Higher education, one of Massachusetts’ main industries, is being adversely affected by the looming conflicts between China and the West. Exacerbated by the recent Taiwan tensions and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationalism, the problem has been growing for at least a decade and relates to issues linked by the theft of intellectual property, an over-reliance on international students from China to fill local classrooms and labs, and an occasional lack of transparency in academic relations with China. Two examples illustrate the situation.
In 2021, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, Charles S. Lieber, was convicted on a number of charges relating to undisclosed ties to Chinese universities. Simultaneously, MIT engineering professor Gang Chen had charges of hiding affiliations with China in US federal grant applications dismissed by the Justice Department for lack of evidence.
Local academic and scientific relations with China run deep and have greatly benefited the academic community. Massachusetts hosts 66,000 international students, who contribute more than $2.4 billion to the local economy, and 7,600 international scholars, who staff countless labs. About one-third of these international students are from China. Grants and contracts from China to local academic institutions run to many millions of dollars.
But these links to China are increasingly under threat — and will be curtailed. The recently passed CHIPS Act, which will funnel $280 billion into the US technology sector, has an openly anti-Chinese focus. Collaboration with China will be banned from the $52 billion research allocation for semiconductor research and production, much of which will go to US universities, including a significant amount to Massachusetts universities and tech companies. Due in part to federal government pressure and an increasing understanding in the academic community of intellectual property theft — the FBI estimates that these thefts cost the US economy $600 billion annually and at least 30 multinational companies were reportedly targeted — professors and students with links to China have been under increased scrutiny by the FBI for some time. And the scrutiny will increase.
Of great importance is the mainland’s “takeover” of Hong Kong, in violation of China’s “one country, two systems” commitment, which was unsurprisingly strongly criticized in Taiwan. Many now consider China’s multibillion dollar “Belt and Road” initiative as a kind of new neocolonialism, linking partner countries to China through huge debt and questionable infrastructure projects. China’s draconian and, in the long run, unsustainable COVID-19 policies have created problems for the economy, the global supply chain, and for China’s population. Those issues, among others, have resonated on American campuses as well, for example in the closing of almost all of the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes at US universities following pressure by the State Department. In 2020, it designated these centers “as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China.” Some are now reportedly due to reopen under a new name.
Mainland Chinese public opinion, if one can gauge this by social media, has appeared to move in a nationalist direction — with many demanding an invasion of Taiwan. Even the government’s ever-efficient censors have had to tamp down the internet. On Chinese campuses, students regularly report professors who seem too liberal. Universities have been significantly affected, with increased surveillance, limitations on access to information from abroad, and tighter control by party authorities. Thus, the “decoupling” of China and the West is playing itself out both on US campuses and in China itself.
The impact on both Chinese and American universities will be significant — but likely more so for China. Its academic progress has been impressive and the quality of its top universities is world-class, yet research and especially the culture of innovation lags behind Western institutions. A decrease of academic contacts will be detrimental. Chinese students will have fewer opportunities for overseas study, and the number of Western scholars and researchers willing to work in China will decrease. Now, with an increased emphasis on courses on political orthodoxy and greatly expanded external control, the atmosphere in Chinese academe will inevitably change.
All of this will affect local universities, the research community, and companies. Decoupling from China, which at least in the medium term is inevitable, while short of a crisis, is significant — and detrimental to all sides.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at Boston College.