How China Used a Prominent HBCU to Spin Its Pandemic Response

Chinese propaganda network funds Morgan State paper slamming U.S. response to COVID

Chinese police officers stand in formation just before three minutes of silence to mark the national day of mourning for COVID-19 in Beijing / Getty Images
May 8, 2023

The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine recently tapped a prominent historically black university with ties to Vice President Kamala Harris to spin Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a think tank in the Chinese government’s foreign influence network, sponsored a report from students at Morgan State University that analyzed China and America’s handling of the pandemic, according to Justice Department filings. The report is filled with analysis that treats the Chinese and American responses to coronavirus as equal, ignoring growing evidence that Beijing has lied about the virus leaking from a lab in Wuhan.

The 97-page report credits the Chinese Communist Party’s centralized political system with allowing the quick dissemination of foreign aid, in contrast to America's system which "[weakened] the stability of public health aid." It says the Wuhan lab theory is a "long-lasting anti-China narrative hyped by some think tanks, media, and online communities in the U.S." The report asserts that former president Donald Trump "ruined" the reputation of the United States and laments that rhetoric about the virus has caused anti-Asian bias.

Morgan State, located just an hour from the nation's capital in Baltimore, Maryland, is led by David Wilson, who last month accompanied Vice President Kamala Harris on her trip to Ghana. Wilson met with National Security adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss national security issues in February. The report was released late last year, but details of how it came together were disclosed in foreign agent filings with the Justice Department last week.

The collaboration between the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation and Morgan State, which as a leading HBCU is the recipient of massive amounts of taxpayer funds, is a major cause for concern, according to one China watcher.

"The China-U.S. Exchange Foundation isn't a mysterious organization," says Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. "It's a known entity in the policy and academic communities at this point, and it's pretty difficult to claim ignorance of the group's ties to the Chinese Communist Party. It's a united front group that infiltrates U.S. higher education to shape the way American students view China."

American officials, including CIA director William Burns, have identified the foundation as a key weapon in China’s campaign to influence American foreign policy towards Beijing.

"If Morgan State University truly cares about the education of its students, its leaders should sever its partnership with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation immediately," Sobolik told the Washington Free Beacon.

The China-U.S. Exchange Foundation’s relationship with Morgan State has been managed by Wilson Global Communications, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. Wilson Global, which is registered as a foreign agent of the foundation, has hosted student trips for HBCU students to China and organized events with Congressional Black Caucus leaders to beef up U.S.-China ties.

According to Wilson Global’s foreign agent filings last week, the firm managed the Morgan State report with frequent contacts with Morgan State students and faculty members involved in the project.

David Wilson, the Morgan State president, has been a key link between HBCUs and the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation. Foreign agent disclosures show Wilson (who doesn’t appear to have any affiliation with Wilson Global) has repeatedly met with officials from China’s Confucius Institutes and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to discuss opportunities for Chinese students to attend HBCUs, a potentially lucrative opportunity given the higher tuition rates paid by international students.

Wilson wrote after a meeting with the organizations in 2019 that "our discussion unfolded around ways that HBCUs can become more attractive institutions to Chinese students seeking to study within the United States," according to emails released in foreign agent filings in 2019.

Wilson also spoke with the groups about their concerns that the U.S. government was blocking visas for Chinese students. Wilson said he understood "the negative impact on U.S. higher education if we lose a significant number of Chinese students" and said the issue would be addressed by the State Department.

American officials say that both the Confucius Institutes and Chinese People’s Association carry out "malign influence" activities on behalf of the Chinese government.

Like much of China’s propaganda, it is unclear how much impact it had on perception of how China handled the virus.

The report preaches cooperation between the United States and China, saying the superpowers "should work together rather than compete and point fingers at one another," echoing a common theme from other Chinese propagandists.

The report attributes theories that the virus came from a Chinese science lab to "the long-lasting anti-China narrative hyped by some think tanks, media, and online communities in the U.S."

"As emerging new research indicates, the increasing racism and xenophobia associated with the Coronavirus pandemic exacerbate existing patterns of discrimination and inequity."

The report takes repeated shots at Trump, saying the administration’s public health aid "was terrible." It alleges that Trump’s "stigmatization of China" by referring to the virus as the "Wuhan virus" and "Chinese virus" "escalated the conflicts between the two nations."

The report praises "the Communist Party of China’s leadership" for allowing China to easily initiate foreign aid programs. Compared to the United States’ political system, where "the unwillingness of presidents, Congress, or the electorate can impede the aid, weakening the stability of public health aid."

"China’s quick and generous aid sharply contrasted with Trump’s anti-multilateralism and exclusionary discourses."

Morgan State and Wilson Global did not respond to requests for comment.