Many years of graduate education have trained me to rely on demonstrable evidence before reaching a conclusion -- evidence confirmed often enough from a sufficient number of reliable sources to ratify a belief. Still, I often find myself inclined to believe what I want to believe, an impulse I have to fight daily. By presenting us with daily anecdotes, the media encourages emotional conclusions over more considered, rational ones. Recent media attention is provoking growing anti-Chinese sentiment, leading university professors, administrators and many politicians to question whether universities should collaborate with China or (even) welcome Chinese students. These are dangerous sentiments.
International collaboration has benefited higher education everywhere, the U.S. more than many other countries. If Nobel prizes are any measure, consider that 40 percent of U.S. Nobel laureates were born outside the United States. If Nobel prizes don’t impress, consider a Forbes report from 2018 that reported that 55 percent of America’s billion-dollar start-ups have been established by an immigrant. Many of these immigrants arrive in the U.S. as international students, and thousands who are unrecognized have made invaluable contributions to research on U.S. campuses. When we begin to view foreigners with suspicion, we risk losing the advantages resulting from a great deal of international talent.
We are being bombarded with news that the Chinese government is infiltrating universities at home and abroad for nefarious purposes. We need to be cautious about how we interpret this information and even more careful about generalizing from it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be paying attention, as there is certainly reason for concern. At the same time, we risk painting all Chinese students and scholars with a single, broad brush. In the words of a wise colleague and friend, “Anecdotes are not data.”
Sadly, the response to these reports has been emotional and provided some individuals in the academy with the justification to indulge in stereotypes and bigotry. As I read comments on Inside Higher Ed to the many posts about China, I feel dismayed that so many colleagues have succumbed to emotional conclusions. Sample comments to posts on InsideHigherEd.com follow, based on evidence from dubious sources.
China is dirty. Human rights abuses abound and millions died during their cultural revolution. America has nothing to gain by being a useful idiot while they steal our intellectual property.
It was estimated that from 80 to 90 percent of all Chinese visitors to the US were either actively or passively spying for their government. More than 50 percent of Chinese tourists are Military families who are not specifically on a vacation.
Simply search “China” on InsideHigherEd.com and read the comments. Any defense of engaging with China seems to provoke a wild backlash from readers.
Still, the world has changed and, as I admitted already, we should be paying close attention. China has become a major economic and political power, and the Chinese government plays by its own rules. There are indeed reasons for concern, evident in Elizabeth Redden’s report about a Chinese spy who defected to Australia and provided evidence that his government uses spies to infiltrate student associations and other student groups in Hong Kong. Recent reports of Chinese students interfering with the free speech on the campuses of the University of Toronto and McMaster University when there is criticism of the Chinese government policy or human rights abuses are worrisome. Evidence that a massive data breach at the Australian National University was tracked to Chinese hackers is also disturbing. We should be uneasy about international branch campuses accepting the Chinese government’s requirement that all of their Chinese students enroll in a “patriotism education course.”
Today it is China, but in the past it has been the U.S.S.R. or Iran or even the U.S. that has infiltrated or in other ways interfered with academic institutions, both within their own borders and abroad. We could react emotionally and indulge in generalizations that taint all Chinese students and scholars as threats to our well-being. Or, perhaps, we could take a lesson from Australia’s playbook, where four working groups have developed practical tools to help institutions “combat overseas interference in research, protect students, and maintain autonomy.” And, of course, attach a monitoring system to ensure the protection of academic values that most of us cherish.
Creating “monsters” does not serve us well. In the case of China, assuming all Chinese students and scholars who are at universities abroad are government agents does a great injustice to the thousands of talented individuals who have contributed economically and academically to the institutions where they have enrolled.
Liz Reisberg is an independent consultant in international higher education and a research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.