As Decoupling Grows, the West Risks Losing Insight Into China

A collapsing relationship could create a lost generation of experts.

A person walks past the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco, where one Chinese researcher is taking refuge from U.S. indictments, on July 23.
A person walks past the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco, where one Chinese researcher is taking refuge from U.S. indictments, on July 23. PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images

As a college student studying Mandarin in the 1960s, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk once described China as “remote as the moon” and “more mysterious and isolated … than North Korea.” In 1971, Shirk had the chance to visit China for the first time, as part of a delegation of several American Ph.D. students based in Hong Kong, in advance of President Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong.

When Shirk entered the State Department, her personal exposure to Chinese society likely gave her a better grasp of the decision-making paradigms embraced by key Chinese political and military leaders.

The world has changed significantly since 1971, and relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point in decades. In a July speech to American executives, U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused companies like Apple and Disney of “kowtowing” to China. Barr also implied that decoupling may be the only solution to protecting U.S. interests in light of an increasingly aggressive China. But while economic decoupling has gotten plenty of attention, the damaging effects of academic decoupling haven’t. Indeed, in an August article in Foreign Policy, Salvatore Babones advocated for Western universities to cut their ties in China and labeled universities as “apologists for an illiberal China.”

Advocating for broader academic decoupling between China and the West may be dangerous and self-defeating.

As Babones rightfully points out, Confucius Institutes have been credibly accused of hindering academic freedom in liberal democracies, likely promote the spread of disinformation and help legitimize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and should justly be designated as Chinese foreign missions. But advocating for broader academic decoupling between China and the West may be dangerous and self-defeating. China tends to commit to a policy of proportional retaliation in response to economic sanctions and media activity restrictions—even if it began the cycle in the first place. If a significant number of Western universities suspend their research partnerships with China and place further restrictions on Chinese students, the CCP will likely retaliate, terminating many Western academic exchange and study abroad programs.

In the worst-case scenario, academic decoupling risks creating a lost generation of Western policymakers and analysts who cannot fully become China hands due to a lack of language and cultural expertise. We risk going “back to the future”—a 1960s-style future where tomorrow’s Susan Shirks are confined to Taiwan and Singapore, unable to study in mainland China (and perhaps even Hong Kong) except in the rarest of circumstances, and unable to reach their full potential as China specialists.

U.S. academic and cultural exchange programs with China are already becoming endangered in the era of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. After the U.S. Peace Corps pulled out of China in early 2020, a conservative Chinese commentator published an article titled “Farewell, Peace Corps in China, We Won’t See You Off.” The headline references Mao’s famous essay “Farewell to Leighton Stuart,” which celebrated the United States’ recall of the last ambassador to the Republic of China before the CCP took over. Additionally, in a July executive order discontinuing U.S. preferential treatment for Hong Kong after the passage of its national security law, Trump also included a provision that suspended the Fulbright exchange program in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Babones advocates for additional academic decoupling by further reducing Chinese student flows to the West and terminating joint research partnerships. The Trump administration has debated doing just that. I am not critiquing Babones’s argument on the grounds that enhanced academic exchange programs can promote public diplomacy, expose Chinese students to Western democratic systems, and help liberalize China. Those are hotly contended arguments. But if the administration expands Presidential Proclamation 10043 to include additional classes of Chinese students, like undergraduates, or enacts visa restrictions on all CCP members, China may also reciprocate by ending U.S. study abroad programs and scholarships.

These actions may threaten the security of the United States and its allies for two main reasons.

First, the Chinese language is the CCP’s primary line of defense. For example, as Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil highlight in their book Chinese Communist Espionage, many “published works on Chinese espionage in English failed to pierce that veil [of the Chinese language] or even to give it a fair go, using few if any Chinese-language sources. It is as if someone in Beijing wrote a book about the U.S. intelligence community without examining English-language sources.” The State Department considers Mandarin to be a “super-hard language” that is “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” It often takes years of focused study to be able to read and fully understand a Chinese newspaper article, let alone a Chinese academic journal or dissertation. Most importantly, in the next few years, Western governments will need language-enabled policymakers and intelligence analysts more than ever to “pierce that veil” of Chinese denial and deception efforts, particularly as great-power competition continues to intensify.

To address these challenges, for the last 30 years, the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has offered a M.A. program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, located in Nanjing, China. The center is arguably the world’s top program for students to “bring their Chinese language skills to an advanced professional level,” offering courses taught in Mandarin and even requiring students to complete a master’s thesis written in Chinese. Students often graduate from the program with high levels of Chinese proficiency, if not full professional fluency, positioning them to become leading experts who could readily contribute to critical missions in the U.S. and allied governments.

