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How China Is Influencing American Higher Ed
It's far beyond Confucius institutes
A “Chinese puzzle” in its classic version is a game where you must fit a variety of ill-assorted boxes inside other boxes. The term came to mean any intricate problem, especially one in which what looks like the way forward leads only to new obstacles.
These days, in which we are warned not to use ethnonyms for fear of giving offense, it might be safer to say something like “brainteaser.” But the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manipulate American society genuinely deserve the old term.
The news this past week adds a few curious details to those efforts. Details first; explanations to follow.
Professor Charles Lieber, former chairman of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, had been facing a possible sentence of twenty-six years in federal prison for actions related to his involvement with a CCP program. A federal jury found him guilty on all felony charges, but the prosecution oddly reduced its recommendation to ninety days. On April 26, Judge Rya W. Zobel handed down a sentence of two days in prison
According to the New York Times, at the beginning of 2022, the FBI had more than 2,000 open investigations dealing with Chinese theft of US information and technology. The Biden administration promptly shut them all down
The Department of Defense announced in March that it would grant waivers to colleges that wish to host Chinese influence operations. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibited the disbursement of federal defense dollars to all colleges that host these Chinese operations. The new rule essentially voids the law
A bill has been introduced in Congress, the “Transparency in College Foreign Payments Act,” that would require the disclosure by universities of the name of the foreign government and its agency that provides funding to and the name of specific campus recipients of this funding. The key person in the House is Congressman Jim Banks who serves on the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the US and the Chinese Communist Party
What’s going on? Let me back up several steps.
I have spent a good portion of my professional life over the last decade trying to solve the Chinese puzzle of “Confucius Institutes.” If you are new to this game, Confucius Institutes, or CIs, are an instrument of the CCP for infiltrating colleges and universities in the United States and other countries. They supposedly teach students how to speak Mandarin and introduce Chinese art and culture to curious Westerners. Outwardly CIs seem benign and innocent, but there is much more to them. They are avenues by which agents of the CCP gain access to American intellectual property, recruit American academics, propagandize American students, surveil overseas Chinese students, and assist other Chinese influence operations on and off campus. They cannot be understood in isolation from numerous other Chinese operations, including the “Thousand Talents Program” through which China paid Harvard’s Professor Lieber $50,000 per month to hand over American taxpayer-funded research.
Think of the CIs as the little red boxes designed to fit into the larger black boxes of the American college curriculum. The name “Confucius” might suggest that these boxes have something to do with the ancient Chinese philosopher, but he is merely camouflage. Confucius Institutes have as much to do with Confucius as the Washington Post has to do with George.
Progressives Want to go Back to the 1950s
The Biden administration plans a fundamental transformation of American economic policy at home and abroad. That’s the takeaway from national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s speech at the Brookings Institution last week. Initial press coverage focused on the nuances of China policy—“derisking” is in, “decoupling” is out—but to stop there is to miss the point. This was a big speech about major policy changes, and those who want to understand the direction of American policy in a second Biden term would be unwise to overlook it.
The break with post-Cold War Democratic trade and economic policy is radical. Gone are the emphases on trade liberalization, growth and market-oriented reform. Those misguided policies, in the administration’s view, are responsible for many of the ills afflicting humanity today. China’s ascent, the erosion of the American middle class, the rise of populism, climate change and financial instability are the consequences of the flawed economic policies promoted by, among others, President Bill Clinton and his Treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
So much for the old Washington consensus, as this policy mix was called in its heyday. What Mr. Sullivan proposes to take its place focuses on shaping industrial policy, protecting against China, defending American labor from foreign low-wage competition, and using tools ranging from tariffs to international financial institutions to push countries in the Global South to meet climate-change goals. Governments would do much more to direct capital toward the industries and outcomes bureaucrats and elected officials prefer.
Politically, Mr. Sullivan’s new Washington consensus reflects the convergence of three elements of Democratic politics. Labor unions hated Clinton-era trade policy, opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, the formation of the World Trade Organization and China’s admission into it. In their view, allowing developing countries to compete in American markets with low-wage labor constitutes a “race to the bottom”—something Mr. Sullivan explicitly says the new policy is designed to avoid.
