November 24, 2020 | Insight

Follow the Money: Exposing China’s Influence Operations at Academic Institutions and Think Tanks

November 24, 2020 | Insight

Follow the Money: Exposing China’s Influence Operations at Academic Institutions and Think Tanks

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued an ultimatum last month to think tanks and academic institutions around the country: Publicly disclose funding received from foreign governments or risk losing access to State Department officials. The move comes amid growing bipartisan concerns about the role of foreign governments in shaping academic and policy debates, especially the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) robust influence apparatus, including its efforts to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Early this year, the Department of Education initiated a broad investigation to determine whether U.S. academic institutions had properly reported foreign contracts and gifts. Around the same time, the Justice Department announced criminal indictments involving a Harvard department chair who reportedly lied to federal authorities about his ties to Chinese government entities and his acceptance of Chinese grant funding. Since then, the Justice Department has issued a number of indictments against other U.S. academics involving unreported ties to Beijing.

Following its investigation, the Department of Education issued a report revealing that several of America’s most prominent universities accepted billions of dollars in unreported foreign funds. While accepting foreign funds is not illegal, the law requires disclosure. For example, Georgetown University declined to report more than $2 million from an arrangement with the CCP Central Committee to host academic exchanges with CCP officials through the Central Committee’s Party School. Moreover, Cornell University failed to disclose more than $1 million in contracts with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei Technologies, which is itself the subject of numerous U.S. investigations.

Georgetown and Cornell were hardly alone, as the report states that nearly every U.S. institution investigated had received some funding from Huawei. Furthermore, most of Huawei’s sponsored arrangements involved sensitive industries such as robotics, semiconductors, and cloud computing services. In addition, the report notes that the University of Maryland was working with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to develop algorithms for use in crowd-surveillance technology. Such technology is frequently employed throughout China and increasingly in other authoritarian countries to identify critics, often supplementing other monitoring systems used to track internet use, communications, and dissident activities.

Regarding U.S. think tanks, Pompeo’s announcement states that while foreign financial disclosures are not required by law, State Department officers would be “mindful of whether disclosure has been made and of specific funding sources” when determining how to engage with the think tank community. In contrast to China’s investments in U.S. academic institutions, Chinese government funding for U.S. think tanks appears marginal when compared to that of other foreign countries, based on a review of information compiled by the Center for International Policy (CIP), an independent nonprofit center for research, public education, and advocacy on U.S. foreign policy.

According to CIP’s research, only three U.S. think tanks reported receiving Chinese government funding, although the report acknowledges that think tanks have no legal obligation to publicly reveal their funders, foreign or domestic. The report also does not account for possible think tank contributions by individual Chinese citizens with ties to the CCP, its state-owned enterprises, or other government-affiliated entities. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where I work, receives no foreign government funding.

Understanding the totality of China’s soft power investments in U.S. academic institutions, think tanks, and other prominent policy institutions should mirror similar ongoing efforts to uncover Chinese ownership of media entities around the world. Addressing these legal and regulatory gaps will require additional funding for investigative personnel at the departments of both Education and Justice, as well as potential changes to Internal Revenue Service reporting protocols, which could include the mandated public release of all think tanks’ Schedule B forms, which document their funding sources.

Congress and the next administration should promote increased awareness surrounding Chinese malign influence, including in academic and policy circles. Bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress, including the Countering Chinese Government and Communist Party’s Political Influence Operations Act, would support such efforts. Furthermore, initiatives designed to strengthen Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reporting requirements, many of which are outlined in the recently released House China Task Force Report, would also limit China’s ability to exploit existing lobbying loopholes currently being exploited by Chinese-owned companies operating in the United States, including TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.

In today’s world of deep fakes, election interference, and clandestine media cutouts, it is more important than ever for policymakers to shed a light on China’s suborned scholarship, even if Washington may not like what it finds.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. For more analysis from Craig, CMPP, and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Military and Political Power