Testimony: American Universities Are Chess Pieces in China’s Grand Quest for Advanced Science and Technology

Yaxue Cao, founder and editor of ChinaChange.org

House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Subcommittee Hearing: Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?

June 25, 2015

(This is an abbreviation of the full testimony)


Dear members of the Subcommittee,

I’m pleased to have this opportunity to speak today about the Chinese government’s policies on joint higher education ventures, its mechanisms of controlling them, the Party’s presence in these ventures, and the regime’s severe suppression of academic freedom in Chinese universities.

Chinas national policies on joint ventures in higher education

In 2003, China first issued the Regulation on Chinese-foreign Cooperative Education (《中华人民共和国中外合作办学条例 》) to set the rules for joint-venture higher education programs. Between 2004 and 2007, China issued several follow-up regulatory documents regarding the implementation of the initial regulation.  In 2010, China promulgated the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010 – 2020) (《国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要(2010-2020年)》) . The National Plan devotes a chapter (Chapter 16) to joint higher education, which gives a more detailed, and more visionary, description of its purpose and implementation. In 2014, the Ministry of Education issued a document reviewing the joint higher education ventures over the past three years, since the promulgation of the National Plan (《教育规划纲要实施三年来中外合作办学发展情况》).

The purpose of joint ventures in higher education is to bring the best international higher education resources to China. This includes: “bringing world-class experts and scholars to China to engage in teaching, research, and management; conducting joint research with first-rate foreign universities on advanced basic research and high technology, especially in the areas of science, technology, agriculture, and medicine; and introducing educational ideas, content, teaching methods, talent training models and management expertise.”

The Regulation encourages foreign education institutions to primarily use their intellectual property as their investment in the joint venture.

When admitted into WTO in 2001, China promised to open its education sector to foreign universities, and allow “foreign majority ownership.” But China has had no intention to deliver that promise. Meanwhile, it has sought to take advantage of the best education, research, and knowledge resources from foreign institutions.

The solution to these opposed goals is to set up a joint venture with the Chinese government being the controlling party.

The Regulation stipulates that the board of these joint ventures must have a Chinese majority, and the president must be a Chinese citizen. “Courses and imported textbooks in these joint-venture programs or universities must be submitted to government review and approval organs for record.” And “the joint-venture programs and universities must provide courses about the Chinese constitution, law, citizen morality, and the current state of the country, just as similar domestic institutions are required.”

The most insidious part of the control mechanism probably lies in the finance of these joint-venture universities. It is also the least transparent part. Financial dependence on the Chinese government, even if it is partial, puts foreign universities in a vulnerable position where they may feel the need to conform to China’s expectations, not only on the joint-venture campuses, but also on home campuses.

According to the Ministry of Education, the near 2,000 joint-venture programs in China focus on advanced manufacturing, modern agriculture, and modern service sectors. And China wants more talent in the fields of energy, mining, environmental protection, and finance. Of the near 2,000 programs, 37% are engineering, while literature, history, and law are less than 2% each.

Recent developments show that China’s quest for advanced knowledge and technology is coming to this country. Just a few days ago, newspapers reported the launch of a technology institution called the “Global Innovation Exchange Institute” in Seattle, a joint venture of China’s elite university Tsinghua University, the University of Washington, and Microsoft, that focuses on technology and design innovation in the areas of the Internet of things, intelligent cities, mobile healthcare, and clean energy. U.S. media reported that Microsoft was the investor, but in the Chinese press it was described as “an important step and a milestone of Tsinghua University’s international strategic deployment.”

Two other recent reports in Chinese newspapers indicate that China is seeking investment in the research triangle of in North Carolina. In an innovation forum at the University of Maryland, a Chinese official expressed the desire to build the first innovation incubation platform on the East Coast, with Chinese investment and research expertise from American universities.

Another component of China’s strategy is theft. Reports on this abound. For example in May, Penn State University disclosed that its engineering school had been invaded by Chinese hackers for more than two years. Penn State develops sensitive technology for the U.S. Navy.

China’s intentions in the world of higher education were made clear in two instances involving UC Berkeley. In November 2014, Peking University gave the President of UC Berkeley an honorary professorship, and expressed interest in “cooperation” on big data processing, a new and important computing technology with wide application. In February 2015, WSJ reported the forced closure of a labor center in Guangzhou jointly established by UC Berkeley, and Sun Yat-sen University, as part of the systematic suppression of rights activities and civil society.

The presence of the Communist Party in joint-venture programs

CCP presence in Chinese universities is thorough, from top leadership down to student cells. Reports in Chinese press confirm the CCP presence on joint venture campuses as well. From the Ministry of Education’s review in 2014, I quote: “Joint-venture universities have established Party committees so that there would be the Party’s work wherever the masses are, and there would be a Party organization wherever there are Party members, achieving the Party’s no-blind-spot coverage on a grassroots level. Some universities have also established overseas Party cells  to ensure that the Party’s work remains synchronized with its work at home when students….study abroad.”

