Warnings of Chinese government ‘influence’ on campuses divide Stanford community

May 30, 2019, 12:19 a.m.

This article is the last in a three-part series examining how rising U.S.-China tensions are affecting the Stanford community. Read the first installment here and the second here.

Chaofen Sun doesn’t like being dragged into politics.

“I’m a linguist,” the East Asian Languages and Cultures professor said. He researches variations in modern Chinese and speaks reverently of Tang and Song Dynasty poetry — it’s “like Shakespeare in English literature,” he said.

But political controversy has followed the Chinese government-funded language and culture institute that Sun helped bring to Stanford, one of many centers called Confucius Institutes around the U.S. A Senate committee report released this February following an investigation warns that Confucius Institutes, whose purview would seem to lie far from matters of national security, are part of a “soft power” campaign to make China seem less threatening to the U.S.

Much of the government’s efforts to limit the Chinese state’s access to U.S. academia focus on American universities’ prowess in science and technology. Officials do not want a powerful adversary taking advantage of research funded in large part by the U.S.

However, some policymakers and scholars have also highlighted a less-familiar risk from what a recent report out of Stanford’s Hoover Institution calls the Chinese government’s quest for “cultural and informational influence” in the U.S. The Hoover report places this quest for influence in everything from media to think tanks to universities like Stanford.

“Some of these efforts fall into the category of normal public diplomacy as pursued by many other countries,” the report states. “But others involve the use of coercive or corrupting methods to pressure individuals and groups and thereby interfere in the functioning of American civil and political life.”

The Hoover report has encouraged scrutiny of Chinese government activities at U.S. schools, but has also stoked a backlash from critics who believe it helps cast a wide swathe of the academic community under unfair suspicion. One of those critics is history professor Gordon Chang, who was recently appointed senior vice provost for undergraduate education.

“There’s a real sense that there’s a growing fear and suspicion of Chinese Americans generally in the United States, and that the Hoover report is encouraging this type of scrutiny and suspicion,” Chang said. “And many of us feel this is a form of racial profiling.”

Under the Chinese government’s watch

At a talk this March, Hoover Institution fellows spoke of a “new Cold War” with China and called the authoritarian country today’s biggest threat to global democracy. A Hoover report released last November titled “China’s Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance” devotes a whole section to ways a group of China scholars sees Beijing wielding power on U.S. campuses.

Besides scrutinizing Confucius Institutes, the report — echoing news articles over the years — says that some Chinese student associations report back to the government about peers and faculty; that Chinese diplomats pressure universities to avoid events on touchy subjects; and that China restricts foreign researchers’ ability to study the country inside its borders.

Hoover senior fellow Larry Diamond, who co-chaired the working group behind the report, drew a line between open and transparent communication to promote pro-Chinese government perspectives and the more coercive strategies outlined above.

He cited national cases where students “say things favorable to the Dalai Lama or criticize the posture of the People’s Republic of China on something or condemn authoritarianism in China” and are told that their family could get in trouble. That’s inappropriate coercion, he said, distinct from efforts like cultural tours or open political conversations.

Students from China, most of whom were granted anonymity to speak candidly with The Daily, said they have not encountered the sort of “peer monitoring” mentioned in the Hoover report as a way for the Chinese government to keep tabs on students. But they self-censor all the same. Whether peer monitoring actually exists at Stanford is moot, one Chinese student said; it’s the possibility that keeps people cautious about what they say.

“If it exists I’m not going to be surprised,” he said.

He talks with other Chinese peers about what internships may be too sensitive to pursue, remembering the story he’s heard about a Chinese student in years past whose parents were contacted by the government after the student got an internship at a prominent U.S. newspaper. Students wonder: Is a Stanford in Government position in Taiwan okay?

A second student recalled choosing her words with nervousness at some University events. Usually a confident speaker, she felt her voice shake a bit as she asked a question at a Hoover Institution talk on China, apprehensive to touch on a politically sensitive subject in case people connected with the Chinese government were there.

And yet, political organizing is far more likely to draw attention than casual speech, the first student said. He’s typically not too worried about voicing controversial opinions, reasoning that repercussions are rare and that the Chinese government has too many people to watch to track them all.

While some Chinese student associations around the country have been vocal proponents of the Chinese government’s views, objecting to campus talks by politically sensitive speakers and consulting with government officials, members of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Stanford (ACSSS) said the group does not have a strong connection to the Chinese consulate. Other Chinese students said this is their perception as well after learning more about the group and attending its events.

Consulate staff give talks to members a couple times a year, said Ph.D. student Yiqing Ding, who co-leads ACSSS. But he said the appearances typically cover practical issues like safety, urging new students to beware of risky outdoor activities and car accidents.

Another Chinese student pushed back against common perceptions of government restrictions on freedom of speech, arguing that the issue is more nuanced than often presented.

