Organizations Linked to Chinese Military Are a Cash Cow for American Colleges

Universities received $88 million from CCP entities behind cyber attacks and espionage

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January 11, 2021

Chinese military-linked entities, including those behind extensive cyber attacks and espionage, funneled at least $88 million into U.S. universities over the course of six years, according to a Washington Free Beacon review of federal records.

Some of America's most prestigious universities have cashed lucrative checks from Chinese institutions that directly threatened national security. Duke University operates a joint-campus in China with Wuhan University, a public university that repeatedly carried out cyber attacks on behalf of the Chinese military. Northwestern University and the University of California Irvine have together received more than $4 million in research funding from an entity controlled by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, a Chinese defense contractor that used stolen designs of American F-35 fighters to build planes for the Chinese military.

Institutions controlled by the Chinese government—state-owned enterprises, state-controlled public universities, government-controlled nonprofits, and other sources—collectively donated at least $315 million to American colleges between 2014 and 2019. More than a quarter of the contributions—27 percent—came from either state-owned defense contractors or public universities that closely partner with the Chinese military to conduct defense research.

The expenditures indicate that the Chinese government is a much bigger player in U.S. academia than previously thought. State-backed entities often avoid scrutiny as their government ties are not immediately obvious. The $315 million sum, based on federal disclosures, is likely a conservative estimate of Chinese influence peddling on campus. A Department of Education audit found that U.S. universities failed to disclose more than $6.5 billion in foreign funding from China and other countries in recent years.

Ian Easton, the senior director for the Project 2049 Institute think tank, said that the Chinese donations to American universities could pose a grave threat to national security.

"It is imperative that the U.S. government dams up the torrent of CCP-linked money currently flowing into our education system. For U.S. national security, the implications of a continuation of the current arrangement are grave," Easton told the Free Beacon. 

The Free Beacon combed through nearly 1,000 Chinese donations to U.S. universities logged in a Department of Education database, reviewing each donor to see whether it is formally owned or controlled by the Chinese government. The review found that 198 separate Chinese government entities funneled money to dozens of U.S. universities.

The biggest regime-backed donors were Chinese universities, which collectively donated more than $192 million to U.S. colleges. These donations funded a wide variety of projects, but more than 40 percent of the money came from institutions that have been identified as close research partners of the Chinese military by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's China Defense Universities Tracker.

Some U.S. universities received research funding from a Chinese university with a history of stealing U.S. research. The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign collectively received more than $28 million from Zhejiang University. In 2013, the FBI charged a Chinese researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin for stealing U.S. cancer research to pass onto Zhejiang University.

None of the universities responded to requests for comment about their dealings with China.

Easton said that the Chinese military could easily exploit state-owned institutions to illicitly acquire American research knowledge. "The CCP's armed-wing, the People's Liberation Army, has access to any and all information collected by Chinese entities at American universities," he said. "Xi Jinping's military-civil fusion strategy has removed even the thin cloak of plausible deniability Chinese companies and other civilian organizations previously could hide behind."

Several Chinese donors are also placed on various U.S. government ban lists. The University of Michigan has received $1.3 million from Harbin Engineering University, an institution that the Treasury Department included on its ban list in 2020.

Zack Cooper, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute, cautioned against considering all Chinese donations as nefarious, since the dataset provides few details on what the money is going toward. He said that while some donors likely do want to acquire U.S. technologies for military purposes, others are likely motivated by more innocuous reasons.

"I'm sure there are some cases in which some of this money is going toward research that would be useful from a military or strategic standpoint. But also, I'm sure there's a lot that is just sort of public relations outreach," Cooper said. "A lot of companies, globally, give money to many different causes."

U.S. policymakers in recent years have started to crack down on Chinese government attempts to gain clout in U.S. universities. In 2020, the FBI arrested several American researchers, including the chair of Harvard University's chemistry department, for concealing their research funding from the Chinese government-backed Thousand Talents Program. Congress also recently passed a bill to rein in the influence of the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute.

"Americans must know how the CCP is poisoning the well of our higher education for its own ends, and how those actions degrade our freedoms and our national security," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a December speech. "If we don't educate ourselves, we'll get schooled by Beijing."