China’s Communist Party has been accused of using international students and universities as political tools to spread ideology around the world.
‘Political branches’ on university campuses outside China, censorship of course content and using students to investigate academic research are raising alarm bells regarding academic and individual freedom.
Chinese students make up the largest international student market, meaning their cultural influence on the academic community could change the global education environment.
‘Political branches’ or cells are reportedly being used in universities to prevent students from being influenced by ‘bad ideas’ that contradict the party’s ideology and to keep tabs on what they are doing, saying and even thinking, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).
The groups have meetings and discussions to encourage Chinese students to remain patriotic to China and stay informed about President Xi Jinping’s ideologies.
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Last year, seven Chinese students at the University of Science and Technology in Dalian set up a Communist Party branch which held discussion meetings around the theme “combating various kinds of negative influences on our thinking while overseas”, reported RFA.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as campuses in Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota and West Virginia also have political branches.
“When you leave [China], the environment is different, and one will inevitably come into contact with all manner of bad ideas,” Shao Shunling, business school lecturer and secretary of Yiwu College’s temporary party branch in New Zealand, said on the college’s website.
“After we went back to China, we had one-on-one meetings with our teachers. We talked about ourselves and others’ performance abroad,” an international student told Foreign Policy.
“We had to talk about whether other students had some anti-party thought.”
Ideological control is concerning global academics who are worried about China’s potential impact on academic freedom, as the Communist Party’s influence spreads through international students studying abroad, according to the Times Higher Education (THE).
University can be a time of academic collaboration and intellectual pursuit, but if the Communist Party maintains control over what is taught and discussed on campuses, academic freedom could be severely limited.
China already maintains strict control over international university campuses within the country and there are fears it will start doing the same around the world, William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told THE.
Reports of students being questioned by their teachers about any ‘anti-party thought’ upon returning to China shows it is not only content material being censored but also how people interpret this material, according to Foreign Policy.
China is also reportedly using its international students to find out about academic research going on around the world. This poses a significant security risk to countries such as the US which is in a technological arms race with China, according to The Washington Post.
Michelle Van Cleave, a former counterintelligence official for the US, told The Washington Post: “It’s not just that there are a lot of Chinese nationals working in American companies or laboratories, or studying or teaching at American universities, picking up whatever happens to come their way.
“No. As the Defense Department has reported, China has a government-directed, multifaceted secret program whose primary task is technology acquisition.”
Not all Chinese students are being used as spies or ideology upholders when studying abroad. In fact, some Chinese students in the US, Australia and UK are protesting against President Xi’s indefinite rule.
Although these students know they risk punishment upon returning to China, they believe they must exercise the freedom of speech while outside the Communist Party’s rule.