The Business Leadership Building on the campus of the University of North Texas. UNT announced the expulsion of 15 researchers from China. Photo: Wikipedia

As part of its ongoing efforts to preserve US international dominance and thwart China’s development as an important participant in global economic and political affairs, President Donald Trump’s administration has embarked on a campaign to weaponize American academia.

In a series of measures over recent months the government has been putting pressure on universities and other educational institutions to suppress academic freedom and inhibit intellectual exchanges and research by Chinese scholars and their American colleagues.

Strategic approaches

On May 20, the White House issued a new policy document, “The United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” which set forth the administration’s radical anti-China views and outlined the ways in which the US would be seeking to isolate and undermine China in its pursuit of prosperity and better lives for its people.

It called for the usual economic, political, and military moves, and for other countries to join in these measures. But perhaps most disturbing was the statement that US academic institutions would be part of this foreign-policy package, with scholarship and academic freedom subordinated to the Trump agenda of hostility and fear mongering towards China.

The document states: “Vital partners of this administration include the Congress, state and local governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia.” Later in the text there are statements about working to control the flow and content of information about China, and to influence and control research in science and technology to protect American profits and corporate interests.

Chinese students and researchers are presented as serious threats to US security. American schools and universities are to be another field of conflict where the US government pursues its anti-China goals.

Confucius Institutes closed

Since the beginning of 2020 several Confucius Institutes have been shut down at universities across the US, and pressure is mounting to terminate these programs altogether.

The Confucius Institutes have provided teachers of Chinese language to schools, including public and private primary and secondary schools, often in communities where scarce educational resources would normally preclude offering students the opportunity to learn this important foreign language.

Universities hosting Confucius Institutes have been told that their funding from the Department of Defense may be reduced if they continue to operate these language programs, and this has led to the termination of CI programs at a growing number of schools.

Apparently Washington fears that if students in the US learn to speak and read Chinese they may be able to learn about that country themselves, and not have to depend on official propaganda for their information.

Scholars intimidated and expelled

More recently there have been new moves against researchers from China and their American colleagues, aimed at suppressing scholarly exchanges and collaborative research.

Scientists and other researchers at schools from Harvard to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), both Americans and visitors from China, have been arrested for alleged connections to the Chinese military, or for supposed problems with the ways they filled out their visa application forms, or for having received financial support from organizations with relationships with the Chinese government.

On August 16, the University of North Texas announced the expulsion of 15 researchers from China, all of whom had received funding from the China Scholarship Council. This is the standard organization that provides support for Chinese scholars seeking funding to do international research, rather like an American academic getting support from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF).

These measures are aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and are an assertion of government oversight and control of academic inquiry. 

Blueprint for academic conformity

A letter sent by Keith Krach, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment to the “Governing Boards of American Universities” on August 18 makes it clear that this campaign of control and intimidation is being further escalated.

The letter rehearses all the anti-China tropes of the Trump era, but makes more explicit the policy goals of repressing research and academic exchanges, and a program of decoupling between US and Chinese institutions of higher education. Free and open inquiry into the realities of contemporary China threatens the posture of ignorance and hostility that is central to the US government’s rear-guard attempts to hang on to its fading global position.

The letter notes the further repression of Confucius Institutes, which were designated on August 16 as “foreign missions controlled by a foreign government,” a complete distortion of the nature and functioning of the Institutes as providers of Chinese language educational services.

It denounces what it calls Chinese efforts at “Military-Civil fusion,” apparently suggesting that collaboration or funding relationships between Chinese universities and the military are inappropriate.

The US Department of Defense is of course one of the largest sources of funding on campuses across America, and many other divisions of the federal government are also deeply involved in providing support for researchers at universities and other scholarly institutions. The targeting of such collaboration in China is cynical and hypocritical, to say the least.

Perhaps most threatening is the call made in this letter for American universities to divest their endowments of any assets linked to China.

China’s economy is one of the most dynamic in the world, and in the present era of economic downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic, China is a bright spot in the global economy, returning to vigorous growth while the US and European economies wallow in the dysfunction of their political elites.

Pressuring universities to give up endowment resources that are growing at a moment when higher education is facing serious budgetary crises makes no sense as anything but political intervention in academic management. Coercing conformity to the Trump administration’s anti-China agenda can only further damage the balance sheets of US colleges and universities.

Hands off

The Trump administration has been pursuing its desperate efforts to stifle China’s emergence as a significant economic and political player in global affairs across a broad range of arenas. The weaponization of academia is yet another attempt to isolate China and repress its development.

It is a cynical campaign that strikes at the basic values of American society, undermining the freedom of knowledge and intellectual inquiry and threatening the independence of institutions of higher education.

In an era when many US university administrators have already bought into the trite neoliberal jargon of “running the university like a business,” the future of research and scholarship in the country may be increasingly bound to the political agenda coming out of Washington.

Kenneth Hammond

Ken Hammond is professor of East Asian and global history at New Mexico State University. He lived in Beijing from 1982-87, before completing his PhD in history and East Asian languages at Harvard University in 1994. He is currently associate editor of the Journal of Chinese History published by Cambridge University Press, and heads a research team working on the study of visual materials in Chinese local gazetteers at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.