CCP Stealth War 144; Feature: Western Business Schools and Faculty Represent Prospective Targets for Malign Influence

(source: University of Pennsylvania)

This Week: 

* Feature: Western Business Schools and Faculty Represent Prospective Targets for Malign Influence

* Taiwan’s China-Friendly Offshore Island Flirts with Demilitarization

* China-Georgia Strategic Partnership: A Shift in Georgia’s Strategic Vector?

* China Curbing Russia-Bound Drone Exports

Feature: Western Business Schools and Faculty Represent Prospective Targets for Malign Influence

Arran Hope

Recent activity in both the US government and the United Kingdom are refocusing attention on the nature and extent of Chinese malign influence within universities and colleges. The Preventing Malign Chinese Influence on Academic Institutions Act is currently being reviewed by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (US Senate, August 3, 2022). This law would require the annual reporting of foreign gifts and contracts above a threshold of $5,000—far below the current threshold of $250,000 stipulated in the revised Higher Education Act of 1965. Such gifts are a potential tool to wield influence in academic institutions, through being tied to specific research projects or supporting individual academic positions. The lack of scrutiny towards these institutions to date has made them clear targets for influence operations by the Chinese state.

A recent report posted on the website of the Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC, February 14) argues for the centrality of what is euphemistically termed “humanistic exchanges” as a key “ballast” in the US–China relationship, as opposed to trade or economic exchanges, which served this function in the past. This terminology was echoed by Wang Dong, a Professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, in a lecture in 2019. They stated that of the “three foundations” of China–US relations (political mutual trust, economic and trade cooperation, and humanistic exchanges), the last is the most crucial (Peking University, August 5, 2019). Foreign business schools and their faculty staff make for potential subjects of these exchanges: they are seen as important and respected institutions, and their academics are often well-connected, with many also having research interests in China.

Parts of the Chinese state have long sought to target specific groups in the West to protect and advance the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interests. The American business community was once seen as a key demographic. As noted, however, by Suisheng Zhao, a prominent professor of political science, “once the strongest supporter of engagement policies, in recent years has issued increasingly urgent complaints” about China’s conduct (Journal of Contemporary China, 2019). In light of this souring, other groups will surely be focused on instead.

A 2020 report by the US Department of Education Office of the General Counsel investigating institutional compliance with the current law showed a troubling lack of transparency: foreign government propaganda and influence efforts in the form of “investments” in the US higher education system were “effectively a black hole” since “up to 70 percent of all US colleges and universities fail to comply with the law, and those that do substantially underreport.” Moreover, the report concludes that there are “very real reasons for concern that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research” (US Department of Education Office of the General Counsel, October 2020). Looking at recent reporting of foreign gifts on the Department of Education website reveals substantial donations given with specific projects in mind, including multimillion dollar gifts to support work to “improve decision-making [regarding] analytics” at the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania, and one gift which “supports the Search Engine Optimization strategy” of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business “to help better position the school in online searches, particularly in Asia” (College Foreign Gift Reporting, April 6).

In the United Kingdom, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament report on China, released on July 13, argues that “China has been particularly effective at using its money and influence to penetrate or buy Academia [sic] in order to ensure that its international narrative is advanced and criticism of China suppressed” (Intelligence and Security Committee, July 13). The report goes on to detail how academics are cultivated: they are usually first approached through invitations to a conference in China, with an expert testimony stating that “once they get you back to China, if you have shown vulnerability to them, they will absolutely do all the usual gamut of blackmail, honey-trapping … they will do all of that.” The government also stated to the committee that the Chinese intelligence services use the funding of universities both to influence research direction towards Chinese priorities and to gain access to prominent individuals through philanthropy. One key witness for the report, Professor Steve Tsang, currently the Director of the China Institute at SOAS in London, gave examples of instances where he had been pressured not to accept invitations for media appearances or make certain statements. “Research for academics entering China is weaponized,” he says. “You say something that they don’t like, they deny you a visa.”

