Experts warn of renewed Chinese Communist Party ‘cognitive warfare’ on US campuses


Beijing’s infiltration has morphed into targeting dissent, religious groups and technical know-how

Experts warn of renewed Chinese Communist Party 'cognitive warfare' on US campuses

Undergraduate student Moe Lewis [left] shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on May 2, 2018.

As college students gear up to start studies after the summer, experts are warning that Beijing’s infiltration of U.S. universities will continue, despite the closure of dozens of its Confucius Institutes.

“The Chinese Communist Party will again be indoctrinating and spying on students on American college campuses this academic year in an organized effort known as ‘cognitive warfare,’” according to an online seminar run by the Hudson Institute.

“Its objective is to suppress criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his policies, promote Chinese Communist Party propaganda, spy on and intimidate Chinese exchange students, shape American views about the United States, and steal scientific, technological, and military research,” the institute said.

Recent pushback over Beijing-funded language and cultural centers – known as Confucius Institutes – embedded on American university campuses has prompted many schools to terminate these agreements, and the number of Confucius Institutes has plummeted from more than 100 to around a dozen, it said.

But experts told the seminar that the Chinese government has switched up the bureaucracy and continued its influence operations in other guises, including via the government-backed Chinese Students and Scholars’ Associations, which the State Department has warned engage in the monitoring of international students from China, and in political mobilization on U.S. soil.

“Not all college administrators act to stop Chinese Communist Party interference on their campuses,” the Institute warned in a summary of the seminar.

Varied motivations

Chinese infiltration can be motivated by anything from wanting to project a positive image of China and its government to getting hold of technology that has potentially military applications, said Ian Oxnevad, Senior Fellow, Foreign Affairs and Security Studies at the National Association of Scholars.

“Part of it is also access to American universities more broadly, for fundamental research purposes, because that has an impact on China’s ability to obtain dual-use technologies,” Oxnevad said. “Those are technologies that have uses for military or commercial purposes.”

There is also a longer game in play, he said.

“You also have sort of an elite capture issue, … looking at shaping the views of future policy-makers and key individuals in America in the future by shaping the views of students today,” he said, adding that Confucius Institutes were just one phase in an ongoing overseas influence operation by Beijing.

“Since there’s been a massive pushback on Confucius Institutes, [many] have basically shut down. Oftentimes, they’re being rebranded as different programs, in a non-systematic way [though] it is systematic on the Chinese side,” he said, warning: “They erode intellectual freedom.”

He said the institutions “have in some cases allowed China to continue to monitor dissidents abroad and continue … soft power initiatives.”

Military ties

Meanwhile, the Hanban, the body under the State Council that was responsible for the centers, has been renamed.

Oxnevad said China is now focusing more on bilateral cooperation agreements with universities that attract defense or security funding, noting a clear correlation between universities engaged in government-funded research and the number of cooperation agreements with Chinese universities.

“What’s happening is that many schools in the U.S. are forming bilateral ties with Chinese universities that have military ties to the People’s Liberation Army in China,” he warned.

“Oftentimes, these are coincidentally American universities that have some sort of defense-related program or department involved. That’s what’s happening now.”

Oxnevad cited the recent case of Alfred University in upstate New York, which recently shut down its Confucius Institute.

“It had received a multimillion dollar contract from the U.S. government to help perfect hypersonic missile technology, and some of the same individuals involved in the engineering ceramics program at Alfred University were also tied to the Confucius Institute,” he said.

U.S. campuses that receive Department of Defense or National Security Agency funding or government funding to expand their cybersecurity programs also seem to attract more ties with China, he said.

There are also implications for anyone with ties back in China who does anything – even on U.S. soil – that Beijing doesn’t like, according to Cynthia Sun, a researcher for the Falun Dafa Information Center linked to the spiritual movement that has been banned in China as a “cult.”

“We saw a lot of physical and digital surveillance by Chinese proxies,” Sun said of a recent survey of transnational repression targeting Falun Gong practitioners on U.S. campuses.

“Nationwide, there are at least 45 universities and colleges with students or faculty who practice Falun Gong on campus,” she said. 

Falun Gong persecution

Campus Falun Gong clubs typically host events, petition signings, film-screening and exhibitions, to try to raise awareness about 24 years of persecution at the hands of the Chinese state, Sun said.

“Some are second-generation, American citizens who have family, elderly relatives back in China, and then there’s also Chinese international students who have to go back to China after their studies,” she said.

“Out of this pool of people, 20% said they felt uncomfortable self-identifying as a Falun Gong practitioner because of the reprisals that they faced, and because of all of the fear they have, the indoctrination, and the propaganda surrounding their practice.”

She quoted a Chinese international student in California as saying: “Family members in China were called regarding my whereabouts, my phone number, or where I was studying or working.”

Several other students reported feeling watched, and their families were harassed due to their activities in the United States, Sun added.

“So they’re using that as blackmail to threaten and intimidate these students to try to get them to stop holding these activities, holding these events,” she said.

“It’s the control of what the [Chinese Communist] Party wants people to think and say, through controlling the activities of Falun Gong practitioners, Hong Kong activists and … ethnic minorities,” Sun told the seminar. “And it’s possible for them to also bring that here, to bring the surveillance, the slander, the censorship, to the United States of America.”

Sun described Chinese Students and Scholars Associations as “funded by the local Chinese consulate, and they receive direction also, from the Chinese consulate.”

“They carry forward this message of continued self-censorship, of continued surveillance,” she said.

“It’s really hard to fathom how this could be happening in American universities, but through the CSSAs and through the presence of Confucius Institutes, it’s very much alive, this continued party thought,” she said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *