Chinese universities and the new Red Scare

Henry Heller

Photo by Võ Thành Dạt, Unsplash

Photo by Võ Thành Dạt, Unsplash

As recent news stories are suggesting universities in the U.S. and the West are under threat. It is said that China is using its money, students and researchers to conduct espionage, to steal Western scientific and technological research and spread its influence.

In reality, the threat to universities in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere comes predominantly from the CIA and other Western intelligence and defense agencies. Based on the long-established practices of the Cold War, they misguidedly seek to control academic research on behalf of the Western capitalist class and deny China access to Western institutions of higher learning and the knowledge they have contributed to for the past few decades. In particular, they have launched a campaign against Chinese subversion to try to contain the advance of this all too successful socialist state. Universities in the West, already beleaguered in their role as a source of independent scientific and critical thought, are once again menaced by those seeking to ‘protect’ them.

The campaign against China began with concern over Confucian Institutes on university campuses. In a bid to advance its soft power, China created and funded hundreds of these language and cultural institutes in universities across the Western world. But an article in the Financial Times (October 26, 2017), one of many, claimed that ‘in little more than a decade, a shadowy arm of the Chinese state has established a foothold in hundreds of university campuses across the world’. It noted that an investigation by the American National Association of Scholars recommended the immediate severing of universities’ ties with the Confucian Institutes. Universities had made too many concessions to accept Institute funding, the report found, resulting in conflicts between the Institutes and host universities’ operations. These warnings gained a certain credence after some officers of these Chinese Institutions had over-reached themselves politically, to the point that even left-wing scholars expressed concern about possible Chinese interference with academic freedom. Congressional hearings in the U.S. amplified these concerns.

But these concerns were soon extended to the apprehension that China might use its access to scientific research to enhance its military potential. Western universities were urged to rethink their research ties, and a report in the Times Higher Education (Nov. 8, 2018), for instance, stated that Western universities ‘cannot be naive’ about collaborating with scientists connected with the People’s Liberation Army. According to researcher Alex Joske, universities in the West need to develop a ‘mature understanding of the Chinese state’, and in particular to realise that working with its military scientists means supporting the Chinese Communist Party ‘to enhance its capacity to stay in power in China indefinitely’.

A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute authored by Joske looked at research collaborations and exchanges between universities outside China and ‘People’s Liberation Army scientists’, suggesting that some Western institutions are unwittingly helping a ‘rival military’ to ‘develop its expertise and technology’. The report – which highlights that the US, UK, Canada, Australia and Germany are the top countries for research collaboration with the PLA, and that the number of peer-reviewed articles published as a result of such links has grown sevenfold in a decade – comes in a broader context of rising sensitivity and anxiety around West-China academic links. A week later, the Times Higher Education also spotlighted FBI concerns about Chinese espionage in American universities:

‘The FBI’s top counter-intelligence official has told US university leaders to be highly wary of Chinese nationals on their campuses, saying that the threat of intellectual property theft appears well beyond what many of them realise.’

Speaking before the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ annual conference in New Orleans, Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, emphasized that China was determined to build its economic and military strength by using any means necessary to obtain intellectual property with competitive advantages. ’By hook or by crook,’ Priestap said, ‘China intends to be the sole superpower on the face of the Earth, and they intend to become that through economic dominance.’

This was the context when, on Dec. 1, 2018, Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver by Canadian authorities acting on a warrant from the U.S. Justice Department. The warrant accused Wanzhou of fraud in a scheme to violate American trade sanctions against Iran as well as other offenses. She is currently free on $10-million bail  kept under 24/7 surveillance and ordered to stay in the Vancouver area while she awaits extradition to the United States.

As the chief financial officer and the spokesperson of Huawei Technologies, Wanzhou oversaw Huawei, a company founded by her father Ren Zhengfei. The company overtook Ericsson in 2012 as the largest telecommunications-equipment manufacturer in the world, then Apple in 2018 as the second-largest manufacturer of smartphones in the world. Huawei even seems to be ahead of other technology companies in developing 5G technology. This next-generation wireless standard which operates at enhanced speed is expected to allow all sorts of cutting-edge applications such as self-driving cars and remotely operated medical robots. Of all Western countries, Canada has the closest relation to Huawei as Bell Canada and Telus make extensive use of its technology. Many of Canada’s universities have close research connections with the company. Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada was likely no accident. It represents an attempt to bring Canada in line with the United States which has decided to boycott Huawei. And it is possible that members of Canada’s security apparatus CSIS and the RCMP were complicit in her arrest.

It is security specialists connected to the so-called Five Eyes that seem largely responsible for raising the spectre of Chinese espionage in connection with Huawei. The Five Eyes is an Anglophone intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – with the latter country being the dominant partner. The origins of Five Eyes can be traced back to the Cold War, where the ECHELON surveillance system was initially developed by the Five Eyes to monitor the communications of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. It is now used to illegally monitor billions of private communications worldwide, as revealed by Edward Snowden, and its activities are highly controversial. Emerging Huawei 5G technology, it appears, is the most economically competitive on the market, but the security specialists connected to Five Eyes ignore this aspect of Huawei’s technology and stress the possibility of it being used in the surveillance of its users. The charges that Huawei might use its advanced technology for spying are completely unproven and in fact are questionable. But that has not deterred the security experts connected to Five Eyes from repeatedly raising these concerns.

