Chinese authorities viciously beat and detained a group of New York University students in Shanghai last week, leading some students to question the university's lucrative dealings with the Chinese regime.
Nine students, including six Americans, allege plainclothes Chinese police officers beat and detained them in two separate incidents. Chinese officers kicked one young man in the head and bruised a young woman as they took her into custody after approaching both at a bar. In a separate event, seven other students were taken to Chinese authorities and tested for drug use after sitting in detention for up to 16 hours.
Such abuses are not uncommon in the financial relationship between NYU and China either, as the elite university reaps millions from financial agreements with Beijing. According to publicly available financial disclosures, NYU took more than $47 million in gifts and contracts from China, including more than $2 million directly from the Chinese regime from 2014 to 2019. Some $43 million of the $47 million comes from "anonymous" sources in China, with the vast majority of anonymous money listed as gifts and not contracts.
The university did not specify the donors of such funds nor how the funds affect university decision-making and programming.
Rachelle Peterson, a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars, said the financial clout China wields in American universities influences everything from college programs to curriculum decisions.
"China has engaged in an aggressive financial campaign on American higher education, purchasing influence with multimillion-dollar gifts and contracts," Peterson said. "Often this money is given behind closed doors with secret strings attached. China sees these gifts as seed money—investments on which China can demand returns later, sometimes years after the fact. This includes wielding influence over curriculum and pushing for the denial of speaking invitations to Chinese dissidents or other personae non grata."
China's influence has real consequences. Students reacted in horror to the treatment they received from plainclothes officers.
"The guy was literally bleeding from his head from getting kicked by the police," one student told the Washington Post. "They had no translator so they had no idea what was going on…. The girl was beat up for running away from two plainclothes cops with no badge. The guy who got kicked in the face was just trying to call NYU Shanghai public safety."
A State Department spokeswoman told the Washington Free Beacon the agency is aware of the events and is prepared to step in as needed. The spokeswoman also mentioned the department has flagged several travel advisories for U.S. citizens traveling in China emphasizing the country’s "opaque" and "arbitrary" enforcement of laws.
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the spokeswoman said. "We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services in cases where U.S. citizens are detained abroad."
New York University did not return a request for comment regarding the incidents.
Bobby Miller, president of the New York University College Republicans, called on the university to divest from China.
"The NYU College Republicans are appalled but not surprised by the fact that CCP officials in China are harassing NYU Shanghai students," Miller said. "We call on the NYU administration to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident in question and reexamine NYU's presence in Shanghai to ensure the safety of the student body and divest from this authoritarian regime."
NYU’s decision-making in campus life has long favored Chinese interests. In 2019, reports revealed NYU’s Shanghai campus offered students a "civic education" course that included classes on "Mao Zedong Thought" and the history of the Chinese Communist party. Though the university said its own faculty do not teach the course, NYU Shanghai chancellor Yu Lizhong was featured as a speaker on the program’s syllabus.
China's lax enforcement of campus regulations has also harmed American students in the past. Weak sexual harassment laws on NYU Shanghai’s campus allowed one Chinese professor to continue in his position for months after American faculty reported to administrators the professor engaged in inappropriate behavior.
The university’s relationship with Beijing can also harm academic freedom. In 2013, the university booted Chinese dissident and activist Chen Guangcheng from his position. Guangcheng told the media his position was not extended due to a pressure campaign from the Chinese Communist Party. The dissident recently emerged as a popular figure after his 2020 speech at the Republican National Convention in which he applauded the Trump administration’s tough stance on China.
The same year, a report from Quartz said China could wield its visa-processing powers as a cudgel against NYU and discourage its own students from traveling to the United States.
Rachelle Peterson cited branch campuses of American universities in China as targets for additional pressure from Beijing. NYU innovated the concept of a branch campus after launching NYU Shanghai in 2012. Other elite universities, such as Duke and University of California, Berkeley, have used NYU’s model as inspiration for their own branch campuses in major technological and economic hubs in China.
Advocates for engagement with the Chinese education system discuss the benefits of cultural and economic exchange, and note China continues to grow in the global market. The exchanges, however, come with grave danger for American students and American national security. China’s industrial espionage regime has used researchers to steal sensitive American technologies at research universities, some of which possess military applications. The flow of unfettered cash across the Pacific is often tied to the Chinese military—a January Washington Free Beacon report found Chinese military-linked entities funneled at least $88 million into dozens of American universities in the last six years.
Bobby Miller said the assaults should bring about a moral reckoning for campus administrators.
"This latest episode raises serious questions about the viability of the university's relationship with the Chinese government, one of the world's worst human rights abusers and the United States' primary geopolitical adversary," Miller said.