“I think a general misconception is that China is like North Korea, like there’s no freedom whatsoever,” she said. “Honestly, most people who are saying sensitive things are pretty fine. According to my observation, as long as you don’t organize something [and] if you keep your view private to yourself … no one really cares and the government really wouldn’t care.”

She also added that sometimes the government actually encourages particular policy criticism so that it can generate policy more in line with people’s opinions.

When it comes to highly sensitive topics like Tibet or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, however, she agreed that students have to choose words cautiously. The Chinese government has an expansive apparatus for keeping track of citizen data, she said, making students wary in the off-chance that what they say is recorded.

“Those words you may say carelessly might carry with you for a long way,” she said, pointing to China’s new social credit system, which seeks to standardize evaluations of citizens’ and business’ economic and social reputations in one unified system. The system, which allows China to deny certain privileges to those with low scores, has exacerbated fears about China using big data and advanced technology to construct a sophisticated surveillance state.

The student who heard the story about the newspaper intern said that, for all the genuine concern about Chinese censorship, the scrutiny of the U.S. government and concerns of xenophobia can loom larger in practical terms for students than the attention of the Chinese government. Visa issues and racial profiling, he said, are often a more immediate worry than suspicions of state monitoring.

If U.S.-China hostilities continue to rise, he may move to Europe or Japan after graduation.

“The world is so big,” the student said. “I don’t have to get stuck in the United States.”

Spotlight on Confucius Institutes

East Asian Languages and Cultures professor Sun seemed amused when asked about allegations that the Chinese government wields improper sway over Confucius Institutes, which are funded evenly between host universities and a Chinese government office called Hanban.

He said that Stanford’s institute, supported by a $4 million gift from Hanban in 2009, is governed by a contract like any other research agreement — one that protects academic freedom. The money supports a single faculty position, two graduate fellowships and Chinese studies curriculum.

“[None of that] is true about our Confucius Institute,” Sun said of the concerns raised about the Institutes broadly. “That’s all I can tell you.”

The government, meanwhile, has described Confucius Institutes as part of a Chinese influence campaign at odds with American interests. Two reports released in February — one by the Senate, another by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — detail investigations into the institutes and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Hanban has given almost $160 million to U.S. schools’ 110 institutes since 2006, according to the Senate inquiry.  

In particular, Confucius Institute critics have called out some Institutes’ exclusive use of pro-CCP material and the censorship of discussions on controversial topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen, repression of minorities in Xinjiang, and human rights in American classrooms.

A report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also objected to the Chinese government’s oversight of many Confucius Institutes, from budget review and veto power over events to contracts stipulating that Hanban-appointed Chinese staff must “conscientiously safeguard national interests” and follow Chinese law.

The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last August, now prohibits the Defense Department from funding Chinese language programs at universities with Confucius Institutes, though institutions can seek an exemption. At least one school has decided to close its Confucius Institute to avoid losing Defense Department funding for a language program. According to the Hoover Institution’s China report, several universities that once contemplated opening CIs — including Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania — have decided against doing so.

Even staunch China critics, however, have cautioned against monolithic assessments of the 100-plus Confucius Institutes currently operating on American campuses. The GAO report, which involved a review of 90 institutes’ contracts, stressed that most CI agreements reveal the institutes are not simply pawns of the Chinese government and include language not in template agreements on Hanban’s English website. According to the GAO, 10 agreements explicitly state that Confucius Institutes are subject to school policies.

Others believe the fixation on Confucius Institutes distracts from real issues in U.S.-China relations. Stanford alum John Pomfret ’81 M.A. ’84 wrote last summer that he sees little harm from these humanities-oriented centers to American interests. For Pomfret, the larger threat lies with the Chinese government’s efforts to access American technology through academia.

Early on, Chinese officials did try to influence Stanford’s Institute. Representatives at Peking University (PKU), Stanford’s partner organization for the new center, pushed for Stanford to fill its endowed chair with someone working in modern social studies.

More ominously, Hanban’s first funding offer of $4 million came with one crucial caveat: Don’t talk about Tibet.

Yet when Stanford turned down Hanban’s initial restriction on Tibet, the Chinese government dropped the suggestion and provided the money anyway, Stanford administrators have said. Similarly, Stanford’s Confucius Institute successfully pushed back against PKU’s desire for the institute to take on a social science bent, appointing an expert in classical Chinese poetry for the endowed chair position.

East Asian Languages and Cultures Professor Ban Wang told the Office of International Affairs in 2013 that Stanford negotiates directly with Hanban representatives in moments of disagreement. “Each time, we remind [Hanban] that Stanford University has the control on how to manage the Institute,” Wang said.