Also worried about races to the bottom are climate activists and renewables lobbyists. Poor countries typically impose less-onerous environmental regulations on industry to maximize their cost advantages. Banning or penalizing products made with fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive methods would force low- and middle-income countries toward climate policies they might otherwise avoid.
For lobbyists, the administration’s approach means literally trillions of dollars in business opportunities as international trade policy drives low-income countries to adopt products and technologies the renewables lobby hawks.
Finally, many so-called progressives and democratic socialists yearn to return to the system of relatively closed and highly regulated national economies that characterized the immediate post-World War II era. The rise of integrated global financial markets and trade liberalization undermined national governments’ ability to control economic conditions inside their frontiers. Mr. Sullivan’s new consensus seeks to establish global financial rules and tax policies that would support national governments’ ability to return to the strong regulatory policies of the 1950s.
How Neoliberalism Killed the Liberal Dream
The 150th anniversary of J.S Mill’s death seems a prime opportunity to reflect on the tangled mess that liberalism has bequeathed to the 21st century. Fairweather liberals can’t decide whether to torch their dusty copies of On Liberty or dust them off when the torches inevitably come for them.
Today, neoliberalism, broadly understood as the extension of markets and market logic into ever-expanding swathes of social and political life, is everywhere misunderstood as a straightforward legacy of the liberal Enlightenment. Worse, its supposed emphasis on individual autonomy and responsibility is widely seen as a vestige of dated illusions of human reason and freedom that are now too big for humanity’s boots. Wasn’t it the silly notion that reason could light the way to freedom that lit up the ovens in the death camps? Surely, if the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that reason doesn’t need to be freed — it needs to be constrained. Far from needing to be raised up, humanity could use, so the popular prejudice goes, being knocked down a few notches.
But what critics fail to realise is that neoliberalism long ago left behind the rights-bearing human subject, one that was capable of self-reflection and worthy of autonomy and freedom. Humanity must be divested of these illusions. The real ideal is heteronomy, or a will that is relieved of responsibility and conditioned by external forces that stipulate the proper conduct of life. These ideal subjects are aware that their untrained, non-expert judgments are potentially dangerous; they thus look constantly to external rules to ensure they make the “correct” choice. And if no such rules exist, they demand them. Think, for instance, of the profound unease many felt when governments did not stipulate whether and how they might hug family members as the pandemic wound down.
If you spend too much time in academic circles, you might get the idea that neoliberalism’s supposed valorisation of freedom and autonomy is an evil that lurks behind every corner. For instance, critics of therapeutic fads like the self-esteem movement of the Nineties and recent obsessions with promoting “mindfulness”, “wellbeing” or mental health often argue that these crusades are really part of an overarching neoliberal project bent on creating ideal, self-governing subjects —autonomous, self-reliant individuals who won’t call on expensive state or employer supports. However, what is frequently left out of such analyses is the question of why it is so taken for granted that such subjects need to be created in the first place. The human capacities that had so animated the liberal Enlightenment — rationality, a capacity for self-reflection and conscious judgment — are now seen as uncharacteristic not just of women and minorities who had once been left out of it, but of the vast majority of humanity.
Indeed, flipping through the pages of newspapers and magazines, one is persistently reminded that it is humanity’s persistent lack of capacity for self-determination that supposedly underlies a host of social ills. Mindfulness gurus tell us that we spend our time on “autopilot”, going through the motions of life unthinkingly and leaving disaster in our wake. Governments have been receptive to such claims, seeing interventions that help citizens to “pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment” as the solution to myriad social issues. What is more, the fact that we are unaware of this — that we carry on thinking that we are in control of our lives, much less our inner lives, is part of the problem.
But don’t worry, the “experts” have the solution. Fund their ever-proliferating programmes. Buy their new book. Adopt their creepy brain surveillance technologies. And before long, when we give up our silly illusions of freedom, wellbeing and happiness will prevail.
