China Ties Raise Questions for Biden's Pick for Top Defense Post

Colin Kahl works at a research center partnered with China's Peking University

Colin Kahl
Colin Kahl / Getty Images
January 18, 2021

Joe Biden's pick for a top Pentagon post works at a research center partnered with China's Peking University, a school that has long been eyed as a security risk by western intelligence.

Colin Kahl, whom Biden tapped for undersecretary of defense for policy, has served as a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University since the beginning of 2018. The institute oversees the Stanford Center at Peking University in northern Beijing, which opened in 2012.

Peking University, which is run by former Beijing spy chief Qiu Shuiping and has been linked to multiple espionage cases in the United States, recently updated its charter to require loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, according to an NPR report. The school has also been ramping up its student and faculty surveillance system in what China watchers see as part of the government's broader crackdown on independent scholarship.

Kahl is not the first Biden nominee whose employer has business entanglements in China. Biden's pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, cofounded the consulting firm WestExec, which helped U.S. universities raise money from China without running afoul of Pentagon grant requirements, the Washington Free Beacon reported last month. WestExec scrubbed the details of this work from its website over the summer.

The association could be an obstacle for Kahl, who will need Senate confirmation. Congressional Republicans and federal law-enforcement agencies have expressed growing concerns about China's attempts to influence American academics through university partnerships and donations. Last year, the Department of Justice charged at least 17 academics affiliated with U.S. universities with secretly working for China, including one medical researcher at Stanford University.

"China has made a no holds barred effort to compromise China scholars," said Steven Mosher, a China expert and human-rights advocate.

Kahl, a longtime Biden national-security adviser and DJ, was closely involved in crafting the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal and reportedly played a key role in removing language identifying Jerusalem as Israel's capital from the 2012 Democratic National Convention platform.

Kahl has slammed the Trump administration's Asia policy as a "train wreck," accusing President Trump in a tweet of "falling in love with autocrats in NKorea & China" and "ignoring human rights in Hong Kong."

Kahl argued that Trump's financial ties to China made him vulnerable to pressure, tweeting last year that "the next time Trump breathes one word about Biden and China, remember this: Trump is up to his eyeballs in debt to the Bank of China … and the loan is due soon."

He also objected to the supposedly entrenched "view among elites in Washington" that the United States and China are locked in a "zero-sum showdown and should move to more rapidly 'decouple' their economies" in an article he coauthored at War on the Rocks last spring. He argued for further scientific collaboration between the countries in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Such sentiments could frustrate responses to this virus and future public health challenges by driving the two scientific communities apart when they should be working together to develop treatments and vaccines," the article states.

Kahl and his employer, the Freeman Spogli Institute, do not appear to have weighed in on alleged human-rights violations at Peking University during his time at the institute.

Scholars at Risk, an organization that monitors academic freedom on campuses around the world, reports that since 2018 there have been at least 10 attacks on academic freedom at Peking University, with professors facing dismissal for being critical of the government and multiple campus labor activists being detained by police.

He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, said faculty members are required to have lecture plans and conference presentations approved by the Communist Party Committee and that classrooms are monitored by cameras and facial-recognition software, according to a Scholars at Risk report.

Scholars at Risk did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Stanford University declined to comment on whether the Freeman Spogli Institute has received funding from China, and the Freeman Spogli Institute did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Education is currently investigating Stanford for failing to report the sources of over $67 million in donations from China since the Peking institute opened in 2012, a department spokesperson confirmed to the Free Beacon.

Kahl's work with the Freeman Spogli Institute has caught the attention of some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"The closer you are to Biden world the more likely it is that you ended up in a ChiCom orbit," one GOP official told the Free Beacon.

Coit Blacker, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, said his employer agreed to open its Beijing outpost after receiving "an intriguing offer from the leadership" at Peking University in 2007, according to the Stanford Daily. "The way things work in China is nothing like this comes about accidentally," he added, suggesting that the proposal emerged from upper levels of the Chinese government.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a national-security think tank founded by the Australian government, has warned of a "high risk" for groups partnering with Peking University, because of its collaborations with the Chinese military.

"Peking University (PKU) is designated high risk for its involvement in defence research and links to China’s nuclear weapons program," the think tank said on its China Defence Universities Tracker site, noting that the school hosts at least four major defense laboratories.

The FBI recently homed in on Peking University as a potential recruitment ground for Chinese intelligence, according to NPR, which reported that at least five students were interviewed by federal agents after returning to the United States in the past few years. Last summer, a former George Washington University student pleaded guilty to spying on the United States for China while working as a researcher at Peking University. In 2010, a chemistry professor at the university was convicted of stealing trade secrets from DuPont Chemicals. When Harvard chemist Charles Lieber was indicted last year for failing to disclose his China funding, he was barred from having any contact with individuals at Peking University as part of the terms of his bail release.

In a letter to Stanford last August, the Department of Education questioned whether undisclosed Chinese funding to the school was linked to the Peking University center run by the Freeman Spogli Institute.

"As Stanford must know, Peking University is directly controlled by Chinese Communist Party officials and recently even amended its charter to reinforce its long-standing role as a tool of the Chinese communists," wrote the department.

The letter noted that the Stanford Center at Peking University's website "features a full-page banner image of Stanford students and faculty posing in front of a [People's Republic of China] monument commemorating the 'front of the old railroad tracks in Dandong, Liaoning province, that helped transport Chinese troops into North Korea during the Korean War.'"

The department added that the banner was a "particularly bizarre (and extremely indecorous) image for Stanford to highlight," considering that over 30,000 U.S. troops were killed in the war.

Mosher, the human-rights advocate who was ousted from Stanford's Ph.D. program in the 1980s—which he attributes to Chinese pressure on the university—said there is "no academic freedom" at Peking University today.

"For Stanford to be there, it in effect endorses what the Chinese government is doing, by default," he said. "[That Stanford] tolerates these kinds of things sends a signal to the Chinese people that maybe America isn't the bastion of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry that [they] thought it was."

A prominent American sinology professor, who asked that his name not be used so that he could speak freely, said the Stanford Center at Peking University is "not a place that people take seriously" in terms of academic rigor.

"There is no intellectual freedom at Peking University. … In that sense, it isn't really a university," he said. "They have silenced people, they have fired tenured professors, people have disappeared from there, the students are under close watch."

"I think Stanford has made a terrible mistake," he added.