China’s Propaganda War and How to Stop It
It’s time to target foreign funding of universities and think tanks.
When President Richard Nixon took a chance on normalizing relations with China in 1972 after a quarter century of diplomatic freeze, China to most Americans was just a Third World country desperate to build its lagging economy and legitimize itself on the world stage. Americans knew enough about the way communism worked to know that propaganda is an integral part of its game. But here was a real cry for help from a nation left raw by years of socialist policies that led them down a one-way road to mass starvation and economic calamity.
Cut to nearly 50 years later, and Americans witnessed a sad display of political sniping at the March 2021 summit in Alaska between Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs director Yang Jiechi and new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. What many Americans may not have realized as they watched Yang insult Blinken and his country is that the Chinese propaganda on display in Alaska is not just reserved for political theater. In fact, it has been here for years, taught to American youth and progressive political activists and very likely playing an outsize role in the political turmoil and violence the U.S. has suffered in recent years.
In The Devil and Karl Marx (2020), Catholic writer Paul Kengor describes how Soviet Russia infiltrated American churches during the Cold War. Communist plants targeted the Catholic Church knowing that an influence-peddling operation would require very little manpower. “Communists understood that just a handful of saboteurs, operating from the inside through carefully calculated dishonesty, could go far in impacting if not redirecting and hijacking an organization,” Kengor explains.
China has put that premise on steroids. Much wealthier than Soviet Russia ever was, China has spent billions funding propaganda on college campuses and in American think tanks to control how Americans think about China and, perhaps more worrisome, how young Americans think about their own country.
In Alaska, Yang told a stunned Blinken, “Many people in the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.” He was merely echoing what China has already trained many young Americans to think by directly or indirectly funding American nonprofits. Younger Americans had already heard this message on their college campuses and in some cases even earlier, in primary and secondary school. Given the state of political discourse leading up to the 2020 election, there’s evidence to suggest they were dutifully spreading the word as China no doubt intended.
The Trump administration began to suspect trouble sometime during the four years it spent trying to wrangle a trade deal with China while watching anarchists torch federal buildings in Seattle and Portland. In a speech given to the Georgia Institute of Technology in December 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the U.S. Department of Education reported American schools had taken in roughly $1.3 billion from China since 2013, mostly in tuition and funding for the Chinese Communist Party–aligned Confucius Institutes.Confucius Institutes first began popping up on American college campuses in 2004, according to a National Association of Scholars report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. They originally numbered just over 100. Many more showed up as “Confucius Classrooms” in K-12 schools across the country.
The Trump administration, suspecting these “educational and cultural” organizations were feeding Chinese state party propaganda to American students, began investigating. As a result, by March 2021 many had closed. The number in 2021, according to NAS, came in at less than 50, although some reports indicate the K-12 classrooms are simply rebranding under the banner of the Asia Society Chinese Language Partner Network to avoid scrutiny.
It was all a part of a broader effort to address what the Trump administration considered a serious national security threat from an ascendant China. In the several months leading up to the 2020 election, senior Trump administration officials, including Pompeo, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr, and FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a series of speeches laying out the national security threats posed by China. Foreign funding of think tanks and universities, mostly by China, was prominently mentioned.
About a month before the election, Pompeo’s State Department went even further and issued a press release announcing the administration’s deep concerns over foreign funding of U.S. nonprofits, including “the academic community, think tanks, and various external sources of expertise in foreign affairs.” The release more than gently called for those entities to “disclose prominently on their websites funding they receive from foreign governments, including state-owned or state-operated subsidiary entities.”
In fact, on its way out the door following the 2020 election, the Trump administration proposed a rule—the Establishing Requirement for Student and Exchange Visitor Program Certified Schools to Disclose Agreements with Confucius Institutes and Classrooms—that, if it had been reviewed and accepted, would have required universities and K-12 schools with foreign exchange programs to disclose financial ties to Confucius Institutes.
Balancing a national security threat from a hostile nation seeking hegemony with the conservative value of donor privacy is no easy task. When a 2020 Department of Education report showed that many schools, especially in the Ivy League, were failing to adhere to already existing reporting requirements by taking billions in unreported foreign funding, it became an easier case. According to that report, “$6.5 billion in funding and resources from foreign sources including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar” went illegally unreported by 2020.This makes it even more important for those who work on issues of donor privacy to address how to strike the appropriate balance. Capital Research Center’s Special Projects Manager Robert Stilson, in his report Combating Foreign Government Influence in American Institutions, tried to address the need for donor privacy in an age that embraces “cancel culture,” purity tests, and smear campaigns. Stilson noted that the State Department’s disclosure request “applies to those groups that ‘wish to engage with the Department’—in other words: influence the U.S. government.”
But the Biden administration, shortly after inauguration in January 2021, scrapped the Trump administration’s proposed rule that would have required transparency in foreign funding, offering a weak justification by saying the rule had never been entered into the Federal Register.
While this seems to contradict the tough approach to China that President Joe Biden promised during the campaign, all hope is not lost. American legislators have gotten a bit more serious about the threat of a protracted CCP propaganda program carried out on American soil and targeting America’s youth.
Several new pieces of legislation have been reanimated or proposed to address the issue of shadowy foreign funding into American nonprofits in an effort to sway public opinion toward alignment with hostile ideologies and away from American values.
In early March, the U.S. Senate approved, by unanimous consent, a bill that would increase oversight of Confucius Institutes and cut funding to schools that failed to comply with new oversight rules. States like Tennessee have introduced legislation to outright ban Confucius Institutes in their public education facilities. The Republican Study Committee is leading a charge on federal legislation that would increase oversight and “unreported financing behind the research organizations and nonprofits shaping our foreign policy,” says Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, who introduced the bill in late March.
There are also moves that could be made to criminalize reporting false information on federal grant applications and to create a Federal Research Security Council as an oversight organization policing federal funds, as the Safeguarding American Innovation Act proposes. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who sponsored the legislation, released a statement in June that said his legislation would “help stop foreign governments from stealing American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities.” That bill reportedly has bipartisan support.
The FIRM Act, which would update the Foreign Agents Registration Act to include scientists and researchers, was introduced during the last congressional session but did not receive a vote. It could be revived by an enterprising legislator, should the balance of power in Congress shift following the 2022 midterm elections.
American legislators have begun to wake up to the propaganda threat China poses, even if the executive office is not yet quite on board. Congressional support for getting a handle on just how much foreign funding is changing hands to prop up the reputation of Communist China has been encouragingly bipartisan. The hope, as poisonous political discourse continues unabated on social media and democratic values are routinely smeared by many American young people as antiquated and even dangerous, is that it’s not already too late.
Sarah Lee is communications and external relations director at Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.