Additionally, Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are sponsored by the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and provide $20,000 to $24,000 awards from the U.S. Defense Department to students desiring to pursue “long-term, overseas immersive language study.” Since NSEP’s primary mission is to “develop a pipeline of foreign language and culture expertise for the U.S. federal government workforce,” Boren awardees also take on a service requirement to work in the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, or any element of the intelligence community at the conclusion of their program. In 2019, China was the second-most popular destination for Boren awardees, and the program has produced scores of policymakers and intelligence officers who later serve in the U.S. government.

According to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “Through 30 years of ups and downs in the relationship between China and the United States, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center has overcome its own challenges and thrived.” However, these high-profile academic exchange programs are not immune from political trends. For example, in 2014, two Boren fellows sent job search emails to .gov and .mil domains from within Russia, which attracted the attention of Russian intelligence officers, who interrogated one of the students for two hours. After this incident, the Boren program prohibited students from studying in Russia, and awardees must now study Russian in neighboring countries like Kazakhstan.

It is not difficult to imagine a similar situation occurring in China in the near future. Indeed, a former Boren scholar in China, who wishes to remain anonymous, described to us his peers, who included U.S. military-affiliated students, rebelling against class censorship in high-profile ways. These disruptive actions attracted significant attention from the Chinese university’s administration. Programs like Boren and Hopkins-Nanjing will likely be targeted first if the CCP decides to reciprocate in the event of increased academic decoupling.

However imperfect, these programs allow students to gain vital, long-term, on-the-ground experience in China—and in a fashion that, thanks to their high-profile nature, protects students from some of the scrutiny experienced during the security clearance process for Americans who spend less structured time in China. Of course, they should be adjusted to promote improved operational security for students. But if the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, the Boren program, and other long-term exchange programs are suspended, aspiring China hands would have to rely on alternative options for language study, none of them ideal. Even Taiwan, close as its language and some aspects of its culture are to China, is an imperfect solution, due largely to Taiwan’s usage of traditional Chinese and an absence of mainland Chinese vernacular.

Second, living in China also provides valuable insight into attitudes, culture, and the state.

According to Adam Grimm, a former Boren fellow in Chengdu and a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at Michigan State University, “If you’re living in China, you need to engage with the state to some degree. Whether it’s registering with the Public Security Bureau or dealing with other elements of the Chinese bureaucracy, you cannot fully understand how the Chinese government functions unless you experience it firsthand.”

Leigh Lawrence, a Boren scholar (’13) and Fulbright scholar (’19) to mainland China, is working on a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Cambridge that analyzes reforms to “moral education” within the Chinese compulsory education system under Xi. She notes that her research into the lived experiences of students would be impossible without focused study in China.

Although Babones is right that Chinese partnerships with Western universities often facilitate the CCP’s foreign influence, disinformation, and intelligence operations, broader academic decoupling is not the answer. The United States and allied governments can still implement counterintelligence screening programs to mitigate the threat of Chinese nontraditional intelligence collectors, who may include Chinese students studying at Western institutions. Additionally, staff at Western colleges and universities can employ countermeasures, including protecting student identities using code names during sensitive discussions pertaining to Chinese politics, to preserve academic freedom.

Western university partnerships with China allow tomorrow’s national security leaders and China hands to gain vital Chinese language and cultural expertise.

Babones’s recommendations run the risk of further “otherizing” Chinese international students as pawns of the state. While it is true that some Chinese students are under immense pressure from the CCP, and others are perhaps nontraditional intelligence collectors, they still enjoy the civil liberties of any other visitor to, or resident in, the United States—and those rights should be protected. Many first-generation Chinese immigrants and naturalized Chinese citizens serve in the United States and allied governments—more than you might think, based on information provided to Foreign Policy. Bona fide Chinese students must still be able to study in open academic environments, perhaps become naturalized citizens, and even use their native linguistic and cultural knowledge to contribute to their new country’s own national security efforts in the long term.

Western university partnerships with China allow tomorrow’s national security leaders and China hands to gain vital Chinese language and cultural expertise, which will become even more important in an era of increased great-power competition. If the price of this expertise is maintaining current Chinese student flows and sustaining joint university research partnerships in certain low-risk fields, then so be it. Our eagerness to mitigate threats in the short term cannot be allowed to impede our ability to detect threats in the long term.

All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, any of their components, or the U.S. government. The Department of Homeland Security cannot attest to the substantive or technical accuracy of the information contained in this article.

Jimmy Zhang is a policy analyst for emerging threats at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy.

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