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Society & Culture

The Needless War Over U.S.-China Educational Exchanges

Dec 23, 2020
  • Mel Gurtov

    Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Portland State University

While disputes between the U.S. and China over trade, human rights, and the pandemic are making headlines, these days Washington is taking aim at educational exchange programs between the two nations. These programs have been singled out by an administration that wants to demonstrate toughness against Beijing as China’s rise challenges U.S. dominance in global economic and political arenas. Major questions can be raised, however, about whether proposed rules and accompanying pressure tactics are fact-based. If they become a fixture in U.S.-China relations, they will have a chilling effect on bilateral academic and business collaboration.

Unfortunately, toughness these days has led to a degree of suspicion that broadly—and, I argue, excessively—includes an unprecedented number of new attempts to regulate the flow of Chinese visitors—scholars, students, journalists, and scientists among them—on the basis that they might commit espionage, stifle academic freedom, spread propaganda, steal intellectual property, and undermine American values. 

Members of Congress and Congressional committees, U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department, think tanks, journalists, professors on the left and right, and U.S. educational organizations have all weighed in to warn of the dangers of association with individual Chinese and China-financed organizations. The cumulative effect of these charges is to bring US-China relations to their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. 

Confucius Institutes as Targets 

A misplaced focal point of the attacks on China are Confucius Institutes (CIs), a global network of Chinese-funded offices mostly based at U.S. universities that seek to promote Chinese language and cultural learning—or, as some insist, China’s “soft power.” Where Confucius Institutes were once welcomed as part of a thriving US-China people-to-people exchange program, now they are viewed in the context of China’s status as a “strategic competitor,” the term used in the White House’s 2020 strategy paper on China.

In the US, there were once over 100 CIs; now there are fewer than 60 due to critiques lodged by Congress, the State Department, and other federal agencies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has charged, without evidence, that CIs are seeking to recruit "spies and collaborators.” In August the department had them designated as “foreign missions,” and Pompeo promised that all CIs would be closed by the end of 2020.  

Behind the charges is the presumption that money and teachers coming from China give the Chinese Communist Party access to young American minds—in short, guilt by association, as in Senator Chuck Grassley’s advice to seventy-four universities and colleges that were home to CIs to seek an FBI briefing on “the threats posed by the Chinese Government” generally, and CIs specifically. “Based upon information gathered from unclassified briefings,” said Grassley, “we know that Confucius Institutes are an arm of the Chinese Government... The activities of Confucius Institutes are inherently political in nature and intended to influence U.S. policy and public opinion.”   

Unwarranted Charges 

CIs are closing not because of poor performance, but because of political pressure, from either Washington or academia. The pressure reflects ideological passion, however, not an investigation of actual circumstances. As part of a study group assessment funded by Hanban, the CI’s funding agency, I participated in nearly 100 interviews with CI and university officers, and American teachers in communities with Confucius Classrooms. No one mentioned Chinese political interference. Academic freedom was not violated, financial dependence on China was not created, China was not glorified by its teachers, and CIs did not operate in secrecy. Virtually all the accusations against CIs are based on a single Chinese statement extolling China’s soft power, the opaque relationship between Hanban and China’s education ministry, a supposed lack of transparency in CI operations, or a rare charge of bias against Taiwan or Tibet.

In fact, CIs performed exactly as promised. Besides promoting Chinese language and cultural learning in communities small and large across the country, each CI has taken on some additional or more specialized role, such as partnering with other community organizations on cultural themes, teaching noncredit on-line classes in addition to K-12 classes, or providing study abroad opportunities. The American interviewees uniformly expressed gratitude for their CI’s contributions to the community's cultural awareness and students' international competency. Neither public nor private entities have made comparable investments in education on Chinese culture, leading one U.S. senator to call on “policymakers to learn how we can fill any gaps that may exist in Chinese language education” rather than “rely on the Chinese government.”

Warnings of malicious intent not only ignore the benefits of educational exchanges with China, they also confuse CIs with other Chinese activities that may truly be nefarious. FBI and Justice Department officials have testified about threats posed to research labs and universities by researchers with “undisclosed ties to Chinese institutions and conflicted loyalties.” A few arrests have been made. Other U.S. officials are demanding highly detailed reporting from universities about foreign donations, with China especially in mind, in the belief they are sources of political influence. But as the president of MIT has said, the wide net cast by the U.S. government in search of disloyal people has made anyone of Chinese ethnicity “feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge.” 

