Trump Administration Sounds Alarm on Chinese Efforts to Infiltrate Academia

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 23: The Harvard University campus is shown on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students were required to be out of their dorms no later than March 15 and finish the rest of the semester online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty …
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The U.S. State and Education Departments sent a joint warning to state education commissioners and school administrators last week about efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to influence American education.

China made over $1.2 billion in declared donations to U.S. universities since 2012, and may have provided much more funding that has not been disclosed to students or their parents, the Clarion Project revealed recently in its documentary, Covert Cash: What American Universities Don’t Want You to Know About Their Foreign Funding.

The State and Education departments warned that language and culture programs furnished to American schools by the Chinese government include curriculum written by the PRC and teachers trained and vetted by the Communist state.

The documentary quotes news reports about investigations into universities like Harvard and Yale for failing to report hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, much of it ostensibly presented to the institutions as “gifts” from foreign governments or third parties controlled by them.

These foreign donors have collectively funneled over $12 billion to American universities since 2012 – an enormous sum, but then the amount of money flowing through American higher education is staggering. Each of the ten largest university endowments in the United States is worth over $10 billion; the largest, at Harvard, is almost $41 billion.

“It’s one of the hidden secrets about foreign influence in America. Just about the entire Ivy League take money from a foreign government,” said Dr. Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

“The countries that are donating the most money to American schools are countries with terrible human rights records,” noted Ryan Mauro, director of the Clarion Intelligence Network. Those countries included Qatar, China, and Saudi Arabia, each reportedly good for over a billion dollars in gifts. Even malevolent regimes that claim to be impoverished by U.S. sanctions, such as Syria and Venezuela, have donated millions.

“And that’s just the amount that’s been publicly declared,” Mauro added. “Most of the money is not declared by the schools.”

Russia is a major donor as well, even though the Democrat Party – the dominant political party among university staff and administrators – has ostensibly decided Russia under President Vladimir Putin is the greatest enemy America faces. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was investigated for taking a huge amount of money from Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, a close ally of Putin who was sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2018 for “malign activity around the globe,” including “destabilizing Western democracies.”

Congress got involved in August, writing to six of America’s top universities – including Harvard and Yale – to demand records of all foreign donations they have received. The Republican lawmakers who sent the letter said they were concerned about the dangers this hidden money poses to national security, citing a warning from the Education Department that American colleges are becoming too dependent upon “foreign funding from adversarial states.” 

Another area of great concern highlighted in Covert Cash was Islamist extremists using their donations to set up Islamic studies programs that become transmission systems for their religious and political ideology. The video noted that American university administrations might not always see the political and ideological links between foreign donors and Islamist extremist groups. 

Freeman said foreign governments are keenly interested in buying influence with U.S. universities so they can “influence the minds of the next generation of congressmen, the next generation of lobbyists, the next generation of media, P.R. professionals – you name it.”

China’s Confucius Institutes loom large in Covert Cash. The program is funded by the Chinese government for the ostensible purpose of teaching foreign students about the Chinese language and culture. It has some 540 branches around the world, 66 of them at American universities. It also has programs for schools below the university level.

Critics – including members of the U.S. intelligence community – say the Confucius Institutes are CCP propaganda operations, their operations directly controlled by the Communist Party, which suppresses discussion of forbidden topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. One critique highlighted in Covert Cash described the Confucius Institutes as “academic malware,” the ideological version of a computer virus. 

“They’re also trying to steal sensitive technology,” Mauro said, pointing to espionage investigations across the United States that loop into university campuses, Confucius Institutes, and the Thousand Talents program, a Chinese effort to recruit foreign academics that has been attacked as a thinly-veiled scheme to steal Western intellectual property. 

Among the highest-profile of these investigations was the case of Harvard University chemistry chairman Charles Lieber, who was charged with fraud in January for failing to disclose millions of dollars in financial ties to China.

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