Is it racist to protect American colleges from foreign meddling? When it comes to China, a surprising number of people believe so.
Consider the backlash to the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act, a bill introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Representative Francis Rooney (R., Fla.) to help colleges protect against malicious foreign actors. The bill would ask the FBI to designate a list of “foreign intelligence threats to higher education,” which would be subject to heightened scrutiny and transparency.
Because Cruz and Rooney cite Chinese-government programs as a source of potential threats to the integrity of American colleges and universities, some have accused them of racial profiling. Representative Judy Chu (D., Calif.) objects to their bill as an “irresponsible” attempt to “categorize an entire country of people en masse as spies.” Cynthia Choi, co–executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, told the Huffington Post the bill was “just wrong” and “a bogus attempt to whip up fear and animosity towards Chinese and Chinese Americans.”
Or consider FBI director Christopher Wray, who in February testified before the Senate Intelligence subcommittee that China represents a “whole-of-society threat” to American interests. Wray might have chosen his words more carefully — Vice President Pence chose “whole-of-government approach” to describe China’s actions — but the substance of Wray’s concerns met mockery and chagrin. Senator Marco Rubio had questioned Wray about China’s efforts to gain a foothold on college campuses, especially through Chinese-government-funded Confucius Institutes. In response, Wray noted that “in almost every field office” the FBI sees China’s “use of nontraditional collectors [of information], especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students.”
Wray defended his claims on NBC, stating that “to be clear, we do not open investigations based on race, or ethnicity, or national origin. But when we open investigations into economic espionage, time and time again, they keep leading back to China.” But this failed to satisfy his critics. Fourteen organizations sent Wray a letter, calling for a meeting to discuss “troubling issues of potential bias [and] racial profiling,” and even going so far as to raise the specter of the Japanese internment, suggesting that without “ongoing dialogue,” Chinese Americans could face similar treatment.
The imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps was a national scandal, one that we must never again repeat. And discrimination against Asian Americans remains a disgraceful reality. Even now, Asian-American students are suing Harvard University over its admissions practices, which routinely deselect Asian applicants at a higher rate than students of other races or ethnicities with similar academic records.
But it is not racist to call out the Chinese government’s record of economic theft and espionage, or to take measures to protect against it. China is estimated to steal up to $600 million annually in intellectual property from the U.S. Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, has called the United States, with its freedom and openness, a “spy’s paradise.” Colleges and universities, uniquely open and eager for foreign students — of which China is the No. 1 source, with more than 350,000 in the 2016–17 school year — are an especially inviting target.
We must distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, and recognize that criticizing one does not mean denigrating the other. The PRC regime has repeatedly tried to blur this line, using its citizens as a shield for its political agenda. “Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” is the typical excuse Beijing gives to journalists, human-rights lawyers, and activists when it ejects them for exposing the authoritarian way the Chinese Communist Party rules.
Limiting the influence of the Chinese government may actually be a key way to protect against racism. The Chinese government has long sought to stifle the voices of its own people, pursuing a policy of eradicating minorities in China or “reeducating” them into conformity. The Chinese government’s campaign of developing “sharp power” overseas involves presenting a highly selective, uniform presentation of Chinese culture — whitewashed of all minorities and dissidents.
One key example is the Confucius Institutes, Chinese-government-sponsored centers that have been established on about 100 American colleges and universities. Senators Cruz and Rubio and FBI director Wray cited these institutes as examples of the PRC’s nefarious influence, and for good reason. Confucius Institutes present the Chinese regime’s official history, without the Tiananmen Square massacre, the persecution of Christians and Muslims in China, the estimated 1 million Uighurs currently held in reeducation camps, and the Chinese government’s efforts to stamp out Tibetan culture. Is it really racist to oppose programs that perpetuate the Chinese government’s myth that its majority Han ethnicity and loyal Chinese Communist Party members are all that matters in China?
The willingness of some Chinese Americans to carry water for Beijing is puzzling. But we have seen that the Chinese government is capable on short notice of assembling a demonstration of Chinese expatriates and ethnic Chinese who are willing to endorse the Communist Party’s official positions on any given issue. The attacks on the Cruz and Wray and all who call out China’s abuses should probably be understood in that spirit.
It’s time to call China’s overseas influence campaign to account.