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Pompeo Criticizes Colleges Over China Ties

December 10, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of Chinese government influence on American campuses and accused university leaders of censoring themselves out of fear of offending China during a speech Wednesday at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Pompeo said, “The Chinese Communist Party is poisoning the well of our higher education institutions for its own ends.”

The speech was notable for the strident tone taken by the nation’s chief diplomat, even if its influence was arguably limited given his lame-duck status. The outgoing secretary of state addressed issues including intellectual property theft and recruitment of American professors into Chinese government-sponsored talent recruitment programs. He also raised concerns about Chinese students who fear speaking openly on American campuses lest they or their families be harassed, or worse.

He further accused U.S. universities of censoring themselves or even overlooking illegal behavior to avoid offending China. He said many had been "bought by Beijing."

“What more -- what more bad decisions will schools make because they are hooked on Chinese Communist Party cash?” he asked. “What professors will they be able to co-opt or to silence? What theft and espionage will they simply overlook? What business deals will get done as a result of that?”

Pompeo singled out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington for criticism. He accused MIT president L. Rafael Reif of refusing to host his speech out of fear of insulting Chinese students and professors, and accused Washington of refusing to help a student detained in China, Vera Zhou. He named a staff member in UW's Office of Federal Relations who allegedly referenced a multimillion-dollar deal as the reason for not helping Zhou, who has since been released.

Both universities denied the charges.

A spokeswoman for MIT, Kimberly Allen, said the university turned down Pompeo’s request to speak due to coronavirus-related restrictions on gatherings and guests. She added that the conversation with the State Department “was months ago and was prospective; we never saw remarks.”

A spokesman for the University of Washington, Victor Balta, described Pompeo’s remarks as a “false statement and shameful deflection from an administration whose State Department and Department of Education took no effective action on behalf of Vera Zhou in response to the University’s requests, and now wishes to shift attention from that failure.”

“That the secretary of state would think a university has more power in this situation than the United States government is bizarre,” Balta said. “That he would single out a staff member by name is unbecoming of the office, and his statement is flatly wrong. While several UW offices have been in contact with Vera throughout her ordeal, no staff in the UW Office of Federal Relations has had direct contact with Vera or her family.”

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations for American Council on Education, told Bloomberg News that Pompeo's remarks were “absurd and insulting.”

“It’s hard to fathom how a secretary of state could make these remarks in good conscience,” Hartle said. “I assume this is political red meat for the Republican base.”

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