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China-US relations

Fears of Chinese infiltration on US campuses reveal the closing of the American mind

Tom Plate says the targeting of Confucius Institutes in the US as potentially subversive threats shows how little many Americans know about China, and even about their own universities – where differences of opinion are gradually disappearing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 7:33pm

Simplistic judgment is a common malady from which academics and intellectuals, alas, seem no more immune than politicians. In Texas, a “red scare” has whipped up like a prairie storm: a pair of congressmen, expressing unctuous concern, are pressuring local universities to cut formal educational links with China, in particular its Confucius Institutes. They have told state officials of worries about “communist government influence on your campus”.

Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government for the announced purpose of offering free instruction to foreign students in the Chinese language and Confucian philosophy in their country. On the whole, they amount to a helpful addition to foreign-language curricula and are no more subversive than branches of US universities in China.

Even so, Texas A&M University wilted in the hot-air windstorm, and it was not the first. It followed opt-outs at the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University. Chancellor John Sharp explained why he followed the recommendation of Republican Congressmen Michael McCaul and Democrat Henry Cuellar this way: “They have access to classified information we do not have. We are terminating the contract [with China] as they suggested.” Other universities, in and out of Texas, are reviewing their institutes.

FBI warns China has infiltrated scores of ‘naive’ US universities

Back in 2004, the University of Maryland took in the first Confucius Institute; their numbers have grown dramatically in the United States since then. They also train Chinese-language teachers and underwrite scholarly publications. As, ultimately, they are under China’s Ministry of Education, they can be somewhat likened to libraries operated overseas by the US Information Agency in their fealty to the home government. The paranoiac pair of Texas congressmen believe the effort is confusing students with pro-Chinese communist notions and other evil, subversive ideas. 

China denies using citizens overseas to project influence abroad

Well, here is the scary story as some may imagine it, and it may stun many of you – though not Texans, of course: It is true that all Chinese citizens on the mainland are brainwashed to think exactly alike – born to be automatons. The way this is done is that many are hurriedly dunked, not minutes after birth, into a sort of MRI-like bath that somehow rewires normal DNA into a combative communist doublethink helix. Sort of like lobsters in a pot gradually being brought to boil, before they know it their brain is cooked, and they become food for commie thought. These secretly sautéed citizens comprise a phalanx of Confucius cadres – a clear and present menace to “free” society. 

What infantilism! American universities need to rise above this nonsense. One major institution that, admirably, has kept its poise is the University of California at Los Angeles, which has dismissed the Confucius Institute controversy with the sort of clear-headed self-confidence one expects from a great research university. Its formal review, headed by UCLA political scientist Mark Peterson, assessed its campus chapter as a valuable instrument of cultural diversity, not some nasty ideological submarine. UCLA students pointed out the folly of broad-brushing Chinese instructors and students as propaganda robots. 

There’s another issue that needs to be addressed. It’s that the much-advertised binary contrast between America’s totally “open” society and totally “closed” China’s is overdrawn. How much orthodoxy in political instruction the Xi Jinping government will be formally requiring of its universities is as yet unclear (for any professor, of course, an inherent worry). But China’s intellectual validity is hardly confined to the campus.

China fields more think tanks than any other country aside from the US. Few wear ideological dunce caps and sit in a corner searching for hidden proletariat algorithms in the Little Red Book. The Lauder Institute of University of Pennsylvania rates nine of China’s think tanks as among the world’s 175 best. That estimate may be on the conservative side. America, with a fourth of China’s population, does have four times as many think tanks; and more great universities, though Tsinghua and Peking (and sometimes Fudan in Shanghai) make every credible global top 100 list.

China’s private think tanks told to toe party line

For their part, US universities have their own set of problems. One is political homogeneity. As provocatively framed in the lead essay by philosopher John Gray in the current Times Literary Supplement, a high-level London review, there has been a creeping sterilisation of some Western universities “into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime”; where course reading materials are “routinely scrutinised” for material that “students might find discomforting”; where faculty members face “attempts to silence them or terminate their careers” when they challenge a prevailing campus consensus; and where invited guest lecturers wind up disinvited because “their views were deemed unspeakable”. Gray, until retirement a decade ago a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, adds: “When students from China study in Western countries, one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement in intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian government.”

Once China develops, then its real problems begin

What’s more, American ideology sweetly imagines the universal applicability of its “democratic” system – as if one size fits all. Leaving aside that at the moment our Trumpian iteration would prove a hard sell almost anywhere, it is fatuous to ignore the gradual shrinking of the West’s political mind – and not just in uptight Texas. “Liberticide” is the word John Stuart Mill used for the destruction of intellectual freedom that comes when everyone is required to hold the same view.

And so we must acknowledge that the political cultures of China and America are not as if Mars to Venus. Sensible citizens on both sides of the China-US divide know that ideological thinking will only deepen divisions – and misunderstandings. A superiority complex, on either side, is a good way to achieve bad results. Intellectual and political humility is wisest. Confucius was often right, Marx was not always wrong, East and West need to learn from – and respect – one another.

Columnist Tom Plate taught at UCLA for 15 years before joining Loyola Marymount University as its distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies