Dear Presidents of American Institutions of Higher Education and Affiliates,
At the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, we share a mission to advocate for American values, including the important principle of academic freedom. U.S. institutions of higher education are an invaluable partner in that mission. It is in the spirit of this shared mission that we write to you about a real and growing threat: the malign influence of the authoritarian government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on our nation’s campuses.
This threat, and the seriousness with which the U.S. academic community regards it, were on open display in the last several weeks. As it became clear that students in the free world could not study and discuss contemporary China without fear of violating the new Hong Kong National Security Law, some U.S. professors offered to hide their own students’ identities or allow them to “opt out” of China-related coursework and classroom discussions. They feared that the PRC could prosecute their students for statements made in a U.S. classroom.
Such fears about free speech on American campuses being suppressed by the PRC are well justified. At least one American has been indicted in Hong Kong for statements made in the United States, and at least one student from the PRC has been jailed in China for statements made while in the United States. This kind of repression is not new. For years, students from the PRC have been repressed, and in some cases have had their family members harassed in China over their actions while studying in the United States.
In practice, students visiting from China, members of Chinese minority language and ethnic groups, and those with other connections to China who voice dissent from the PRC’s authoritarian actions are the most endangered by the PRC’s increasingly aggressive posture.
The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campuses has never been more concerning, nor more consequential. The PRC has suppressed human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong; has intensified longstanding repression of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the so-called “autonomous regions” of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere; and is believed to be engaged in the world’s largest internment of a religious minority since the Second World War in the “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. The broad implications for ensuring academic freedom, honoring human rights, protecting university endowments, and safeguarding intellectual property are outlined in the enclosed recent State Department letter to the governing boards of U.S. institutions of higher education. Not only does the PRC seek to control any criticism of its policies wherever they may occur, but there is extensive evidence that the PRC employs Chinese nationals in the U.S. to steal intellectual property and monitor the actions and activities of other Chinese students and scholars to ensure their continued acquiescence to its authoritarian principles. This only underscores the importance of work the Department of Education has undertaken to ensure compliance in reporting and transparency for the public under section 117 of the Higher Education Act. The initial reporting has given further support to these concerns.
The PRC’s efforts to control campus dialogue are sometimes supported by a physical campus presence in the form of a Confucius Institute. Today there are Confucius Institutes located on or near the campuses of approximately 60 U.S. colleges and universities. Confucius Institutes are branded as Chinese language and cultural learning centers, but there is increasing evidence that they are also tools of malign PRC influence and dissemination of CCP propaganda on U.S. campuses. The presence of a Confucius Institute, with the Beijing-based funding that comes with it, can provide an institution with financial and other incentives to abstain from criticizing PRC policies, and may pressure the institution’s faculty to censor themselves. The American Association of University Professors noted in a 2014 report that “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”
Many educators are surprised to learn that some U.S. colleges and universities make use of teaching materials developed by an authoritarian government and taught by teachers who are vetted, supplied, and paid by that same government. A review by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs determined that approval from an institution affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education has been generally required when filling teaching positions associated with Confucius Institutes. This practice, by the PRC, does not necessarily align with our values or support the safe, equitable, and positive learning environment we all strive to preserve.
On August 13, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS) in Washington, DC, as a foreign mission of the PRC. While the CIUS designation does not directly affect Confucius Institutes on campuses around the country, it will provide much-needed transparency by requiring CIUS to provide information about its operations to the State Department, including regarding its relationship with individual Confucius Institutes in the United States. As a result, U.S. stakeholders, including universities and colleges, will be able to make more informed choices about PRC government influence exerted on their communities.
Although the State Department’s designation of CIUS does not compel any action on the part of your institution, we ask your board and staff to examine carefully all PRC regime-related activities associated with your campus and consider whether student physical safety, academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and appropriate governance and transparency are upheld. We urge you to assess the capacity of PRC-funded programs to withstand open intellectual inquiry by closely examining their actions in the face of independent thinkers, academics, and civil society activists that speak on campus about issues relating to the PRC’s authoritarian actions.
If you find that the PRC’s presence, while meant to provide a Chinese language and culture opportunity for your students, also aims to constrain academic discourse about the PRC’s actions, we urge you to take appropriate action. Together we can ensure that the PRC government does not inhibit students’ ability to engage with diverse perspectives and to inquire openly on all subjects, including acquiring Chinese language skills or cultural awareness. Our universities and colleges must remain a safe and welcoming environment for all students, researchers, and scholars.
While Americans may differ on many issues, threats to our freedoms unite us all. We look forward to working together to advance academic freedom on our Nation’s campuses and around the world.
Secretary of Education
Michael R. Pompeo
Secretary of State