The American universities pursuing cooperative relationships with their counterparts in Communist China are doing so in the hopes that these will be mutually beneficial. Yet all available evidence indicates that they are not.
Former Peking University economist Xia Yeliang, who was dismissed from his position in October 2013 because of his anti-communist beliefs, said at the Cato Institute that Chinese academics “agree on communism, socialism, Marxism; otherwise it is not even possible to get a job” and “you cannot go against it in research” without losing jobs and funding.
Xia claimed that Chinese officials “send their children to study abroad” and still promote the quality of Chinese education, even as they laud their children’s American Ph.D.’s. He posed this question to his American audience: “You think you got some benefits with cooperation with China, but who will win in the future?” Xia went on to question whether the Cold War truly ended, especially with the discovery that the Chinese military is building “its second or third aircraft carrier…why would you want to build that; is it for fun?”
In that same forum at Cato, Wellesley sociology professor Thomas Cushman asserted that his employer, which partners with Xia’s former place of employment, actually tried to force Peking University to keep Xia employed there. Universities in China and the U.S. sign a “memorandum of understanding” to encourage academic freedom and integrity in both countries.
Cushman applauded the “multi-partisan” effort at Wellesley in which 145 faculty members signed a petition asking for Peking University to keep Xia employed as a faculty member, because it is hard to get half of any university staff to agree to anything. Cushman added, “The support on the left and the right…has been somewhat strongly nonpartisan” and “the petition was mainly symbolic.” Yet, Cushman felt the move “was a kind of ritual of solidarity…an affirmation of main principles” of academic freedom because “none had taken this fight to the Communist Party” even for “a sleepy Wellesley” faculty and administration. Several faculty members were Chinese nationals and it did not surprise him that they refused to sign the petition due to their “nationalistic” feelings on the subject.
In researching the topic prior to his speech at Cato, Cushman admitted that “I am quite stunned by the lack of information” on U.S. academic cooperation with China. Although he felt that “China is a force to be reckoned with,” the current push for more agreements and exchanges between universities in the U.S. and China is due to the perspective that “this will be good for China because our presence there will help liberalize the environment” in Chinese universities.
This “realist argument” is “grounded in academic environments by progressive ideology” and “it’s no secret what the political inclinations of most college university professors are.” Yet, Cushman argued, “there’s no necessary connection” between liberal democratic ideas developing in Chinese universities and progressive pedagogy in America. Instead, an “unintended consequence of that progressive ideology…could create a crackdown by the authoritarian government.”
Cushman found that Chinese students returning home to China actually become “more nationalistic than when they left,” and end up not working toward liberalizing China or its society. This “soft power strategy” can be considered a “propaganda campaign” by the Communist Chinese government on American campuses. He said that some Americans worry that “certain universities [are] being used as sites for Chinese propaganda displays or sanitized versions of what’s happening” in China. “It’s no secret that President Obama has called for a pivot toward Asia,” and “has pulled in universities and colleges” into Asia, Cushman observes.
After the petition and eventual firing of Xia from Peking University, Cushman acknowledged that academics “need to be critical about” the Asia pivot. He believes it becomes a bigger issue when “we need to censor or deny the possibility of saying certain things” about China to avoid repercussions from Chinese universities. This also extends to the possibility of American citizens, living or working in China, who may have their rights infringed on by the Chinese government. He said, “We need to consider whether our tax money” is being used to deny Tibetan- or Chinese-Americans from getting into study abroad programs in China.