This point is crucial, in particular for business schools and academics, which are the recipients of a large portion of Chinese donations. In the current environment, knowledge about the Chinese economy and Chinese firms is increasingly difficult to come by. Such data is now seen as part of the national security purview, and so access to CNKI (China’s nearest equivalent to JSTOR), has been restricted outside China since June 24, according to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC, June 24). Corporate databases such as Qichacha now prompt users to input a Chinese phone number for verification, and Wind Information, an important source of economic and company data, has also blocked certain access to outside users. Those whose careers rely heavily on access to precisely the information that these services provide are thus now more dependent on Beijing’s goodwill to be able to carry out their work.

From within China, evidence from publications and media that mentions specific mechanisms or strategies are difficult to come by. Nevertheless, a 2014 article on Economics and Finance Network, an online media journal founded by a former vice president of Peking University, lends further credence to the idea that capture of academics is part of the reason for donations to foreign universities. The article states that “companies that are expanding their business empires abroad have more incentive to donate to international educational institutions … [including] for government relations and business connections” (EFN, September 25, 2014).

It seems clear that the US, the UK, and other countries in the West must remedy the current lack of coordination between government, business, and academia, to avoid the deleterious effects of malign influence by Chinese actors within academic institutions. Increased transparency and scrutiny is a good place to start. Meanwhile, academics should be given further protection as required. Finally, further research remains to be done to ascertain the extent of such influence, and the developing of strategies to manage it.

Arran Hope is a contributor to The China Project and a graduate of Columbia University’s Chinese Studies program.


Taiwan’s China-Friendly Offshore Island Flirts with Demilitarization

Representing the lasting legacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang’s (KMT) civil war, Taiwan’s offshore Kinmen Islands are only 2.5 miles apart from Mainland China. If China were to invade Taiwan, Kinmen would likely be on the frontline of the conflict. Similar to Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea, many security analysts fear the possibility of China annexing Kinmen as a way to “salami-slice” its broader takeover of Taiwan without triggering a strong military response from the US.

Due to its close geographic proximity and economic ties to China, Kinmen is highly susceptible to PRC political influence operations. On a daily basis, Kinmen locals can see the futuristic skyline of Xiamen, a highly developed Chinese coastal city that serves as a powerful propaganda tool. Xiamen represents the wealth and security the CCP promises Kinmen locals if Taiwan were to be incorporated into the mainland. On the Xiamen side of the strait—intended for every Taiwanese passerby to see—lies a massive sign with the PRC’s propaganda slogan “一国两制,统一中国” (“One Country Two Systems, Unify China”) in red Chinese characters.

Kinmen is highly dependent on Chinese tourism and trade, a source of revenue that has significantly declined due to the deterioration of cross-Strait relations in recent years. Many locals largely attribute the island’s economic stagnation to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As politicians in Taipei are considering the best options for bolstering Taiwan’s deterrence, officials in Kinmen—mostly KMT representatives who advocate for closer economic and cultural ties to the mainland—are deliberating over a highly controversial plan to build a bridge connecting Kinmen to Xiamen. The so-called “peace bridge” is just one part of a broader proposal to transform Kinmen into a demilitarized zone. According to the proposal, the roughly 3,000 troops stationed on the islands should be removed—serving to simultaneously de-escalate cross-Strait relations and bolster Kinmen’s economy. As one politician stated, China does not want to attack Kinmen because Chinese and Taiwanese are part of the same “family.” He advocates for the removal of Kinmen’s 3,000 troops, arguing that: “If we pose no threat, they won’t hurt us.”

While many local Kinmen officials argue that Taipei’s politics have been blocking the offshore island’s path to prosperity, critics of the proposed “de-militarization” plan contend that the bridge—along with the broader demilitarization strategy—would severely undermine Taiwan’s national security. Li Hao-lun, the chief executive of Kinmen’s local DPP office, argues that the bridge is eerily similar to the one connecting the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong to the Mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, likening the proposal to a Chinese Trojan horse.

As it stands, Kinmen represents one of the most pro-China constituencies in the Taiwanese electorate. Moving forward, Beijing will undoubtedly continue to leverage its base of support in the island to its advantage—providing incentives towards politicians who advocate for greater integration.

China-Georgia Strategic Partnership: A Shift in Georgia’s Strategic Vector?

