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The growing number of educational partnerships between Chinese and American colleges could see increased congressional scrutiny, as some critics argue the Chinese government’s influence in such initiatives undermines academic freedom.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said at a subcommittee hearing Thursday that he plans to ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review partnership agreements of American satellite campuses in China and Confucius Institutes housed on U.S. campuses. 

Many American colleges partner with Chinese universities, often with on-the-ground programs in China. And more than 90 institutions in the U.S. host Confucius Institutes, which are funded by China’s government to teach Chinese language and culture.

Opposition to such partnerships is hardly new. Faculty members at many colleges, including Wellesley College and New York University, have expressed concerns about censorship and the free exchange of ideas. This summer, the American Association of University Professors warned in statement that Confucius Institutes could pose a risk to academic freedom. A couple months later, the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University pulled the plug on their institutes.

But Smith and the witnesses who gave testimony Thursday said the threat to political freedom, and by extension academic freedom, in China only grows more serious.

Perry Link, a prominent China studies scholar, said he worries Americans aren't taking seriously the warnings about Chinese violations of academic freedom and other rights, because scholars like himself have been preaching for decades about human rights violations in China. (Link has translated the Charter 08 manifesto calling for democracy in China, and co-edited a collection of documents on the Tiananmen Square massacre.)

But now, he said, they need to find a way to show it’s only gotten worse -- “seriously worse, threateningly worse.”

The main tool of the Chinese government has been the use of fear to impose self-censorship, said Link, who’s the Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside.

Chinese scholars who speak out against the party line are subject to harassment and imprisonment. American scholars who research China also have to monitor what they say and write or risk being barred from researching in China, he said.

Link isn't allowed in China. While that’s true of only a few American scholars, he said, every scholar knows the blacklist exists, and so they preemptively avoid crossing the line. That’s dangerous, because the self-censorship is invisible.

Link said the government should withhold visas for Confucius Institute instructors until China ends its practice of withholding visas on political grounds for American scholars. He also suggested the U.S. government should fund Chinese language instruction: “Why should we hand over our young students to an authoritarian government because they supply the funds?” he said. “We have enough funds for that.”

Wellesley College Professor Thomas Cushman said he’s concerned about general partnerships between American and Chinese universities, largely because there’s so little data on them.

“We simply don’t know how many there are,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. government should conduct an audit to determine how many colleges have such partnerships.

Smith, who’s chairman of the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, sought to get insight into one of the more high-profile partnerships, New York University’s Shanghai campus. But despite contacting NYU representatives on five different occasions to ask them participate in the hearing, he said each of the invited professors and President John Sexton said they could not do so.

Emails to NYU’s media relations office and individual faculty members seeking an explanation for why they didn’t participate were not returned.

Cushman’s institution, Wellesley College, also has one of the more well-known Chinese partnerships. Cushman spearheaded an effort last year to criticize its partnership with Peking University for firing Xia Yeliang, a professor of economics. The university has claimed the dismissal was due to poor teaching. Xia, Cushman and other supporters say it was retribution for Xia's criticism of the Chinese government.

Xia, who also spoke Thursday, said he knows a scholar who was visiting at Stanford University. Despite teaching in America, he still felt that he couldn’t say anything the Chinese government would consider radical or aggressive.

“You don’t have academic freedom even on the campuses in the U.S.," he said, "so how can you export the liberal ideals to authoritarian countries?”

Follow the Money

Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, has investigated academic freedom in China and its influence in the U.S. She said everyone she has interviewed has said the same thing: Follow the money. 

The Chinese education market can be a lucrative place for American universities, experts said.

That market includes revenue from an estimated 274,000 Chinese students who are paying full tuition to study in the U.S., according to Cushman. Similarly, the Chinese government floats half a million dollars to open each Confucius Institute, while neglecting schoolchildren in rural, impoverished parts of its own country, Xia said.

Academic Freedom Intact?

Not all American academics are up in arms about the Chinese government infringing on academic freedom.

Richard Saller, of Stanford University, said in an email that he understands some universities may have had different experiences than he has, but that there has been no attempt to influence the academic work sponsored by the Confucius Institute at Stanford. Saller is Vernon R. & Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities.

Likewise, Kenneth Hammond, a history professor at New Mexico State University and director of the Confucius Institute there, said the institute has presented a wide range of speakers and topics. Should there ever be an attempt by Chinese officials to influence their programming, the university would withdraw from their agreement, he said.

Richardson said she expects all universities to say the same rules for academic freedom will apply at their satellite campuses, but she's skeptical whether universities are truly prepared to handle what the Chinese consider sensitive topics, such as discussion of Tibet or Tiananmen Square.

For those who question how much space there is for free expression in China, Richardson said she’d remind them of Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Minzu University who was recently sentenced to life in prison. Some of his students also were arrested and charged with separatism.

Smith started the hearing by saying that Thursday’s discussion was the first of a series he plans to hold on the issue, and he encouraged each of the experts who spoke to give recommendation for the GAO’s upcoming study.

He ended by quoting Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is more desirable that great riches.”

Have American universities, he asked, compromised their reputations in exchange for Chinese money? 

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