The Chinese Communist Party has American educational institutions, faculty, and students by the purse strings. U.S.-China academic ties are sullying the fundamental rights and liberties guaranteed to American citizens on American soil. Unfortunately, that will be the norm until American institutions dare to stand up and clarify this relationship.
In 2016, Dr. Matthew Kidder, one of the authors of this article, received a prestigious professorship through the American Economic Association (the “Association”). He moved to Beijing and began his appointment at the University of International Business and Economics, an institution receiving financial support from the CCP.
His story should be a model for international cooperation in education. Instead, it demonstrates how the CCP’s leverage in American society can erode basic freedoms.
One month after arriving in Beijing, Kidder was notified that his employment contract was unilaterally changed: 20 percent of his salary was withheld as a “bonus,” which became increasingly delinquent and eventually stopped coming. Kidder also experienced racial discrimination while working at the university, which manifested in the form of disparate professional opportunities, reneged health insurance (only available for Chinese staff), and, most notably, steeper consequences for voicing concerns. As he later learned, all of this was common practice, institutionalized mistreatment for foreign faculty.
Halfway through his contract, Kidder returned to the United States and appealed to the Association to investigate his experiences in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, this move drew fire from the university, which threatened to lodge criminal charges against him for speaking out against a CCP-backed institution — that is, the university planned to press criminal charges in China for actions and words spoken in the United States.
Yet, despite the deplorable way Kidder had been treated, and in the face of the increased hostility from the university, the Association was reticent to stand up for their own and uphold their policies on discrimination and anti-retaliation. The Association found itself in a position that is unfortunately all too common: having to choose between financial interests and the rights of its members.
His experience is emblematic of a larger trend occurring in academia and the private sector. In China, legal institutions are weak by design, an artifact of Mao Zedong’s desire to concentrate power within the CCP. In response, personal relationships, known as Guanxi, act as an informal institution that keeps social order.
This socio-legal apparatus means that people who are abused have no realistic means to resolve such differences. Although formal channels exist, they have little chance of success and introduce the risk of retribution from above. This is the culture that is being exported to America due to U.S.-China financial entanglements.
Sen. Marco Rubio and other politicians have been vocal about the CCP’s influence in education, citing concerns about propaganda and the suppression of politically sensitive content. A 2018 Wilson Center report found a “worrisome trend” suggesting that American faculty, students, and staff are being pressured to align their scholarship with CCP political preferences.
But the stakes are far higher. Academics like Kidder aren’t just facing pressure to conform. They’re finding their fundamental rights stripped from them. Even worse, they’re watching their institutions also brush their experiences under the rug, caving to the threat of Chinese retribution and funding cuts.
The Chinese government wields inordinate power in academia. There are currently 55 CCP-sponsored Confucius Institutes in the United States, which exist in part to shape perceptions about China. The Senate has repeatedly attempted to curb these programs, unanimously passing bills to redefine their managerial authority in 2020 and again this month.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released a report describing how top universities failed to disclose millions of dollars in foreign funds. Georgetown University, identified by the Wall Street Journal, “worked with the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party” and “‘derived $2,360,807’ from an arrangement that demonstrated ‘significant intermingling’ with China.” Top universities like Georgetown continue to work with the CCP at the risk of their academic communities.
This long arm of authoritarian influence hurts both American and Chinese scholars. The pursuit of knowledge is a mutual endeavor, and while these binational educational partnerships exist to further progress, they only work insofar as academic and personal freedoms are respected.
When these values are not upheld, American organizations are merely enriching themselves at the cost of their scholars. In many instances, bottom-line considerations are working to the detriment of institutional integrity, accountability, and the endurance of our free society.
Beyond academia, many industries are modifying their behavior and values to reflect their foreign sponsor. In 2019, the NBA found itself in a similar predicament when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists on his private account. As a consequence, the NBA lost upwards of $400 million and Morey was forced to backtrack from his comments to preserve his job.
Although political speech is honored by the U.S. federal government, it is not universally promised nor recognized by nations like China. Turns out speech is only free in the United States until it affects foreign or commercial interests.
Morey, Kidder, and many others participate in U.S.-China joint ventures with the belief that their rights will be protected and supported, especially within our borders. Americans expect a high degree of protection afforded by laws and shared principles, yet these ties with China foster an environment where wrongdoings have no redress and personal autonomy is a business liability.
The federal government needs to examine how American values are being subverted by these foreign partnerships. To that end, educational institutions must similarly be transparent and cautious when accepting funding. When American academics face threats from foreign partners, American universities should be in their corner ready to back them up, not hiding behind their wallets.
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