On July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili in Chengdu, China, during Garibashvili’s visit to attend the opening ceremony of the 31st summer edition of the FISU World University Games, in which 50 Georgian students competed.

During discussions with Garibashvili, Xi announced the elevation of China-Georgia relations to a new phase of “strategic partnership,” expressing China’s willingness to advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation with Georgia and encouraging Chinese companies to invest in Georgia. Both state leaders emphasized the importance of planning their relations from a strategic and long-term perspective to ensure steady development and mutual benefit regarding their primary interests, fostering mutual respect and trust.

The Prime Minister of Georgia expressed that Tbilisi highly values its ​​friendship and partnership with Beijing and is grateful for China’s decision “to upgrade our relations to a strategic partnership” that “will bring concrete results and benefits to both sides.” The Georgian PM recalled China’s early recognition of the country’s independence in 1992, which led to the start of diplomatic relations. Garibashvili also reaffirmed Georgia’s unwavering support for the One China principle, noting that the People’s Republic of China serves as the sole legitimate Chinese government, of which Taiwan remains an integral part.

Against the backdrop of the meeting between the heads of state, Georgia’s most-watched, pro-government Imedi TV praised the visit as “historic” and noted that Georgia is an “important economic hub,” underlining China’s place as the second-largest global economy. Along with this, representatives of Georgia’s ruling party praised the occasion as “very important.” Deputy Parliament Speaker Gia Volski stated that “China is a leading economy in the world and has extraordinary resources” and that “a stable Georgia with its transit potential that originates from the ancient Silk Road is of utmost importance for China. Certainly, the prime minister’s policy is acceptable not only for the large part of our society, but for China too, because it ensures stability along this highly important corridor.”

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili’s recent speech in the European Parliament, where she advocated for “reunification with its European family” and sought EU candidate status by the end of 2023, did not receive the same level of attention and positive recognition from pro-government television stations or Georgian Dream party members. Zourabichvili was the first Georgian head of state to give a speech in the European Parliament in 13 years; apparently, this was not considered as “historic” as the strategic partnership announcement with China, according to the government-aligned media.

The newly formed strategic partnership with China, coupled with other economic initiatives—such as the inflow of flights and tourists from Russia, so that Georgia can act as a transportation hub and a conduit for circumventing sanctions—suggests a possible reevaluation of Georgia’s approach to its foreign alignment. While the country’s bid for EU membership and willingness to join NATO remains, the focus on economic and strategic partnerships with non-Western and non-democratic countries like China (and Russia, to a lesser extent) indicates a nuanced shift in Georgia’s geopolitical stance. As Tbilisi seeks to maximize its economic potential and connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative, it may be recalibrating its foreign policy to strike a balance between multiple key players in the global arena.

China Curbing Russia-Bound Drone Exports

China has taken steps to curb the flow of vital long-range drone technologies to Russia after Western nations accused Beijing of aiding in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. New export controls will take effect on August 1 to prevent drone use in a military capacity. Specifically, the controls limit drones that can fly past natural line-of-sight or can remain airborne for more than 30 minutes. Since the onset of Russia’s invasion, China has remained friendly with Russia while maintaining a neutral status in the conflict. Western governments have continuously threatened China with a slew of punishments if they supported Moscow with lethal aid that could be used to benefit the Russian army.

The threats have intensified in the wake of a report that claims China has equipped Russia with enough military gear to equip an army. These items include dual-use equipment such as bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets—that Chinese firms market as “airsoft helmets”—or other vague terms which fall outside of a direct violation of Western sanctions. As the war in Ukraine progresses, both sides are becoming more reliant on foreign aid to sustain combat operations. For Ukraine, not only has Western aid proved to be monumental in their efforts to resist Russian imperialism, but the sanctions regime that has crippled the Russian economy as well. To navigate the aggressive and harsh economic statecraft imposed on them, Russia has pivoted to other BRICS countries in general and China in particular to survive economically. As Western nations work to patch holes in their sanctions regimes and try to outmaneuver Russian efforts to circumvent them, Moscow will have an increasingly difficult time supplying its illegal invasion and maintaining its military-industrial superiority over Ukraine.