If the U.S. government doesn’t even know the extent of Chinese-government funding involved in these operations, then how can it ensure that safeguards against malicious exploitation are sufficient?
Americans are increasingly wary of Chinese Communist Party influence on U.S. universities—and rightly so. Despite the Ivory Tower’s leftward slant, universities remain a wellspring of American scientific, technical, and engineering research and innovation.
China’s desire to tap that well is no secret. Its campus-based Confucius Institutes have received much attention of late, but that is just the ice cube on the tip of the iceberg. Several other Chinese programs also have the potential to influence and exploit American colleges and universities. Their activities—like those of the Confucius Institutes—are not fully known. But here is a snapshot of what we do know and why they are a problem.
Thousand Talents Programs. Beijing’s Foreign Thousand Talents Program aims to attract “high-end foreign scientists, engineers, and managers from foreign countries.” Invitations and advertisements to participate come directly from Chinese research institutions that manage individual programs. But those institutions report to and are overseen by the government and the party, which provides financial compensation for participation.
A 2020 State Department warning about Chinese Communist Party activities at U.S. universities noted that recruits to the Thousand Talents Program must sign “legally binding contracts that often compel recipients to conceal their PRC relationships and funding, facilitate the illicit movement of intellectual capital to duplicate ‘shadow labs’ in China, recruit other talent, publish in China-based science journals, engage in activities abroad that would violate export control regulations, and influence U.S. organizations.”
When the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation started looking into the Thousands Talent Program in 2015, Beijing abruptly ended all public discussions of the program and deleted all online references to it. The programs, however, continue.
Last year, Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber, a recipient of substantial research grants from the National Institute of Health and the Defense Department, was charged with crimes related to not disclosing funds received from a Chinese recruitment program.
Shortly thereafter, a similar case came to light at Emory University. Professor Xiojiang Li, and his wife, who managed the university’s neuroscience lab, were abruptly terminated when they came under federal investigation for not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Chinese Academy of Science.
The Chinese Government established Confucius Institutes for the stated purpose of teaching Chinese language and culture worldwide. In the U.S., the institutes are typically established in partnerships between Chinese institutions (overseen by Beijing) and schools for the stated purpose of offering language instruction, cultural events, and funding for China-related research.
While most Confucius Institutes are based at colleges and universities, several have been established in partnership with public school districts. A few others in the United States are independent, with no local affiliation.
A 2014 study by the American Association of University Professors examined twelve Confucius Institutes, surveying their hiring policies, funding arrangements, contracts, and pressure on affiliated faculty. The report flagged four issues of concern: intellectual freedom; transparency; entanglement with Chinese State policies; concerns that institutes are instruments of propaganda. For example, one professor claimed, “You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama—or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership—these are all off limits.” A 2019 Congressional Research Service report flagged additional concerns.