Academic freedom pummeled at Chinese universities

In China’s current political system there has never been academic freedom as understood by Americans, though the level of repression has fluctuated. Much has been written about the Chinese Communist Party’s Document No. 9, issued in the spring of 2013, which prohibits Chinese universities from teaching ideas about constitutional governance, universal values, free press, civil society, and the rule of law. This edict is shutting down what little academic freedom was enjoyed before. Articles, such as a recent piece in the Christian Science Monitor, have reported that professors were fired, or pressured to quit their jobs, for espousing liberal ideas and teaching them in the classroom; Party officials cut or constrained trips to academic conferences; student reading lists were vetted for ideological content. A media professor told the paper that, “There are topics I know that as soon as they are mentioned in my classes, I would be sacked immediately.”

For the record, I would like to quote a social media post of the well-known law professor He Weifang (贺卫方) at Peking University from last December. The post was later deleted by China’s Internet censors, but I was able to read a preserved copy and have confirmed its authenticity:

【Universities are as silent as the winter cicadas】 When lecturing, it is like walking on thin ice because there are surveillance cameras overhead. Gingerly we conduct research. We are not supposed to write papers on constitutional democracy; even if we do, there is no place to publish them. To take part in an international conference, we have to file a request with the authorities one year in advance, and the request would be denied if it is deemed even slightly sensitive (there are no transparent criteria for what is sensitive). Many on-campus academic lectures must be approved by the propaganda department of the university’s CCP Committee. It’s a mystery which faculty members are on the “black list.” They have been incessantly talking about making Chinese universities world-class universities. How do they do that?


Over the past three decades, China has benefited from an unprecedented transfer of knowledge and know-how from Western countries, much of it through joint ventures and through theft of intellectual properties. Many such relationships have soured in recent years, and the trend is likely to deepen. Now, the Chinese government is attempting to duplicate its successes in the business realm and apply them to the world of higher education. Its aim is to extract the knowledge and expertise from the world’s most prestigious and successful research institutions, all the while pursuing a political agenda that tramples on the very principles that set the human mind free and that are the basis of higher education as we know it.

I have no problem with free exchange of knowledge and technology. But I have a problem with freely providing knowledge and technology to the communist regime in China, which has no other effect than to strengthen it and its grip on power. I have a problem with our institutions of higher education looking the other way as terrible human rights violations take place in the country.

The US-China relationship for the last 30 years has operated on the premise that the US should engage with China, help her grow economically, and that economic development will lead to the Chinese Communist Party’s embracing human rights and democratic values. Instead, today we have a monstrous combination of state capitalism, the kleptocratic marriage of power and money, and broader and harsher suppression of the Chinese people’s legitimate demands for political and civil rights. Internationally, we are witnessing an increasingly aggressive China, a rising threat to the global peace and security, and a challenge to the existing world order.

One can argue about all the defects of the current order, but I assure you with absolute certainty that you do not want a global regime set up and dominated by the Chinese Communist Party.

The CCP has mastered the game of taking advantage of a free society like ours. It is sad to see how easily our universities can fall prey to the Party’s scheme. It is my wish that American universities are able to see the full picture, where they fit into it and what end they are serving when becoming a business partner with the Chinese government.




Innocent Abroad? Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies, by Jim Sleeper. Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of the Carnegie Council, summer issue, 2015.

A 6,000-word assessment of American universities’ joint ventures with regimes in Singapore, China, the Emirates, and elsewhere, accompanied by an audio interview with the author.

Testimony of Jeffrey S. Lehman, Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, June 25, 2015.

New York University Shanghai: What Is the Deal? by Yaxue Cao, February 5, 2015.

Testimonies in the first of the series of hearings (more to come): Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on American Universities? December 4, 2014. Prof. Perry Link; Prof. Cushman; Prof. Xia Yeliang.


(According to the Subcommittee Chair, most of the university administrators called upon to testify have declined to do so; President Sexton of NYU was given 16 dates to choose from, but has evaded the hearing so far.)


One response to “Testimony: American Universities Are Chess Pieces in China’s Grand Quest for Advanced Science and Technology”

  1. Yaxue Cao says:

    Mirta M. Martin, Ph.D., President of Fort Hays State University of Kansas, testified, “Tiananmen Square is the only topic our faculty have chosen to avoid…but because it is believed to be too sensitive in China…While we stay away from hot-button topics like Tibet or Taiwan, we do include topics such as the environment, especially pollution and the government’s role in addressing the problem.”

    Read Dr. Martin’s testimony:

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