Thus, Stanford says it has no good reason to shut down its institute, though at least 10 schools as of this January have closed or are planning to close their Confucius Institutes amid the political scrutiny.

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that the Chinese government has not influenced or restricted the Stanford institute’s hiring or programming. Details of the University’s contract with the Hanban are confidential, Miranda said, because it involves a gift.

Broad suspicion of Confucius Institutes hit Stanford directly back in 2014, when a Forbes opinion piece accused Stanford of enabling Chinese propaganda and spying through its Confucius Institute. An indignant Richard Saller, the director of Stanford’s Institute, called these accusations “sensational to the point of being ridiculous.”

“If we negotiated an agreement that protects our academic freedom at Stanford, why should we renege on that?” Saller said.

‘They look twice, if you’re Chinese’

As U.S.-China tensions rise, history professor Chang has heard troubling stories from Chinese academics — stories about situations in which they have felt singled out for their race.

The impacts confided in him, Chang said, are subtle: a funny feeling a Stanford colleague got at an off-campus policy meeting, a sense of being scrutinized.

“We walk into a room of people, policy people — they look twice, if you’re Chinese,” Chang said. “Are you really American? Are you going to have America’s interest at heart?”

In an afterword to the Hoover report on Chinese influence in the U.S., Diamond and his report co-chair, the Center on U.S.-China Relations’ Orville Schell, emphasized that they do not wish for their research to provoke “a McCarthy era-like reaction against Chinese in America.”

For critics of the report like Chang, that intent does not change the outcome he sees lately: a heightened suspicion toward all Chinese. Chang said that since the Hoover report came out in November, he’s heard concern from some 50 people around the country — from relatives to colleagues — that it encourages unfounded fear.

Chang has no qualms with the University as a whole, which he believes has been supportive of  Chinese community members. He worries instead about a societal trend.

As a historian, Chang traces Western misgivings about the Chinese 150 years back, to worries about “yellow peril” in the 19th century and ideas of Chinese immigrants as so “bound by racial loyalty to each other that they become a threat to American life.” But he believes the Trump administration’s rhetoric — statements like “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” which the President made during his 2016 presidential campaign — has notched up fear over the last few years.

Chang is part of the Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese Americans that aims to promote “constructive” U.S.-Chinese relations as well as Chinese American integration into U.S society. The Hoover reports calls some Committee of 100 members sympathetic to the Chinese government’s objectives and states that members report “significant pressure from the Chinese consulate” to “toe the Party line.”

Chang was skeptical at the implication of successful, well-known American citizens acting on Beijing’s behalf.

“We have our own point of view, and we are entitled to our point of view, and some of the Hoover people don’t like it,” Chang said. “But they cannot — they should not — insinuate that we are somehow the instrument of a foreign power.”

Defending the report at a February panel, Diamond said that he seeks a balance between healthy scrutiny of an authoritarian country’s influence and embrace of what Chinese and Chinese-American scholars contribute to the U.S. He also said he welcomed feedback.

“All of this is very valuable and thought-provoking and we’re taking careful notes,” he said of the discussion.

University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell publicly addressed concerns about efforts to protect national security and intellectual property, in a March 7 blog post that did not name China but spoke on Stanford’s relationship with the international community.

“We must … ensure that attentiveness to national security concerns does not bleed into something more insidious: a questioning of people within our community based on their country of origin or their heritage,” Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote.

Other universities have given similar statements of caution. On Feb. 21, UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research, Randy Katz, wrote a letter to campus titled “Reaffirming our support for Berkeley’s international community.” The letter acknowledged recent reports to the school’s administration of “negative comments” made toward scholars who are Chinese-American or working with Chinese entities. The comments, Katz said, alleged without evidence that these community members “could be acting as spies or otherwise working at odds with the interests of the United States.”

At Stanford, faculty have also met with University leaders to discuss the concerns addressed in these public posts. Earlier this year, a group of Chinese and Chinese-American faculty talked with the Provost about how government actions and the political climate were affecting Chinese community members.

Victoria Yang ’21, an undergraduate from China, finds a silver lining in the fraught relationship between the U.S. and China: She thinks the tensions have made Stanford students more interested in U.S.-Chinese relations. Membership in the Forum for American-Chinese Exchange at Stanford, where she is vice president of communications, has tripled from about 10 last school year to 30 this year. The group draws a medley of Chinese students, Chinese-language speakers and international relations enthusiasts.

“I think before, a lot of people don’t care as much about China as they do right now,” she said. “There’s this huge emergence of a big power that challenges something people feel is America’s right place in the world.”

Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu and Berber Jin at fjin16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.Berber Jin is a senior history major and desk editor for the university beat at the Daily. He enjoys covering university China policy and technology ethics, and is currently writing an honors thesis on the Caribbean anti-colonialist George Padmore. He is originally from New York, NY.

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