Behind Five Eyes’ attack on Huawei lies growing U.S. concern that use of Huawei technology might undermine Five Eyes current ability to continue to monitor worldwide communications. It is also based on anxiety over economic rivalry, and concern with Chinese espionage would have remained peripheral had it not fit with Washington’s growing concern over growing Chinese economic success.

In the forefront of Trump’s problems with China are complaints about unfair and one-sided trade. In January 2018, Trump imposed tariffs of 30 to 50 percent on solar panels and washing machines from China. Eight months later he imposed a further 200 billion dollars worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. The strategic context for these moves is explained in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment published by the American intelligence community at the end of January shortly after Wanzhou’s arrest. It warns about the growing alliance between China and Russia faced with American unilateralism and interventionism. The report adds that, ‘at the same time, some US allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing US policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships.’ It concludes that ‘for 2019 and beyond, the innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside the United States, as the overall US lead in science and technology (S&T) shrinks; the capability gap between commercial and military technologies evaporates; and foreign actors increase their efforts to acquire top talent, companies, data, and intellectual property via licit and illicit means. Many foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, view strong indigenous science and technology capabilities as key to their country’s sovereignty, economic outlook, and national power.’

The political and economic unilateralism of Trump no doubt represents a shift in American foreign policy, marking above all a return to the great power competition and militarist imperialism that characterized the prelude to both the first and second world war. But it would be a mistake to see it as a complete rupture with the policies of the previous Obama Administration. Already under Obama, China was seen as the chief threat to the world hegemony of the United States. He shifted the greater part of its military assets to the containment of China in East Asia and, economically, devised the TPP as the counter to Chinese economic dominance in Asia and the Pacific. By repudiating TPP and moving to open protectionism, Trump merely ramped up American antagonism to China. The trouble is that, so far as economic relations go, General Motors – an American corporation – now sells more cars and makes more profit in the Chinese market than in the American one. Moreover, when it comes to research China already produces more scientific research papers than does the United States. The growing scientific prowess of China’s universities and laboratories is also reflected in the decline of its ‘brain drain’, as more and more Chinese scientists trained in Western universities are choosing to return home rather than staying in the West. Looking down the road, Chinese growth as a market and as a source of cutting edge academic and scientific research is likely to grow. In this light attempting to restrict access to academic research in the West does not seem very smart or far-sighted.

The reversion of the United States from a paradigmatic liberal capitalist state to protectionism, moreover, is historic, and a sign of growing weakness and fear. Contrast this posture with that of Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2017: ‘Pursuing protection is just like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, so are light and air,’. ‘No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.’ Further, the Chinese leader pointed out that, ‘as long as we keep to the goal of building a community of shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities and overcome difficulties, we will be able to create a better world and deliver better lives for our peoples.’ Such an assertion marks the success of China’s market socialism on the global stage. Open markets clearly benefit China, as they usually benefit economic leaders. But a call for open markets as Xi Jinping suggests is also a necessity at this stage of the development of the global forces of production which are straining against the limits imposed by state protectionism. Trump’s regression to economic nationalism and militarism marks the growing weakness of the United States, and the other champions of neoliberal capitalism, against the growing strength of an economy based on market socialism.

In this conflict it seems clear which side Western universities must be on. The notion of the free exchange of ideas as a principle dates back to John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) in which he denounced an attempt by Parliament to control public opinion by forcing authors to obtain a publishing license for their works. By the end of the seventeenth century members of the Royal Scientific Society were sharing their scientific ideas with foreign scholars as a matter of principle. Patents developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to protect what amounted to intellectual property, but built into patent law was the principle that such rights were limited over time and that sooner or later all ideas should enter the public domain. Outspoken proponents of laissez-faire in the nineteenth century even rejected the idea of patents which in their eyes restricted the free flow of the market. The liberal idea of freedom reached an acme with the development – especially in the United States – of the great public universities in the post-1945 period, where intellectual freedom or a commitment to the freedom of ideas was a cardinal principle of these brilliantly successful institutions during the time when they were at their strongest. The ideology of freedom they espoused was an important weapon in the Cold War.

Even during its heyday, universities – at least in the United States – tried to keep out Marxist ideas such as those of Louis Althusser, Henri Lefevre, Gyorgy Lukács, Antonio Gramsci and did not allow those who professed such innovative ideas to teach. In the social sciences and humanities, the methodology and content of the subjects taught often were little more than apologetics for liberal democracy and capitalism – whose premises were not subject to challenge. University administrators and even some professors were deeply involved in secret research and activities funded by the military and CIA and other security agencies, which were meant to undercut democracy both abroad and in the United States. Moreover, the large bureaucracies that grew up attendant on the growth of universities tended to stifle intellectual freedom.

Universities in Great Britain were less restricted than in the United States during the Cold War but nonetheless experienced some politically and administratively inspired control. None of these afflictions were quite overcome during the campus upheavals of the sixties. With the onset of neoliberalism and the privatization of knowledge, along with government under-funding of universities, they have returned with a vengeance. Nonetheless, it must be underscored that notions of intellectual freedom and critical thought are still alive in the universities of the Western World. Upholding these ideals is vital to the future of democracy and it may be argued to the existence of a serious scientific culture in the Western countries. The current attempt to curtail contacts and open exchanges with Chinese academics, scientists and students is a deeply regressive policy which runs counter to the emergence of global science and culture and must be confronted and overcome.

Henry Heller is a professor of modern history at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is the author of The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States Since 1945 (London: Pluto Press, 2016).

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