Pressure on Chinese Visitors

Investigation of CIs over the past four years can be linked to an increasing number of actions that challenge broadly the value of educational exchange and research collaboration between the U.S. and China.

  • Last year there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in the US. Those who would normally be eligible for work under the government’s Optional Practical Training provision of the U.S. program may no longer have that opportunity based on a newly formulated federal rule under consideration by the Trump administration. Ohio Congressman Steve Stivers wrote a letter co-signed by a number of Republicans to the departments of state and homeland security expressing concern about proposed changes to OPT.
  • The Department of State seeks to limit visas for Chinese (and other international) students, scholars, even doctors and begin sending home those already here on the basis of “national security.”
  • The Department of Education now seeks to limit all foreign students’ time to pursue degrees and work in technical fields not being filled by Americans. This duration-of-status rule requires these students (J-1 visa) to file every year for an extension of stay.
  • The Department of Labor has rules that require use of a “prevailing wage” framework for individuals seeking work visas that will make it extremely difficult for international student graduates to qualify for such a visa.
  • Still other federal steps include preventing CI teachers from obtaining a U.S. visa, and using the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019 to force universities to choose between continuing to receive defense department money and hosting a CI—a choice with a predictable outcome.
  • Senate bill S.939, the “Confucius Act,” introduced by Republican John Kennedy and Democrat Doug Jones, would deny federal funds to universities that do not exercise “full control” over the Confucius Institutes they host. The bill passed the Senate in June 2020.

Clearly, visa and other requirements are being tightened with the aim of preventing Chinese language teachers and visiting scholars from entering or returning to the US. Should these visa-related actions prevail despite court challenges, they will damage not only the research capacity of U.S. higher education, but deal a major blow to industries in the U.S. that employ U.S.-trained international students.

It is strange to make an argument about the value of learning a foreign language, knowing more about another country’s culture, and employing skilled people from other countries. Just a few decades ago that debate seemed to end with calls for “internationalizing” curricula in recognition of how the insular U.S. educational system was making students uncompetitive in the global marketplace. Now a huge backward leap is taking place with, of all countries, China. Even when public officials acknowledge the value of more expertise on China, the rationale is put in Cold War terms—as in this comment from liberal Congressman Adam Schiff: 

We don't have the personnel, the language skills, the expertise and the prioritization of resources that we really should have to deal with a threat that is so cross-cutting against every field and domain: military, air, cyber, technology, diplomacy, foreign investment... At present, it appears that China has determined to be increasingly aggressive and bellicose in the region. China is projecting its power around the world and seeks to change international institutions, moving them away from a law-based, rules-based order to one where "might makes right." 

Opportunity Costs 

What the administration is doing is denying communities, schools, and laboratories the opportunities for cultural enrichment, people-to-people interaction, mutual understanding, and joint problem solving—precisely when these are desperately needed. In past years China was accepted as an economic partner, despite its communist system. It is no surprise, then, that Beijing accuses the Trump administration of inciting a new Cold War—and is responding with its own exaggeration of the U.S. threat, as well as pushing ambitious economic initiatives that exclude the United States. Chinese students now seek alternatives to the U.S. to pursue their education, in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere—a change of inestimable benefit to other countries’ longer-term global understanding, business innovation, and research discoveries. The Chinese educational authorities see the writing on the wall, and in July reorganized their approach in the US, creating two new organizations to take the place of Hanban and CIs. But that step will not resolve the political issue: whether or not a U.S. entity may accept Chinese money for language and cultural learning without coming under official scrutiny.

The energetic promotion by political leaders and law enforcement agencies of a Chinese threat presents U.S. higher education, and U.S. society at large, with a dilemma. Educational institutions are committed partners in the collective vigilance and enforcement of efforts to protect national security. At the same time, they are called on to pursue a unique mission, that of knowledge creation capable of solving the world’s greatest challenges. Universities pursue this responsibility by educating the brightest U.S. and international students and regularly collaborating with renowned research scholars from throughout the world. The largest number of these students and scholars by far are Chinese, a resource of benefit to U.S. institutions and China as well.

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