Chinese Money Has American Universities in a Bind

Banning Chinese students is dumb, but colleges need to balance risk against reward.

Chinese Money Has American Universities in a Bind
Spreading culture with a healthy dose of propaganda. (Photographer: Daniel Ackerg/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The arrest Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada at the request of the U.S. has further ramped up the tension and rancor between Washington and Beijing. It is also forcing a reckoning about the role of Chinese money in America.

Members of the Twitterverse have begun to point out that certain U.S. think tanks have accepted money from Huawei, which the U.S. government considers to be linked to China’s intelligence apparatus. Yet they are not the only academic and research institutions that need to think seriously about their relationship with China these days — American universities have their own dilemmas to consider. The trick in addressing these dilemmas — as in handling U.S.-China relations more broadly — will be to hedge against real dangers without adopting knee-jerk anti-China policies that actually weaken America’s ability to compete.

Since the founding of the Republic, the allure of the China market has enticed Americans. And since the Chinese-American rapprochement and China’s economic opening in the 1970s and 1980s, it has been seen as something of a promised land for U.S. educational institutions. Universities have courted donors among China’s nouveau riche. Chinese students have poured into U.S. educational institutions, often paying top dollar for their educations. The Migration Policy Institute reports that Chinese students constitute one-third of foreign students in U.S. universities, and they presumably account for an equivalent proportion of the $37 billion that foreign students contribute to the American economy each year. Some of America’s elite universities — including my former employer, Duke, as well as my current employer, Johns Hopkins — have opened physical campuses in China.

The creation of those campuses has long stirred worries about academic freedom: Universities can promise to protect open debate and inquiry in the classroom, but they can’t do much to ensure that students won’t be intimidated or punished outside it for expressing politically incorrect opinions. Yet so long as China seemed to be moving in the right direction — toward greater economic and, eventually, political openness — deepening linkages between China and American universities were generally thought to be a good thing, and certainly not a security risk.

The thinking went like this: Opening campuses in China would expose Chinese students to American ideas and traditions of intellectual freedom; attracting Chinese students to the U.S. would accomplish the same purpose; the opening of Confucius Institutes — organizations that exist, at least nominally, to promote the study of Chinese culture and language on U.S. campuses — would deepen American knowledge about this important emerging power. And to the extent that Chinese money supported institutions involved in the search for truth and objective knowledge — institutions that also represent American dominance in the critical field of higher education — that would promote U.S. interests and values, as well.

Aspects of this logic still appear quite reasonable. As the tenor of U.S.-China relations has shifted over the past two years, however, so has thinking about the role of universities.

Reporting indicates that the Chinese government is using its sponsorship of Confucius Institutes to promote pro-Chinese propaganda on U.S. campuses. There are worrying reports that Chinese students in the U.S. are being spied on by other Chinese students, with chilling effects on academic freedom. In the America, Australia and other countries, concerns have emerged about whether Chinese students and researchers — some of whom apparently conceal close links to the Chinese military and the Communist Party — are using their access to labs and research centers to steal valuable intellectual property.

Finally, the sharp downturn in U.S.-China relations has made it natural to ask whether reliance on Chinese money or students may create more vulnerabilities than strengths. At its sharpest, this criticism suggests that if U.S. universities are addicted to Chinese money, they will have trouble serving American interests.

These concerns have led to some severely misguided ideas, the most extreme of which is banning Chinese students from U.S. campuses. As Zack Cooper and Samm Sacks have written, that “cure” would be far worse than the disease. It would deprive the U.S. of the ability to influence Chinese students who come here to study (and often plan to stay after they get their degrees) by exposing them to new perspectives and ideas. It would hurt universities financially and erode the intellectual, economic and soft-power advantages the U.S. derives from its unparalleled higher-education system. It would tarnish U.S. values by adopting a guilt-by-association approach to Chinese students, the vast majority of whom come to America simply to pursue their education. And it would manifest a hostility to foreigners that is ill-suited to the strategic tradition of a country that has thrived by welcoming and assimilating immigrants.

But U.S. universities do need to think harder about how to deal with China. It is, after all, an increasingly hostile power that has no compunction about using the openness of democratic societies against them, and that has engaged in intellectual property theft on a historic scale. If it is fair to ask American tech firms to reconsider their approach to Beijing, it is fair to ask U.S. universities to do the same.

The American Association of University Professors has made a good start on this by calling on U.S. universities to stop signing secret agreements with Confucius Institutes, and to close those institutes unless the host university has unilateral control over the academic activities and can ensure the academic freedom of those who teach in them. As distasteful as it might seem to some academics, there is probably also a case for better consultation between universities and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence regarding how to protect intellectual property and prevent Chinese military officials from gaining access to valuable information by disguising themselves as independent researchers.

Universities also need to guard against the potential risks posed by taking Chinese money. At the very least, this means being more transparent about how much Chinese money they are receiving and what the sources are, and resolutely resisting any donor efforts to attach political or intellectual strings to gifts.

Additionally, American universities should consider how they would cope if they could no longer enroll Chinese students. It would be a huge mistake for the U.S. to bar them. But the Chinese government knows leverage when it sees it, and it could easily restrict the flow of students in hopes of gaining an advantage in an escalating trade war. This would not even be a particularly new tactic for Beijing: It has previously clamped down on tourism to Taiwan and South Korea amid disputes with those countries.

Finally, U.S. universities with campuses in China need to be staunch defenders of freedom of expression. If Chinese officials are limiting — subtly or more obviously — freedom of expression or otherwise interfering in the academic mission of those institutions, then those practices need to cease or those campuses need to close.

All of these adjustments will involve some pain for an academic community that has long seen China as an attractive partner rather than a geopolitical enemy. But the sooner U.S. universities start protecting themselves in smart ways, the better they can resist the more extreme measures that would do more harm than good.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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