Peddling Chinese propaganda on campus

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 13th of February, 2020. This is The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad you’ve joined us.  Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: China’s influence around the world. It’s growing.

Not too surprising. One in every five  persons on earth is Chinese. China is the second largest economy in the world, after the United States.

The communist government’s growing influence in the West has freedom-lovers worried. China frequently violates religious liberty and human rights. Moreover, the government launches cyber attacks and steals intellectual property. 

REICHARD: American colleges and universities have unwittingly opened a door to China’s influence in the United States. WORLD Radio correspondent Jill Nelson reports now on the soft propaganda of the Confucius Institutes.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: FBI Director Christopher Wray issued a stern warning about China to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year:

WRAY: The Chinese counterintelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of.

One of China’s targets, Wray added, is university campuses. Retired China scholar Steven Levine learned that lesson the hard way.

He arrived at the University of Montana in 2007. At the time it had a poorly funded Chinese Studies program. When he discovered the Chinese government was giving away seed money to start a program known as the Confucius Institute, he got on board.

LEVINE: We were attracted by the possibility of providing Chinese language education through the state of Montana where there was no Chinese language instruction in any of the high schools and only a poorly developed program in the university. 

MUSIC: [Chinese music]

At first glance, the programs appear benign: They promote cultural and artistic opportunities, like Chinese New Year celebrations and language classes. The Chinese government usually provides both teachers and textbooks and up to $200,000 a year—a huge boost for smaller institutions.

The first Confucius Institute opened its doors at the University of Maryland in 2004. Their numbers grew to more than 100 nation-wide and more than 500 across the globe.

The University of Montana opened its Institute in 2007—an achievement Levine later regretted.

LEVINE: From Beijing, the Confucius Institute carefully vetted the teachers who were sent over here. There were things they weren’t allowed to speak about. Everything seemed to be sort of soft and cuddly, sort of the panda image of China. But in fact this was part of an official Chinese government agency.

Critics say Confucius Institutes attempt to control discussions about sensitive topics like human rights, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Levine wanted to find out if this was true. In 2014 he wrote to hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world, asking them to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Dozens of China specialists signed his letter. But none of the Confucius Institutes agreed.

LEVINE: The lack of response spoke volumes I think in terms of the way Beijing controlled these institutions.

Economic espionage is another major concern, both in the private sector and at universities. 

Clayton Dube directs the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. He believes openness and exchange lead to more rapid development, but he’s also concerned about intellectual property theft.

DUBE: This is a hazard and of course universities tend to be very open places. And so in cases where technology is being developed and the development of that technology is being done by the U.S. government, it’s imperative that the United States be the beneficiary of that technology.

But FBI Director Wray told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019 that universities are starting to wake up to China’s threat.

WRAY: I’m encouraged actually by the number of universities we have around the country that are taking very thoughtful responsible steps to make sure that they’re not being abused and that their information, proprietary research, confidential information, isn’t stolen.

Washington is also taking action.

A law passed in 2019 prohibits universities that host Confucius Institutes from receiving Department of Defense funding for Chinese language studies. As a result, nine universities closed their programs. Several more, including universities in Missouri, Kansas, and Delaware, announced closures this year. Since 2014, 29 Confucius Institutes at American universities have shut their doors.

Levine said the institute he helped launch in Montana closed down a few months ago. The state is struggling to make up for the deficit.

Dube says countering China’s soft power involves more than just shuttering Confucius Institutes.

DUBE: Are you simultaneously going to vote for more money for language teaching? For teaching about China? If so I’m with you. I’m with you completely. But if your only answer is to close the American door to information about China, that seems like a program that’s not in American interests.

Levine agrees, and says many universities are starved of funds.

Dube says the United States needs to invest in Chinese language and cultural studies just like it invested in Middle Eastern studies after 9-11.

DUBE: You can’t cut yourself off from essentially one-fifth of the world’s population.

Developing our own China curriculum is good for American students going into business. It’s also a useful tool for American foreign policy.

DUBE: So what I’m looking for are politicians who recognize that and say instead of relying on Beijing to do it, we’re going to do it.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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