At the heart of this confusion lies the fact that neoliberalism long ago dispensed with Mill’s notion of freedom as about removing barriers to human flourishing. Today’s crusades, from attacking “white privilege” to accommodating the needs of proliferating minority groups, are much more focused on protecting child-like citizens from each other. Longstanding movements for indigenous self-determination, for instance, have gradually shifted towards therapeutic obsessions with the indigenous person as a “traumatised” subject in need of extensive intervention. Even institutional defenders of free speech can’t help but reach for justifications based on protecting the weak and vulnerable.
Having jettisoned the Enlightenment subject on which so many liberal freedoms rest, it is little surprising that contemporary society finds it difficult to place freedom at the centre of social and political life. Even David Harvey’s widely referenced Marxist critique of neoliberalism struggles to wrest a powerful subject from its entanglements with neoliberal logic. He criticises neoliberal assumptions that, for example, all “agents acting in the market… have access to the same information”, as at best “utopian”. In other words, a key criticism of neoliberalism as an economic doctrine rests on its emphasis on a classical liberal subject that does not really exist. Unmasking this fiction becomes a key part of explaining why neoliberalism so often leads to ruin. It seems we can’t challenge the power of neoliberal economics without destroying the classical liberal subject along the way.
But if the Enlightenment subject, capable of reflecting on emotions and experience and rationally deciding how to live, is a myth, then freedom is not only not a goal — it’s a problem. Vulnerable subjects don’t need to be freed. They need to be protected.
The Media Dinosaurs Learn To Open Doors
On June 10, 2015, as Gawker began to lose its footing and BuzzFeed was in the last few months of its pure, unworried rise, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti traveled a mile north to the headquarters of The New York Times. He was there on a familiar, pleasant task: he was a mammal explaining to the dinosaurs how he’d evolved past them, why he was winning. He was always happy to share BuzzFeed’s secrets. It didn’t seem likely that the dinosaurs would evolve as they had in the movie Jurassic Park and learn to open doors.
Jonah turned up to address the board of directors of the Times in a hoodie, playing to type, in the gleaming fifteenth-floor conference room of a new building that many still thought the company couldn’t afford. The Times thought it needed a high-tech new space, a claim that became a bit of a joke when Snapchat took over the lease on the old building on West Forty-First Street, the one for which Times Square is named. The Times was already renting out floors to other companies to make up revenue. The man behind their slow and painfully deliberate transition to the internet, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided, along with the CEO he’d brought in to speed things up, Mark Thompson.
Jonah’s interviewer was Cliff Levy, an ambitious editor who had won two Pulitzers and returned to oversee the creation of a news app. That always made Jonah laugh — that the only way you could build a new app at the Times was if you had not one, but two, Pulitzers. They sat in raised chairs, as Levy asked Jonah about what he’d built at BuzzFeed. Do millennials really consume content differently? Levy asked. Was news just a loss leader?
Then Levy turned to Arthur. “Bear with me for a second,” he said. He asked Jonah to imagine “that you were named executive editor of the Times tomorrow.” What would be the first three things he’d do?
It was a perfect softball to the nerd king. First, Jonah said, he’d ask the board for a raise. Then he’d go into his office and shut the door. And then he’d cry.
That got the anticipated laugh. After all, everyone shared the basic assumption in the summer of 2015 that BuzzFeed was riding the rising tide, and that the Times was flailing to grab hold of the new medium. But Jonah had misread the room. They were more confident than he realized. The story of the Times would be that of how the dinosaurs had begun to learn to open doors; that newspaper, too, would shape the new internet.
Items of Interest
“Naturally, bureaucrats can be expected to embrace a technology that helps to create the illusion that decisions are not under their control. Because of its seeming intelligence and impartiality, a computer has an almost magical tendency to direct attention away from the people in charge of bureaucratic functions and toward itself, as if the computer were the true source of authority. A bureaucrat armed with a computer is the unacknowledged legislator of our age, and a terrible burden to bear.”
— Neil Postman