Last month, the Rules of Procedure Committee unveiled the America Competes Act, which promotes the production of semiconductors and stimulates national research funding. The bill is part of a larger effort to better position America to strategically compete with China in technology and other related sectors. This bill, as well as its counterpart in the Senate, the US Innovation and Competition Actsupports the Biden administration goal to show “China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century – forged by the ingenuity and hard work of our innovators, workers and companies”.
For its part, China has also announced multi-billion dollar investments to develop new and emerging technologies domestically. But, despite all the rhetoric from Beijing about technological self-sufficiency, Chinese leader Xi Jinping remains engaged to exhaust “all necessary means” to attract global talent to China to support the technological modernization of his country. This includes enable military-civilian fusion (MCF), a strategy to acquire the world’s advanced technologies – including through theft – to achieve Chinese military dominance.
China’s civilian university system, its students and its professors feature prominently in China’s strategy. But the same goes for academics and foreign universities. These efforts, including China’s Thousand Talents Program, aim to obtain everything from fundamental knowledge taught on US college campuses to cutting-edge research, much of which is not technically classified but has potential military applications. Recently, these efforts have ensnared several prominent scholars, including Harvard University professor Charles Lieber, who was sentenced in December 2021 on six criminal tax evasion charges stemming from his undisclosed consulting relationship with the Chinese government.
The Lieber case and others like it have laid bare the importance of improving transparency around malign Chinese influence in academia. That’s why Congress needs to address key blind spots in both bills, including improving foreign funding disclosure and regulating Confucius Institutes (CIs).
Unsurprisingly, American universities have long bristled with demands for greater transparency regarding foreign funding and donations. However, a 2020 Department of Education (DoE) compliance report find that U.S. higher education “massively underreported while anonymizing much of the money it disclosed, all to hide foreign sources (and, therefore, their influence on campus) from the Department [of Education] and the public.
On the transparency front, the bill passed by the Senate is much stricter than its House counterpart. The Senate bill would lower the annual threshold at which colleges must report foreign donations from the current $250,000 to $50,000, while the House bill would only lower the funding disclosure threshold to 100 $000. The House bill also significantly undermines a common-sense Senate proposal requiring U.S. research universities that receive $5 million or more a year in federal science funding to create a database of foreign gifts and contracts received by teachers and staff. Additionally, the House bill weakens a Senate-proposed measure that allows the DoE to impose fines on universities that refuse to comply with enhanced disclosure requirements.
Although the House bill requires US universities to track and report on certain faculty and staff activities, these disclosures only apply when foreign gifts or contracts exceed $50,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, American universities have put pressure against such proposals, arguing that they could hamper collaboration with international partners.
The House bill also targets, albeit narrowly, US universities hosting ICs. These Chinese government entities have been criticized for promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s favorite political narratives and encouraging harassment of those on campus who criticize the regime. A recent report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) revealed that ICs also advance the MCF, including promoting academic and research partnerships between U.S. universities and Chinese schools openly supporting China’s military modernization.
On a positive note, the House bill would authorize a new $10 million-a-year program to promote the study of Chinese languages as an alternative to CIs. However, this does not preclude US universities from receiving these or other taxpayer funds if they continue to host CIs, or if they collaborate on joint research with Chinese schools supporting China’s nuclear weapons program. China, its cyber-espionage platforms or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). ).
Worse, neither bill prevents US universities from accessing new funding while they partner with Chinese universities on the Department’s Office of Industry and Security Entity List. of Commerce, which limits the export of sensitive items to designated entities and individuals considered a national security risk.
Congress clearly understands that more needs to be done to harness the technology and talent Washington needs to win its strategic competition with Beijing. What remains unclear, however, is whether Congress is ready to tackle China’s militarization of academia once and for all or whether it will instead rely on half measures, thereby allowing the China to finance its own modernization at our expense.
Craig Singleton is senior China researcher at the Foundation for Defending Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focused on foreign policy and national security. He recently published a research monograph entitled “The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education: How US Universities Support China’s Military Industrial Complex”.