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A few weeks ago, a tweet of mine on the infiltration of China’s dictatorial regime on U.S. college campuses got a huge (for me) amount of feedback. I was responding to this New York Review of Books article titled “Should the Chinese Government Be in American Classrooms?” and I asked in turn, “This is even a question?”

After all, the piece dealt with the spread of so-called Confucius Institutes throughout American higher education (as well as, shockingly, into the nation’s primary and secondary schools). These organizations purport simply to be teaching Chinese language and culture. But as the article explains:

[T]heir curriculum is largely shaped by Chinese [government] guidelines. Moreover, they have often been set up in secretive agreements with host institutions, which has caused Western scholars to question whether their universities are ceding undue control to a foreign government—in this instance, a foreign government well known for aggressively propagandizing its official views, censoring dissenting opinions, and imprisoning those who express them.”

So it sounds to me like an open-and-shut case for closing all of them down. But this past week, Norman Matloff, the University of California-Davis computer scientist who’s one of the leading U.S. authorities on America’s Chinese immigrant community, spotlighted another emerging threat from the People’s Republic to the nation’s colleges and universities: the mounting numbers of students they’ve been admitting from China.

The main ideas behind educating Chinese (and other foreigners) look great on paper and often work out well in practice. Americans clearly hope (and even expect) that exposure to these quintessentially free institutions will wind up injecting these newcomers with democratic values – which they hopefully will spread, either consciously or not, in their home countries upon their return. And of course U.S. educators rightly and reasonably hope that native-born students and teachers will benefit from the resulting new opportunities to learn firsthand about foreign countries.

But as made clear in a New York Times piece from last week mentioned in Matloff’s excellent blog, the Chinese government, again, is being imported along with these Chinese students. According to Times reporter Stephanie Saul, these students “often bring to campus…the watchful eyes and occasionally heavy hand of the Chinese government, manifested through its ties to many of the 150-odd chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations. The groups have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on Western campuses.”

It would be nice to think that American higher education, with its historic commitment to free inquiry, would have pushed back strongly against these practices – and even kicked off campuses any students found colluding with Beijing. But such optimism seems to be totally unjustified. Although the Associations’ pressures have by and large been resisted, according to Saul, their presence evidently continues to be tolerated. One likely reason: Chinese students tend to come from wealthy families, and to pay full-freight tuition and other costs – which financially strained public and private institutions value highly.

In other words, although U.S. higher education’s Chinese students policies aim in part to turn these youth into freer thinkers, the Chinese presence is turning these institutions more receptive to a major contemporary Chinese norm: Money talks.

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