The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s influence activities at American universities have received considerable scrutiny from the US government, Congress, and media over the past several years. Many of them operate under the auspices of its united front, a loose network of entities for which there is no American equivalent.1 The united front is a Leninist concept the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted from the Soviet Union in the earliest phase of the party’s development. United front activities “control, mobilize, and otherwise make use of individuals outside the party to achieve its objectives . . . domestically and internationally.”2 In recent years, General Secretary Xi Jinping has reinvigorated the united front, drawn it more tightly under his control, and directed it to serve an ambitious agenda to project Chinese power globally and undermine liberal democratic norms.
China’s influence activities are part of the country’s subnational united front agenda, which targets not only universities but also state and local governments, private businesses, and civic organizations, in line with Mao Zedong’s directive to “target local entities in order to weaken the national core.” Some of China’s united front efforts, including Confucius Institutes and Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, have experienced declines and exposure. This is not as significant as it might seem. The CCP has a record of responding to united front failures by regrouping and doubling down. US intelligence agencies have warned that China is intensifying influence efforts at the subnational level.
Several factors complicate America’s ability to respond effectively to China’s united front activities at American universities. Under America’s federal system, states, cities, and educational and civic institutions have no responsibility for and little experience in defending against national security threats. For much of its relationship with the PRC, the US minimized the fundamental differences between the US democratic and Chinese communist political systems. American leaders encouraged not only trade and investment but also participation in activities that served the PRC’s political, ideological, and other agendas. Furthermore, Washington largely accepted the CCP’s conflation of itself with China and the Chinese people, enabling it to cast its critics—including those in the US and elsewhere in the West—as “anti-China,” xenophobic, or racist.
The Trump administration began countering united front activities, including by educating the American public, state and local officials, and university administrators about the threat they pose. Despite the bipartisan consensus on China that has emerged in recent years, the Biden administration has not maintained the same priority on countering united front efforts.
The Biden administration should match the high priority China places on its united front activities with efforts to counter their influence. The administration should speak clearly to the American public about the concept, strategy, and operations of the united front. In particular, the administration should rebut the CCP’s self-serving conflation of itself with China and the Chinese people.
The Biden administration should impose a moratorium on Chinese diplomatic travel to American institutions of higher learning until the US State Department reports to Congress on the regulation of such travel and on whether current practices prevent Chinese diplomats from advancing China’s united front agenda.
Congress should adopt the necessary legislation to require disclosure of all university agreements and cooperation with Chinese government entities.
University endowments should divest from Chinese companies linked to domestic or external repression. University alumni and donors have an important role to play in expressing concerns about ethical and reputational issues caused by investments in China that enable its surveillance, coercion, and repressive apparatuses.
Former university and college administrators who are familiar with the political pressures and inducements that China’s united front activities have created on campus should forge a set of principles to protect all students, including Chinese nationals, from its effects. This could include consultation and cooperation with institutions of higher education in US-allied countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada, that face the same concerns.