The Changing Relationship Between China and U.S. Colleges

China sends more international students to the U.S. than any other country, but rapidly rising tensions between it and the U.S. are impacting Chinese students’ college experiences.
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  • Major changes to federal legislation could affect higher education's ties with China.
  • Justice Department investigations of Chinese professors in the U.S. caused friction.
  • The Beijing Winter Olympics this February added to the tension on some campuses.

The relationship between China and the U.S. higher education is at an inflection point.

Myriad issues bubbled to the surface in recent months — not only in the courts and in higher education policy, but in everyday student life, too — straining the relationship between the U.S. and its No. 1 partner when it comes to international students studying within the country.

Just over 317,000 Chinese students studied abroad in the U.S. during the 2020-21 school year, according to the Open Doors 2021 report from the Institute of International Education, nearly double the number of students from India, which sends the second-most students to study in the U.S. They are a significant student population that may be impacted by the changing relationship between the U.S. and China.

Here are a few of the issues, many of which are still developing, that are changing the relationship between China and U.S. colleges and universities.

The China Initiative Investigated Professors

The U.S. Department of Justice yesterday announced it is ending its China Initiative, a sweeping project launched in 2018 to crack down on trade secret theft, hacking, and other forms of espionage benefiting the Chinese government.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the department's national security division, made the announcement in a speech at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, The Washington Post reported. He said that the move was spurred by a growing recognition that the initiative's name and approach unintentionally fueled a "harmful perception" that the program unjustly targeted ethnic Chinese for prosecution.

Chinese professors at universities in the U.S. were the targets in many investigations.

Opponents of this program said it unjustly targeted Chinese professors based on their nationality and created a chilling effect for international collaboration in research projects. A flurry of recently dropped cases has brought these concerns to the forefront.

Federal prosecutors recently dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The government initially accused him of deliberately hiding his Chinese affiliations on federal grant applications.

While the charges were dropped in January, Chen wrote in an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe that the damage had already been done. "My reputation is tarnished, my family suffered, my institute lost the service of a professor…, the ability of the [U.S.] to attract talents from around the world has plummeted, and the scientific community is terrified," he wrote.

"[U.S. government agents] succeeded in creating the 'chilling effect' they wanted by deterring researchers from collaborating with China — but in the process, they managed to blunt one of our great strengths as a nation, our rich history of academic research and collaboration, which leads to discoveries happening here instead of in some other country."

More than 70 organizations joined an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit Temple University professor Xiaoxing Xi filed against the FBI. The professor was wrongly charged with sharing technological secrets with China and is now seeking damages. This is his second attempt at a claim for damages.

The China Initiative did produce several successful indictments. A former University of Arkansas professor pleaded guilty in January for not disclosing his China ties to federal grant agencies. A former Ohio State University was sentenced to prison in May 2021 for lying on applications and developing scientific expertise for China. The DOJ lists 10 China Initiative cases involving university professors that resulted in indictments.

The America COMPETES Act Increases Competition

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed their own versions of the America COMPETES Act. While there are key differences in each bill, they both mainly aim to tackle U.S. competitiveness with China, including in key higher education areas.

A topic of importance in both versions of the act relates to the disclosure of foreign gifts and contracts.

The House version of the COMPETES Act would lower the reporting threshold for gifts from a foreign source from $250,000 to $100,000. The Senate bill lowers it even further to $50,000. The House bill also proposes a reporting threshold at $50,000 for individual gifts or contracts to faculty and staff at a university from a foreign party.

Both versions of the COMPETES Act include new regulations on Confucius Institutes in the U.S.

Confucius Institutes are higher education programs run by China's government that provide Chinese language courses and classes in Chinese culture. Critics of the programs say these institutes, which are part of partnerships with existing universities in the U.S., also serve as a way for the Chinese Communist Party to push propaganda and spy on students across the globe.

"Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds," Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 report on China.

The COMPETES Act would restrict non-Title IV funding to institutions that host a Confucius Institute unless that college or university has a waiver from the secretary of education. In order to attain a waiver, the institution must prove that it protects academic freedom at the institution and maintains full managerial control of the Confucius Institute.

The bill would also set aside $10 million to fund Chinese language courses as an alternative to Confucius Institutes.

State governors are also fighting to decrease the influence of Confucius Institutes in U.S. campuses. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee introduced legislation last year that would force public colleges to shutter their Confucius Institutes and prohibit new ones from being established.

According to the National Association of Scholars, there are 19 Confucius Institutes in the U.S. That includes four that are slated to close.

The Beijing Winter Olympics Increased Tensions

Controversy over China's hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics made its way to U.S. college campuses over the past month.

The most high-profile example occurred at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where a kerfuffle over posters demonstrates both the extent to which Chinese Communist Party politics have penetrated campuses and the real fears many Asian students have amidst rising hate crime rates in America.

Unknown students at the beginning of February hung a series of Olympics-themed posters that portrayed different human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by China's government. That included the oppression of Tibetans and the alleged ongoing Uyghur genocide.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association at George Washington University (GWUCSSA) released a statement shortly after the posters were found around the campus. The statement accused the posters of spreading racist stereotypes at a time of increased anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. The organization took particular issue with a poster showing a curler pushing a coronavirus particle.

Chinese artist Badiucao, who created the series of posters, called GWUCSSA's statement a "smear campaign."

Not long after, the university's president Mark S. Wrighton got involved.

At first, he stood by GWUCSSA's assertion that the posters were offensive and promised to remove the posters and determine who was responsible for posting them. Freedom of speech activists quickly condemned his message. Shortly after, Wrighton backtracked on his initial statement.

"Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements," he wrote. "There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters."