February 8, 2022 | Real Clear Defense

Higher Education’s Confucius Institute Hangover

How U.S. Universities Support Beijing’s Military-Industrial Complex
February 8, 2022 | Real Clear Defense

Higher Education’s Confucius Institute Hangover

How U.S. Universities Support Beijing’s Military-Industrial Complex

The conviction of acclaimed Harvard scientist Charles Lieber on charges stemming from his improper relationship with the Chinese government has sent shockwaves throughout U.S. higher education. Lieber’s case laid bare China’s efforts to blur the traditional boundaries between academia, defense research, and the private sector to advance its military and technological modernization. These under-the-radar tactics make illicit knowledge and technology transfer very difficult to detect.

Unfortunately, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

A new report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) reveals that dozens of America’s top research universities have quietly entered into academic and research partnerships with the same Chinese schools working to give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a technological advantage over the U.S. military. U.S. law does not require U.S. universities to disclose the details of such partnerships, even though Beijing has made clear that it intends to harvest cutting-edge American innovation to underwrite its military modernization and nuclear weapons program.

What all of the report’s problematic partnerships share in common is that they can be traced back to decisions by these U.S. and Chinese universities to jointly operate Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are Chinese government-sponsored organizations that offer Chinese language and cultural programming worldwide. CIs have come under fire for promoting the CCP’s preferred political narratives and encouraging the harassment of those on campus who criticize the regime. This latest research reveals that they also advance facets of China’s military-civil fusion, a national strategy aimed at acquiring the world’s cutting-edge technologies to achieve Chinese military dominance.

U.S. universities have long championed academic and research partnerships with Chinese universities as a win-win. By attracting top Chinese talent, U.S. universities dramatically exceeded enrollment and revenue targets. Formalizing such partnerships, which outline everything from exchange programs to joint research initiatives, is also standard operating procedure when a U.S. university establishes a CI program. In those instances, U.S. universities enter into contractual relationships with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manage their CI operations, as well as a separate contract with a CCP-selected civilian university to support the CI’s programming. Troublingly, these separate contracts, many of which promote joint research collaboration in new and emerging fields, often remain active for years after a CI closure.

Beijing established CIs mainly at America’s top research universities, often referred to as ‘R1’ and ‘R2’ research centers. Before the recent wave of CI closures that began in 2018, more than 70 percent of all CIs were located at one of these U.S. research hubs. These same universities are often affiliated with the National Industrial Security Program (NISP), a Defense Department-led initiative that vets contractors and universities that receive millions of tax-payer dollars to perform classified work. Less surprising is that many of the Chinese sister universities chosen to support these CI programs have also been tapped by the CCP to spearhead defense innovation in fields ranging from nuclear weapons design and submarine development to cyber-espionage and materials science.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made clear his intention to harness the power of academia and civilian research to achieve Chinese military superiority. In a recent speech, Xi stated the CCP would “exhaust all means” to lure tech talent to China. Central to Xi’s strategy are government programs that sponsor Chinese students and researchers specializing in more than 200 academic ‘disciplines with national defense characteristics’ (or 国防特色学科) to study at America’s elite research colleges, after which they are expected to return to China and support its defense build-up. This initiative and others like it, including China’s Thousand Talents and Double First-Class University Plan (世界一流大学和一 流学科建设), are unapologetically aimed at supporting China’s military-civil fusion.

Despite the national security implications of partnering with China, U.S. universities alone decide whether to enter into foreign academic and research relationships. There is no requirement that they coordinate with federal or local authorities, nor are universities required to conduct any formal due diligence on their foreign partners. Neither are U.S. universities required by law to publicly disclose copies of their CI contracts or information about their foreign partnerships. Shockingly, U.S. universities do not even have a legal or regulatory obligation to sever ties with Chinese universities supporting China’s defense industry. For instance, schools can legally maintain partnerships with Chinese universities formally identified as threats to U.S. national security, including those placed on the Commerce Department’s Entity List. 

The case of my alma mater, Texas A&M University, is emblematic of how some universities have paid lip service to addressing the Chinese threat while continuing business as usual. Texas A&M, an R1 entity and NISP partner, shuttered its CI in 2018, citing national security concerns raised by Representatives Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX). However, A&M maintained its academic and research partnership with its Chinese sister school, Ocean University. While Texas A&M boasts about its “award winning” Research Security Office’s vetting procedures, a simple internet search reveals that Ocean University has signed multiple strategic cooperation agreements with the People’s Liberation Army Navy to support classified military projects. More disturbing is that such arrangements go back more than a decade, during which time A&M received millions in donations from Ocean University.

A&M also maintains at least half a dozen other partnerships with Chinese universities that, among other things, collaborate with China’s National Transportation War Readiness Office and design crystals used in China’s nuclear weapons research. One of A&M’s partners, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has even been implicated in cyber-attacks on the United States.

Sadly, A&M is not alone. At least 16 other R1 and R2 universities – including Arizona State University, Tufts, Rutgers, the College of William and Mary, the University of Washington, and Emory – shuttered their CIs but elected to maintain similar partnership schemes with problematic Chinese universities. This figure does not include the 28 additional U.S. universities which, despite ample warnings, continue to host a CI. Of those, at least ten jointly operate their CIs with Chinese civilian universities with direct links to China’s military and cyber-espionage platforms. Those schools include Stanford, the University of Utah, and the University of Toledo.

Not all collaboration between U.S. and Chinese universities entails security risks. But common sense dictates that America’s top research institutions should not be engaging in any meaningful way with Chinese universities with formal research links to China’s military. If history is any guide, however, U.S. universities will resist severing these ties until the U.S. government takes concrete steps to suspend their federal funding.

A targeted approach should mirror current Defense Department-led efforts to publicly identify Chinese companies linked to military-civil fusion. This could include an annual reporting requirement for the Defense Department, in collaboration with the Department of Education and the Intelligence Community, to identify Chinese civilian universities supporting China’s defense and military establishment. Currently, no such effort exists.

For its part, Congress should pass legislation that withholds certain types of federal funding for U.S. universities that maintain contractual or formal relationships with these problematic Chinese universities. Similar legislation that barred U.S. universities that host CIs from receiving Defense Department language funding resulted in more than a dozen CI closures. Complementary funding guardrails should also be incorporated into the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which significantly increases R&D investments at U.S. universities. Doing so could prevent Beijing from actively or passively reaping the benefits of these new investments.

Congress and the executive branch also ought to increase transparency surrounding CI contracts and foreign partnership agreements by mandating that U.S. universities publish copies of these documents. Efforts should also be made to levy export restrictions on these Chinese universities, which operate as end-users for the Chinese military.

Lastly, the State Department should expand the grounds for denying visas to Chinese students and researchers from Chinese institutions with military ties. This type of tailored enforcement – one that would apply to approximately 90 Chinese universities or only about three percent of all Chinese institutions of higher education – would allow Chinese students to study in the United States so long as they are not affiliated with schools supporting Beijing’s military build-up.

The Biden administration and bipartisan coalitions in Congress recognize that more must be done to outcompete Chinese tech innovation. That requires more than simply boosting domestic R&D expenditures. It also means cutting off China’s illicit pathways to acquiring American know-how and next-generation innovation. Doing otherwise runs the risk of further prolonging U.S. higher education’s already painful Confucius hangover.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan think tank focused on national security and foreign policy. He recently published a research monograph entitled, “The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education – How U.S. Universities Support China’s Military-Industrial Complex.” Follow him on Twitter @CraigMSingleton.