According to a report released last month by a group of distinguished China scholars, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses vague threats to induce US professors and students to avoid topics that might offend Chinese government sensitivities—research or discussions on Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights, and Chinese politics, for example. It denies visas to scholars who criticize the regime, uses Chinese students in the US to inform on one another, and punishes universities for hosting controversial speakers. After a university hosted the Dalai Lama, Beijing retaliated by banning Chinese students and scholars with funding from the Chinese government from attending the university. When the institutions we entrust to pursue the truth start avoiding the truth—particularly academic research that few of us can do on our own—we all suffer.
The importance of universities’ truth-seeking role cannot be overstated. Medical researchers produce data on effective and ineffective therapies. Economists measure the impacts of different policy options. Sociologists study how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its outcomes. Political scientists analyze governments. The integrity of American universities has rarely been questioned because it was assumed scholars enjoy academic freedom.
In contrast, Chinese scholars inhabit a very different world. When I worked in Beijing 10 years ago, I frequently met scholars who had to be careful about what they said. In 2010, I co-hosted a program with a well-respected professor at Peking University—China’s finest. He became agitated and angry when one of the speakers just mentioned the name of a critic of the regime, Liu Xiaobo. The professor feared he would be demoted or have his salary cut. The incident gave me renewed gratitude for the freedom on US campuses.
Ten years later, fear of offending the Communist regime has spread to American campuses Some of the blame belongs with China, but much of it belongs with the US universities themselves. By becoming ever more reliant on Chinese money they have placed themselves in a profound conflict of interest: adhere to academic freedom or please Beijing. Economic reliance on China has increased vastly in the last decade. Universities recruited Chinese students in record numbers. Enrollments soared by 400 percent. Chinese pay tuition worth an estimated $12 billion per year, according to the US Department of Commerce.
Universities solicited Chinese money to expand their markets. New York University, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and others formed joint enterprises with Chinese government-run universities to establish branch campuses, receiving generous donations of cash from the CCP and land to do so. At home, financially strapped colleges sought Chinese money to host Confucius Institutes, which some believe to be propaganda centers. All told, since 2011, Chinese sources have contributed over $426 million to 77 American universities, according to disclosures made to the US Department of Education. This figure is almost surely an understatement because colleges only have to report contributions in excess of $250,000. And the figure does not include non-cash support. Last week it was revealed that CEFC, a Chinese conglomerate linked to foreign bribery, helped Columbia University energy center raise $500,000.
Academic freedom is the victim. A recent survey of more than 500 China studies scholars in the US revealed that about 68 percent of the respondents identified self-censorship as a problem in the field. Scholars avoid studying certain topics or adopt the official narrative of the Chinese regime when talking about sensitive issues. As Perry Link, emeritus professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, put it recently, “We don’t talk about ‘Taiwan independence.’ We talk about ‘the cross-Strait relations.’ We don’t talk about ‘the occupation of Tibet.’ We don’t call the June 4th Massacre ‘massacre.’ It is June 4th ‘incident,’ or something like that.”
Recognizing the threat to academic freedom, the report recommends that US universities scrutinize their Chinese donations more carefully to make sure they do not contain restrictions on academic freedom. But such a proposal will be ineffective. Chinese donations have never contained explicit restrictions on academic freedom. Instead, it is the fear that Beijing will end support that nurtures a culture of self-censorship.
The only way to reduce interference is for universities to prioritize their historic mission of telling the truth. Universities should still welcome Chinese students, but they need to stop accepting money from the Chinese government. Legislators, businesspeople and the public rely on unbiased research to help them make informed decisions. If our universities can no longer be trusted as arbiters of the truth, who can?
Robert E. Precht is director of Justice Labs, a legal think tank based in New York. Previously he served as China director for the Public Interest Law Network and as an assistant dean at the University of Michigan Law School. You can follow him on Twitter @robprecht