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China Ramps Up Communism Injections on US Campuses

Issued: 2018-03-07

Feature: China’s Long Arm Reaches Into American Campuses China’s Long Arm Reaches Into American Ca...

Beijing is stepping up efforts to inject party ideology into student life. Some Chinese students are crying foul.

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian Illustration by Eleftheria Alexandri for Foreign Policy March 7, 2018

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Washington on Sept. 24, 2015 on a state visit, hundreds of Chinese students lined the streets for hours, carrying banners and flags to welcome him. It was a remarkable display of seemingly spontaneous patriotism.

Except it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. The Chinese Embassy paid students to attend and helped organize the event. Working with Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) at local universities — a Chinese student organization with branches at dozens of schools around the country — government officials from the office of educational affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington collected the contact information of about 700 students who had signed up to attend. Embassy officials communicated with students via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, during the event and into the night, responding to messages as late as 3 a.m.

According to a Chinese student at George Washington University who attended the event, participants each received about $20 for their effort, distributed through the CSSA a few months later.

This wasn’t an isolated example of paid political mobilization. A similar arrangement had occurred in February 2012, when Xi visited Washington as vice chairman. In that case, it took almost a year for the embassy to transfer the promised funds to the George Washington CSSA. In January 2013, the student group sent a message, recently reviewed by Foreign Policy, to its members saying the compensation from Xi’s welcome the previous year was finally available, and they could come pick up the cash at the campus community center if they brought a photo ID. The George Washington CSSA did not respond to a request for comment.

And when then-President Hu Jintao visited Chicago in 2011, the University of Wisconsin-Madison CSSA bused in Chinese students, excited about a free trip to the city and a chance to glimpse the president. The association also surprised the students at the conclusion of the trip with a small cash payment. The CSSA president told students not to speak to the media about the money, according to one student who attended. The association did not respond to a request for comment.

The embassy-sponsored welcome parties, which lend an aura of power and popularity to the visiting leaders, are just one example of the close relationship that the Chinese government maintains with Chinese student groups across the United States. That relationship often focuses on student safety and well-being. But in the past few years, as Xi has strengthened the party’s control over every aspect of Chinese society and sought to extend his power abroad, consular officials have markedly increased their efforts to exert ideological influence over students — leaving some CSSA members wary to speak out against what they see as unwanted government intrusion.

Chinese students at George Washington University line the streets of Washington on Sept. 24, 2015 to welcome President Xi Jinping during his state visit. (GWU CSSA WeChat)

While many countries, including the United States, fund educational activities abroad, the Chinese government’s direct support for, and control over, student groups appears to be unique. Beijing’s influence over these groups is also beginning to raise questions and concerns among students on American campuses, who fear they will be accused of being agents of espionage. The growing ties are also concerning U.S. government officials, who are wary of China’s political and economic reach in the United States.

At a security hearing last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that American universities are naive about the intelligence risk of Chinese “nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting,” and claimed that China poses a “whole-of-society threat.”

Those comments have alarmed some Chinese students. Several Georgetown University student representatives wrote an open letter to the university president, asking the school to disavow Wray’s statements and calling the comments a “witch-hunt” and a “McCarthyist craze.” The article also cited FP’s recent report revealing that the Georgetown CSSA has received Chinese government funding.

Although the extent of Chinese government funding and oversight of these organizations is not entirely clear and appears to vary from group to group, it seems to be more significant than previously known — and growing. FP spoke to more than a dozen members of the group across the country (including four current or former presidents), was given access to internal messages and documents, and reviewed the publicly available charters of dozens of these groups, in Chinese and English. All of the students who spoke to FP requested anonymity for fear of potential reprisals.

FP found that CSSAs regularly accept funds from their local consulates and many officially describe themselves as under the “guidance” or “leadership” of the embassy. Internal correspondence reviewed by FP also show that consular officials communicate regularly with CSSAs, dividing the groups by region and assigning each region to an embassy contact who is responsible for relaying safety information — and the occasional political directive — to chapter presidents. A few CSSAs explicitly vet their members along ideological lines, excluding those whose views do not align with Communist Party core interests.

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment on any of the issues raised in this article.

Chinese Communist Party influence within the United States is a real concern, and the vessels of that influence “should be transparent and it should be disclosed,” says Bill Bishop, author of the influential Sinocism newsletter, which offers insights into Chinese politics and government. But it’s important not to conflate party influence with all Chinese people, which is exactly what Wray’s comments did, says Bishop.

