Education

Five principles universities should follow in dealing with authoritarian regimes (opinion)

Vera Zhou is a student at the University of Washington. During what was to have been a one-week trip to visit her father in Xinjiang, China, in 2017, she was arrested for using a virtual private network to access her homework online. She was interrogated all night, placed in a remote “re-education” prison for six months and kept under house arrest for another 18 months.

Zhou’s terrified mother, a U.S. citizen and resident of Washington, worked with human rights advocates and the U.S. Department of State to secure her release. With courage and persistence, Zhou has resumed her studies at the university, but her full story reveals continuing scars and troubling details.

The University of Washington had no desire to see any harm befall Zhou or, surely, any of its students. Nobody doubts that. But for the last decade, the Chinese Communist Party has pursued an intentional practice of crafting relationships with influential institutions like the university, particularly where they are on the cutting edge of engineering or located adjacent to technology development hubs — as UW certainly is.

This results in some strange but now common situations. For example, Zhou’s captors had a collaborative and financial relationship with the university where she was enrolled. The University of Washington hosted a Confucius Institute, a program of the Chinese government. It also had a joint degree program with Tsinghua University, an elite Beijing university with particularly close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. At a more practical level, UW’s public disclosures show a series of 12 gifts in 2018 and 2019 from Huawei Technologies, Co. Ltd. and Futurewei, an affiliate, for a total of almost $5 million.

In late 2020, then U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo suggested that the University of Washington could have been more helpful in working with the State Department to convince the Chinese Communist Party to free Zhou. For its part, the university said that wasn’t true. We won’t try to judge that matter, but the very existence of a relationship between a free university and a violent authoritarian regime is deeply troubling. Zhou’s story shines a light on it because she was imprisoned in a system of camps now globally condemned as genocidal while her university took money from a company now known to have developed technology that supported those camps by using facial recognition to identify people like Zhou based on their ethnicity.

This problem isn’t just about the University of Washington, it’s not just about American universities and it’s not just about China.

According to public reporting made available through the U.S. Department of Education, major American universities like the University of Washington regularly receive millions of dollars in gifts from foreign donors as well as contracts to conduct research for foreign government agencies and corporations. For example, the department’s investigations revealed contracts between some of our top universities and multiple countries with interests adverse to those of the United States. They include two Russian labs connected to government-sponsored cybercrimes, the government of Qatar and its proxies, Saudi Arabia, and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Those issues and more were discussed at a symposium sponsored by the Department of Education in October 2020. The symposium traced the impact of foreign funding of American universities. A joint letter to university presidents signed by Pompeo and former U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos also reviewed the broader problems of foreign influence in American higher education.

Of course, colleges and universities like the University of Washington are elite research institutions, and they rightly collaborate with their global peers. Such international research relationships are key elements of great universities; they must continue. Yet at times, American institutions have inadvertently facilitated atrocities — for example, providing valuable intellectual property used to effect ethnic repression in Xinjiang. The Department of Education’s investigation also showed that at least one American university lab was paid to conduct crowd-surveillance research for a supplier to the Chinese government. Repressive regimes have learned that they can buy technological breakthroughs from American universities by just writing a check. Too often this has happened on a no-questions-asked basis and without proper public disclosure.

So how can universities in the United States collaborate freely across borders while keeping their students, their intellectual property and their academic freedom safe from harm?

This is not just an American question. In 2017, Cambridge University Press censored its catalog for users in China, stating that if it did not take this step, the Chinese government could block the whole catalog. After widespread outcry in the academic community, the press reversed its position. Tellingly, China did not follow through on its threat to block the catalog, demonstrating that universities and free intellectual enterprises can still be powerful, even when pitted against authoritarian governments.

Instances like that have led to the beginnings of a global response. Universities UK published guidance on guarding against hostile foreign interference; in late 2019, an Australian University Foreign Interference Task Force did the same. Organizations in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have done similar work, and other global scholars have deeply considered the problem in their own countries. McMaster, a leading Canadian university, has responded to authoritarian attempts to suppress free speech on its own campus, and Oxford University recently put in place measures to protect its students from the effects of China’s new National Security Law. None of those efforts alone is adequate to the threat, but each represents important work that must continue for the long run.

As for American higher education, we propose that any path forward should prioritize five important principles.

  • Safety. Authoritarian regimes always want to silence their critics, and money is a handy tool for that purpose. The prospect of just one more gift or contract dangled before a university provides a continual point of leverage, and that simple tactic can allow any repressive regime to take its intimidation global. Universities must consider the potential impact of all relationships, contracts and gifts and commit to never allowing money to endanger members of their community.
  • Freedom. We must protect academic freedom with the clear-eyed recognition that it is a counterintuitive principle to many people and that several very powerful governments actively oppose it. This is why the work of free universities has never been more important. We must resolutely defend students and professors alike who have the courage to address controversial topics — and particularly those who shine a light upon the malign actions of repressive regimes.
  • Security. We must protect intellectual property from acquisition by regimes that would use it for improper economic advantage or for repressive ends. Too much advanced technology has already found its way into the hands of repressive regimes, and as scholars make further breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other powerful technologies, the imperative grows to keep authoritarian regimes out of university laboratories. American universities must lead the world in security and risk management practices. Much good work has begun, but we have a long way to go.
  • Transparency. We must commit to transparency when it comes to foreign relationships in our universities. Transparency will do no harm to productive collaborations between global scholars, and we see no evidence that it deters the kind of no-strings-attached funding that universities should insist upon. Transparency probably does deter contracts with authoritarian regimes, as well it should.
  • Reciprocity. Reciprocity should be the litmus test for the appropriateness of any relationship. Is this a truly open exchange with the partner institution? Can our scholars investigate any matter whatsoever in their country just as their scholars can here? Is the partner’s commitment to academic freedom as robust and clear as ours?

For the world’s great research institutions, the unequivocal answer to these questions must be yes. If the answer is anything else, we should pause and question what the relationship is for. And that, in turn, should cause us to consider our great, free universities and ask, “What, really, are they for?”


Inside Higher Ed reached out to the University of Washington, which had the following comment: The University of Washington has been deeply concerned for Vera’s safety and well-being throughout her ordeal, and was relieved to hear of her safe return. We cannot even begin to imagine the turmoil this has caused in the lives of Vera, her mother and other loved ones. However, the notion that the UW did not act on Vera’s behalf is completely untrue, and the insinuation that the University allowed financial interests of any kind to interfere with its handling of this situation is outrageous.

The issues at hand rested directly with the Trump administration, not the UW, though we endeavored to provide Vera support regardless of the circumstances. Under the Trump administration, the State Department refused to act when called upon by the UW, and the Department of Education’s billing servicer was unwilling to make changes to Vera’s loan, despite being provided information about her extraordinary circumstances. We have continued to support Vera since her return to the U.S., and we can confirm that as of this quarter, Vera is again enrolled at the UW.

In addition, the UW — like many other research universities around the world — values international collaborations where they further science in the best interest of the global community. Scientific integrity in international collaboration is emphasized as part of our required internal continuing education in grants management for our investigators, and all proposed agreements between the university and entities in certain countries of concern are assessed for risk before a decision is made regarding approval.

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