Academic freedom at U.S. universities is under siege because of interference by Beijing, according to a report by a Washington-based research organization.
Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, detailed Beijing’s tactics in a 143-page report titled, “A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education.”
China has ranked first for eight consecutive years as the top country of origin for foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities in the United States. That includes 350,755 students from China on American campuses in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to Lloyd-Damnjanovic’s report.
Lloyd-Damnjanovic interviewed more than 100 college faculty members, in addition to many college students and administrators, between December 2017 and June 2018. Additionally, she consulted academic studies, official reports, and news reports, to draw her conclusions.
Her research revealed that Chinese diplomats stationed in the United States often tried to influence speech at U.S. colleges about China, either by probing or using intimidating forms of conversation with faculty and staffers.
Pressuring School Faculty
For example, Robert Barnett, a former faculty member at Columbia University, told Lloyd-Damnjanovic in an interview that he was visited frequently by Chinese officials from China’s New York consulate office, to pressure him into supporting Beijing’s policies in Tibet.
The officials sought to know Barnett’s position on changes in American policy toward the region and U.S. officials’ plans to meet with Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Barnett said he suspected these Chinese officials either worked for China’s intelligence agency or China’s United Front Work Department.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) invaded Tibet in 1949, declaring it a part of Chinese territory. The Party has since enacted harsh controls over the Tibetans’ way of life, particularly by suppressing their Tibetan Buddhist faith. The CCP has continually pressured the international community to fall in line with Beijing’s stance to delegitimize the faith, including by ostracizing businesses and individuals who express support for the Dalai Lama.
The United Front once referred to by former CCP leader Mao Zedong as a critical weapon in the communist revolution, carries out covert operations inside and outside the Chinese border. Overseas, it recruits spies and infiltrates Chinese communities to spread Party propaganda and persuade local Chinese to agree with Beijing’s policies.
Another incident took place at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where a staff member recalled being pointedly questioned by Chinese officials visiting from the Chicago consulate about an incident in 2002.
An altercation had occurred between Tibetans and a mainland Chinese student, who was then the president of the school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). Such university student groups, geared toward international students from mainland China, are known to be recruited and monitored by Beijing to assist in carrying out the CCP’s agenda.
One senior consular official asked the staff member why she didn’t do more to “help” the CSSA president.
Such Chinese diplomats also arranged delegations from China to visit U.S. colleges and universities and meet with academics and professors to discuss sensitive subjects, such as Tibet; the Falun Gong spiritual group, persecuted by the CCP since 1999; Uyghurs persecuted in the Xinjiang region; Taiwan, also claimed by Beijing as part of its territory; and Chinese democracy activists.
According to Lloyd-Damnjanovic’s report, some of these visits served the purpose of spreading the Chinese regime’s propaganda about those topics.
U.S. professors who study topics considered sensitive by Beijing may also be offered bribes or be threatened by Chinese officials. For instance, Xia Ming, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), recalled that he received a phone call from New York’s China consulate office, offering him money if he withdrew from participating in the making of the HBO documentary “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.” Xia said he was told by the consulate that he would “pay the price if [he] went ahead with the movie.”
The documentary, co-produced by Xia, was about the earthquake in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, that killed about 70,000 people; many of them were children who died when their poorly constructed schools collapsed. In 2009, the documentary was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Some Chinese students studying at U.S. colleges have been recruited by Beijing to help promote its causes. For example, these students might demand that professors or instructors alter their language or teaching materials, pressure their school to cancel academic activities, monitor other students and activities on campus, and probe faculty for information—all to defend Beijing’s agenda on “sensitive content.”
For example, a faculty member from the University of Denver recalled two instances of harassment in the form of student emails after he gave a lecture about the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, which left scores of pro-democracy protesters dead. In one of the emails, a Chinese student accused the faculty member of lying about the number of casualties and insisted that nobody died in the incident.
Lloyd-Damnjanovic offers several suggestions for U.S. schools and American policymakers to prevent Chinese influence.
Schools should work with federal law enforcement, she said, and report instances of Chinese diplomats pressuring or threatening retaliation against staff at American colleges.
Lloyd-Damnjanovic also suggested that the U.S. government declare persona non grata status to Chinese officials in the United States if they pressure American universities or their staff. In diplomacy, a person declared “persona non grata” is prohibited from entering or remaining in a given country.
Additionally, universities could set up a reporting system so school faculty and students can report cases of interference and infringement, she suggested.