American colleges are becoming “hooked on Chinese Communist Party cash,” while Beijing works to siphon cutting-edge U.S. research to China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Dec. 9.
“So many of our colleges are bought by Beijing,” Pompeo said during a speech at the Georgia Institute of Technology, outlining Beijing’s aggressive efforts targeting U.S. research institutions. He added that the Chinese regime’s influence on American academics and students jeopardizes academic freedom, as it seeks to suppress critical voices on campus.
“Americans must know how the Chinese Communist Party is poisoning the well of our higher education institutions for its own ends, and how those actions degrade our freedoms and American national security. If we don’t educate ourselves, if we’re not honest about what’s taking place, we’ll get schooled by Beijing,” Pompeo warned.
The state secretary cited a recent investigation by the Department of Education, which found that universities received almost $1.5 billion in contracts and gifts from China from 2014 to 2020.
“We cannot allow this tyrannical regime to steal our stuff to build their military might, brainwash our people, or buy off our institutions to help them cover up these activities,” Pompeo said.
He used the case of Vera Zhou to highlight Beijing’s influence on American colleges. Zhou, a U.S. resident, was a student at the University of Washington and also a Hui Muslim ethnic minority. While on a visit back to China in 2017, she was placed in a “reeducation camp” for five months after she was caught using virtual private network (VPN) software to circumvent China’s firewall and access the U.S. university’s website. Her mother and a Chinese rights activist pleaded with the university for help.
“But the University of Washington, a woman named Sarah Castro, head of the Federal Relations Office, said that the university wouldn’t help because of a multi-million dollar deal with China,” Pompeo said.
The university has previously denied that its relationship with China affected their actions on Zhou’s case.
Zhou was eventually released and allowed to return to the United States, “but no thanks to the University of Washington,” Pompeo said.
“What more bad decisions will schools make because they are hooked on Chinese Communist Party [CCP] cash? What professors will they be able to co-opt or to silence? What theft and espionage will they simply overlook?” he added.
The state secretary also said that institutions often censor themselves out of fear of offending China, adding that MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) wasn’t interested in hosting this speech, implying his “arguments might insult their ethnic Chinese students and professors.”
“You would think at freedom-loving places like Georgia Tech—and institutions and scholars all across the world, administrators, school faculty—would be more up in arms about the Chinese Communist Party’s outright theft and flagrant violation of freedoms that I’ve described, but we see it too seldom,” he said.
Chinese students studying at American colleges are also targeted by Beijing, in what Pompeo described as a campaign of “repression.”
For instance, in 2017, Yang Shuping, a Chinese student at the University of Maryland, was pilloried on the Chinese internet after she praised “the fresh air of free speech” found in the United States but not enjoyed at home, during a commencement speech.
“She was so demonized and harassed by CCP propaganda outlets. I promise you, while I cannot tell you everything, that was no coincidence,” Pompeo said. Yang ended up apologizing for her remarks.
In another case in 2018, a Chinese student at Georgia University described being targeted by secret police, who pressured him to spy on other students who were critical of the CCP.
“They have harassed me repeatedly and asked me to give them information about the activities of overseas democracy activists and dissidents. They are particularly interested in the activities of Uyghurs and Tibetans,” the student told Radio Free Asia at the time.
Meanwhile, Chinese consulates control and fund Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) “to keep tabs on students and to press pro-Beijing causes,” Pompeo said. CSSA chapters are present at more than 100 U.S. colleges.
Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, which sit on dozens of American campuses, are also deployed to influence American students, professors, and administrators, the state secretary said.
The regime knows “that left-leaning college campuses are rife with anti-Americanism, and present easy targets for their anti-American messaging,” he added.
Pompeo also referred to the case of professor Fei-Ling Wang, an academic specializing in China at Georgia Tech. Wang was detained and interrogated by Chinese security agents for two weeks while on a trip to China a few years ago. The agents wanted information about his research on China and his time teaching at the West Point military academy in New York, according to Pompeo.
“They thought they could intimidate him or perhaps recruit him because he’s ethnically Chinese,” Pompeo said.
The state secretary’s remarks underscore the Trump administration’s efforts at cracking down on Beijing’s attempts to steal American technology and influence academia.
In recent years, the Justice Department has brought charges against Chinese and American researchers over alleged intellectual property theft or for failing to disclose funding from China. Earlier this year, the former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was indicted on charges relating to lying about his ties to Chinese talent programs.
The State Department also designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington as a foreign mission, recognizing its role in promoting CCP propaganda on American campuses.