RECAP: NCUSCR Panel on Chinese Influence in Higher Education

On May 21, 2021, The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, in partnership with the Penn Project on the Future of US-China Relations, hosted a webinar titled, “Higher Education and U.S.-China Relations”. Moderated by Jacques deLisle, co-leader of the Penn Project on the Future of US-China Relations, panelists Mary E. Gallagher, Margaret K. Lewis, and Rory Truex discussed obstacles to Sino-American connectivity within the academic sphere and how to revive educational and research ties between the two nations.

First, the panelists expressed their opinions on potential U.S. concerns fueled by the inflow of individuals and organizations linked to the PRC. As mentioned by Margaret Lewis, the creation of the China Initiative, a program under the Department of Justice designed to combat economic espionage, is a manifestation of heightened U.S. security consciousness toward China. But while the scale of such illicit behavior is largely unknown, governmental fears remain unnecessarily high. Some degree of suspicion is understandable, however excessive security concerns and the subsequent stigmatization of Chinese individuals have deterred the United States’ ability to attract – and retain – talented academics.

Equally troublesome are growing restrictions facing American scholars of China as well as the undue influence of PRC-affiliated organizations within American universities. As mentioned by Rory Truex, in light of recent sanctions on U.S. think tanks and scholars, it is clear that “China no longer wants to be studied”. Restrictions on both research access and informational exchange have severely limited cross-cultural collaboration within the academic sphere. Domestically, the nationalist rhetoric of PRC-affiliated organizations on U.S. campuses encroaches upon the freedoms of students and academics. As indicated by Mary Gallagher, these resoundingly one-sided views threaten the intellectual diversity and pluralism that have come to define American society.

 Afterward, the panelists offered their thoughts on the geopolitical competition with China. The broad consensus was that academic decoupling is both infeasible and detrimental to American interests. In discussing the suspension of the Fulbright program in China, Margaret Lewis stated, “I know no strategy that says if you want to compete, know less about the entity you are competing with”. The tendency to fixate on singular instances of espionage to encourage U.S. distance from China ignores the overwhelming benefits that accompany fluid academic relations between both states. Overemphasizing the Chinese espionage machine and adopting an aloof stance to global studies or research endeavors abroad will only harm the United States by dissuading mutual understanding and limiting innovation.

On the topic of revisions to the current U.S. approach, the panelists expressed a need for two major reforms. Firstly, in order to defend the freedoms of Chinese students and the intellectual climate at universities, Mary Gallagher argues that there “should be much less complacency around the academic environment”, citing a need to “promote diversity of organizations on campus…that do China-related programming”. A model in which PRC-affiliated organizations are not embedded within the university structure would stymie the influence of Confucian Institutes or CSSAs on campus while encouraging the establishment of ideologically diverse organizations. The speakers also indicate that standardizing grant forms and other administrative practices among universities would prevent confusion under the China Initiative by distinguishing mere errors from actual espionage, in turn defending Chinese researchers. The resounding consensus was that collaboration and greater clarity among U.S. institutions are integral in defending the freedoms of students and scholars.

Finally, on the topic of civil society and the current political climate, the speakers indicated that political nuance, continued connectivity, and greater dialogue are essential in overcoming the toxicity that surrounds China. Margaret Lewis stated, “this word ‘engagement’ has become so problematic that somehow if you believe in engaging with China, that’s getting conflated with complicity”. Rather, engagement is a necessary step in improving bilateral relations while fostering mutual understanding. The panelists also highlighted that universities must improve upon integrating Chinese and foreign students into campus life. Doing so will better defend their individual freedoms from PRC-linked organizations while amplifying the diverse views of Chinese students to the broader community. Ultimately, the message remained that promoting student freedoms, continued engagement, an end to the stigmatization of China are vital in improving U.S.-China relations within higher education.

Click here to watch the full webinar.