1 billion in combined gifts and grants from Chinese sources between 2013 and 2020. These were just the donations that were publicly reported.
This is troubling, given a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Education that found foreign donors often influence institutions’ teaching and research. Any American familiar with the Chinese communist regime’s vehement opposition to U.S. values shudders at the thought of CCP-linked donors influencing the teaching and research at American universities.
Yet no law prevents this form of soft infiltration. Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, institutions of higher learning are supposed to report all foreign donations of $250,000 or more. However, universities have historically under-reported these donations.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arrives for an event at the White House on Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
During the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched what was likely the strongest push to date to enforce the reporting requirement, resulting in the disclosure of billions of dollars in previously unreported foreign gifts and contracts. Since Joe Biden became president, however, most reporting appears to have stopped altogether. Universities reported a total of $1.6 billion in foreign donations in the last half year of Donald Trump’s presidency; that number dropped to a minuscule $4.3 million in the entire first year of Biden’s presidency.
Beijing’s influence over U.S. universities is not merely hypothetical. Funding from China is one reason often cited for what observers view as a breakdown in free speech at U.S. institutions.
Cornell University buildings viewed from McGraw Tower. (iStock )
Recently at Cornell University, a Uyghur student spoke out about her brother’s imprisonment in a Xinjiang re-education camp (read: gulag) and was taunted by Chinese students, at least 40 of whom walked out of the event while the woman was speaking. According to reports, Cornell officials did not contact the speaker to “inquire about her welfare” or “hear her perspective.” They did, however, send an email urging students to “engage with viewpoints they disagree with” and calling the walkouts “a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval.” The Uyghur student told media that the incident made her feel unsafe.
Another incident occurred in 2017, when an undergraduate at the University of Washington was detained in China, ostensibly for using illegal software to access her homework. 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 university’s fear of losing a multimillion-dollar deal with China. The university issued a statement denying Pompeo’s allegation.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at Jerusalem Post’s annual conference on Oct. 12, 2021 in Jerusalem. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
The U.S. government’s main response to the infiltration of our universities by foreign adversaries has been a reporting regime under a 1965 law. One exception has been the government’s targeted opposition to Confucius Institutes. In particular, restrictions on Department of Defense funding are widely credited with helping wind down these programs, most of which have closed in recent years, though many continue to operate under different names. The lack of more resolute action to confront this clear and present threat posed by our greatest geopolitical rival is distressing.
Federal and state legislatures should formulate laws to defend U.S. institutions of higher education 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 stripes should push the Biden administration to actually enforce the law now on the books. As imperfect as the Section 117 reporting regime is, it is currently all we have, and the administration’s failure to enforce it makes us less safe.
April 1, 2014: China’s President Xi Jinping speaks in Bruges, Belgium, April 1, 2014. (AP)
China is clearly interested in taking advantage of the abundant resources and materials at colleges and universities in the U.S. The least the Biden administration could do is offer sunlight on just how “interested” the CPP is.
Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at Heritage.
Michael Cunningham is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.