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Chinese Government Gave Money to Georgetown Chinese Student Group

Growing party influence on campuses nationwide has cast a pall over academic freedom.

A statue of John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University, sits before Healy Hall on the school's campus August 15, 2006 in Washington, DC. Georgetown University was founded in 1789 and it is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A statue of John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University, sits before Healy Hall on the school's campus August 15, 2006 in Washington, DC. Georgetown University was founded in 1789 and it is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Founded in the early 2000s, the Georgetown University Chinese Students and Scholars Association hosts an annual Chinese New Year gala, organizes occasional academic forums, and helps Chinese students on campus meet and support each other. The group has also accepted funding from the Chinese government amounting to roughly half its total annual budget, according to documents and emails obtained by Foreign Policy.

The total sum may not be large, but the documents confirm a link between the Chinese government and Chinese student organizations on American campuses that is often suspected but difficult to verify.

A budget request submitted by the Georgetown University CSSA to the school’s graduate student government in September 2011 disclosed that the group received $800 each semester that school year from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. The group requested an additional $750 each semester from the university on top of the money it received from the embassy.

The disclosure of Chinese government funding came after a question on the budget request form asking if the club received any outside sources of funding. The group said that the government funding was used to host events, such as the annual Chinese New Year party.

The funding has not been previously made public; copies of the documents were provided to FP by a source concerned about Chinese Communist Party influence on university campuses.

The FBI shares that concern. Yesterday, at an annual open hearing at the Senate intelligence committee, in response to a question about the national security risk posted by Chinese international students, FBI Director Chris Wray said, “The use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting — whether it’s professors, scientists, students — we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country.”

Chinese Students and Scholars Associations first appeared in the United States in the 1980s, as international students from China began attending American universities. Now Chinese students, numbering close to 330,000, comprise the largest group of international students in the United States. There are now around 150 CSSA branches in the United States, and many more around the world; the organizations share a name but no central organization or headquarters. Other Chinese student organizations do exist — the Chinese Student Association at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, was founded in 1951 and is independent — but most have been overshadowed by the proliferation of CSSAs.

The primary function of CSSAs is to help Chinese students adjust to life in a foreign country, to bring Chinese students together on campus, and to showcase Chinese culture. The groups typically host events such as annual galas, holiday celebrations, and academic forums.

But they also serve as a way for the Chinese government to maintain a close eye on Chinese students abroad, according to those familiar with their activities.

“It’s a deliberate strategy to make sure that the Chinese students and scholars living abroad don’t become a problem,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which published Brady’s report last year detailing Chinese Communist Party influence in New Zealand, including the CSSAs at major universities there.

A former Chinese Ministry of State Security official, Li Fengzhi, who later defected to the United States, said that the Chinese government views CSSAs as a means to conduct “information collection” and propaganda.

The Georgetown CSSA did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment. 

“CSSAs are non-profit associations, whose members are students volunteered to provide help to their fellow Chinese students and scholars at the host university,” a Chinese Embassy spokesperson wrote in an email, when asked if the Chinese Embassy continues to provide the CSSAs at Georgetown or other area colleges with funds. “In order to organize such activities, they need to raise funds from the public, such as their host universities, companies, organizations and the Chinese embassy.”

The spokesperson did not provide an answer when asked if the Chinese Embassy ever gives CSSAs political directives.

Georgetown University did not respond to a request for comment.

No other Georgetown University graduate student group included in the 2011-2012 funding request report received money from a foreign government, according to the documents reviewed by FP.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has vastly expanded its campaign to surveil and control overseas Chinese, including international students. In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a directive to Chinese students abroad, urging them to follow the party. The directive also provided instructions to “build a multidimensional contact network linking home and abroad — the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad — so that they fully feel that the motherland cares.”

Amid this campaign, it has become increasingly risky for Chinese students abroad to criticize Chinese government policies, even within the privacy of the classroom. One Australian professor told Inside Higher Ed in January that on two separate occasions, Chinese students have told him that comments they made during his class were reported to authorities back in China — indicating that another student in the class had relayed that information.

Wang Dan, a professor of contemporary Chinese history and a participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, has noted that Chinese students rarely speak up in discussion salons he holds in the United States — but that party sympathizers will show up to take photos and recordings of who attends and what is said at such events. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Wang called it a “campaign of fear and intimidation.”

Chinese students themselves have also challenged academic freedom at American universities with growing frequency. Chinese student organizations are often directly involved in these efforts, mobilizing their members to express anger at speech that goes the against Chinese Communist Party line.

For example, in February 2017, the University of California, San Diego, announced that the commencement speaker that June would be the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader whom the Chinese Communist Party considers a dangerous separatist. The UC San Diego CSSA soon posted a response on Facebook expressing strong opposition to the invitation — and saying that they had consulted with the Chinese Consulate on the matter. The CSSA asked to meet with university administration and demanded that the Dalai Lama’s speech exclude any political content.

The UC San Diego administration allowed the Tibetan leader’s speech to proceed uninhibited.

In May 2017, Yang Shuping, an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, praised American democracy in a commencement address, saying that she enjoyed America’s “fresh air of free speech” compared to the repressive environment back in China. Her remarks went viral on the Chinese internet, and she faced a massive online backlash, including the posting of her family’s home address in China.

The University of Maryland CSSA created a video directly criticizing Yang’s remarks and calling them “rumor.” Zhu Lihan, a former president of the association, told a Chinese newspaper, “Insulting the motherland to grab attention is intolerable. The university’s support for such slandering speech is not only ill-considered, but also raises suspicion about other motives.”

Yang later apologized for her remarks.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers Chinese government influence in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

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