“I am very worried, especially in this environment, especially with what has been unleashed since the 2016 election, that it could very easily tip into something very nasty.”

“That over-broad and unspecific language is very dangerous and feeds into the risk that this becomes a backlash against people of Chinese descent,” Bishop tells FP. “I am very worried, especially in this environment, especially with what has been unleashed since the 2016 election, that it could very easily tip into something very nasty.”

Since they were first established in the 1980s, CSSAs have served as an important social hub for Chinese students, helping them adjust to life in the United States and providing them with a ready-made support network. The groups typically host a variety of different cultural and social activities throughout the school year and can help students cope with the problems and stresses of student life. In that respect, it’s not surprising that the associations would interact with Chinese consular officials, whose job is also to look after the safety of Chinese citizens in the United States.

The number of Chinese students studying in the United States has skyrocketed from tens of thousands a decade ago to more than 330,000; nearly one in three international students is Chinese. As the number of students has grown, so too has the need for help at universities. Much of the relationship between CSSAs and Chinese consulates revolves around educating Chinese students about U.S. laws and safety; many Chinese students and their parents back home worry about the high rate of violent crime in the United States, particularly gun violence, which is nearly unknown in China. One Chinese student tells FP that the Chinese consulates have stepped in to fill a void for support not being provided by universities.

A CSSA member at a school in a coastal state tells FP that once, when a Chinese student at the school had fallen seriously ill, the consulate worked together with the CSSA to obtain Chinese passports and U.S. visas for the student’s parents, helping them reach their sick child’s bedside within a week. The CSSA member says that CSSAs and Chinese consulates were crucial to the well-being of Chinese students, and she expresses concern that both are falling under unwarranted suspicion.

But numerous CSSA members, including two current chapter presidents, say that they are uncomfortable with what they felt was growing ideological pressure from the embassy and consulates. That pressure has become more apparent since 2016, when the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a directive ordering schools to instill greater patriotism and love for the party in students of every age — including Chinese students studying abroad.

Pressure on CSSAs to promote “patriotic” ideas was particularly acute in October 2017 during the 19th party plenum, the key national planning session held every five years at which top officials are selected and new policies are announced. Consular officials sent out requests to CSSAs around the country to hold events related to the plenum. One such message, viewed by FP, encouraged groups to organize viewing sessions for their members to watch the opening ceremonies together, and requested that they send photos or reports of the event back to the consulate.

Consular officials also requested that CSSAs across the United States post articles praising Xi’s vision for the country and touting other party propaganda. Officials asked some groups to organize study sessions to discuss the party pronouncements coming out of the plenum. Articles and invitations to plenum-related events appeared on the WeChat accounts of CSSAs at University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, Georgetown University, and other schools around the country.

These and similar requests have troubled some CSSA leaders.

“I really don’t want CSSA to have any relationship more than basic etiquette with the Chinese Consulate,” says the president of a large CSSA at a major university, speaking to FP. “I try to reject any sponsor from the embassy, financial wise, since I want our club to be able to make our own decisions.”

The student says that the requests feel to him like an attempt to inject a political ideology where it doesn’t belong. He says he tries to keep the consulate at arm’s length, offering bare minimum compliance with its requests in order to keep up a good relationship. He does not post the pro-party articles that the consular officials send to him, though he knows other CSSA presidents do.

“I feel like the tendency is that the consulate tries to control CSSAs more and more,” says the CSSA president. “I don’t think this student group should be involved with government in any way.”

The CSSA president emphasizes that while he is concerned about the increasing control the Chinese government tries to exert over student organizations, he is not deeply alarmed yet. “The current situation is not that Chinese students don’t have freedom after they come to the United States,” he tells FP. “If something bad is happening, it has not happened yet.”

But the association president feels he must at least make a show of complying with embassy requests, citing a sense of peer pressure that exists within the CSSA. A consular official often asks him for evidence of compliance, such as photos or a brief report, to show to superiors, and the student doesn’t want to get the consular officer in trouble. “The people inside [the consulate], I feel most of them are good, they’re just doing their jobs,” said the student. “But I do feel like there is an invisible hand behind them, saying they want more than this. Maybe the policymaker is in Beijing, or in D.C.”


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