China's Influence On Global Educational Institutions And Its Geo-Intellectual Dominance

⚬ Aug 07, 2022⚬ Sathya Pulukuri

Disclaimer: This article was written as an assignment for FPRC Internship.


China has always been keen on the US's information warfare tactics during both Gulf wars. The Chinese began believing in winning the war without actually fighting it, under their Confucian approach, in other words, adopting Non-Kinetic warfare and Multi-Domain strategy tactics like psychological warfare, information warfare, cyber warfare and others. Many reports (Kumar, 2021) have stated that the Chinese government systematically cultivated connections with private media owners, tech industries and journalists to promote them to portray China favourably in the host country. The US Department of Education investigated many prominent schools like Harvard and Yale in February 2020 over questionable undisclosed funds from foreign sources, including China (NEUMAN & TURNER, 2020). In November 2020, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued an ultimatum to all the American think-tanks and academic institutions concerning the huge foreign funds received from China (Singleton, 2020), thereby exposing China's influential academic operations to shape and control political and policy narrative. These steps indicate China's rising desire to influence public opinion and promote their propagandas on various international platforms.

China's academic espionage in foreign universities has led to severe repercussions like inspiring students to learn more about China, assisting students by providing support and resources to include Chinese language and studies in their curriculum, and impacting the public about Chinese culture and society. Think Tanks and academic institutions can be an essential element of new frontiers of war with high levels of uncertainty. There is a possibility of them being manipulated, subverted and divided to harm the national interests of the host country.

The need to address the non-kinetic military actions of the 21st century has roots in India's inability to appropriately tackle the downsides of the globalised world and modern technology. China has consistently harmed India's interests for the past decades. Especially after the China-India skirmishes in Galwan valley and the Chinese Foreign Minister's recent comments on Kashmir in the OIC session ( OpIndia Staff, 2022). Reports ( N. C. Bipindra, 2021) have discovered that China has heavily funded to influence and take over many Indian sectors, including think tanks, universities, mainstream media, social media, entertainment, tech, and others.

Significance of Academics and Global Institutions

In the ever-changing world, Any aspiring state to become a superpower should commit to its citizens' long-term social and economic development. In compliance with this, soft power is often contrasted with hard power. Hard power deals with the use of military force and coercion. However, soft power deals with Foreign policy, political ideas and culture. Education is a crucial instrument of soft power (Amirbek & Ydyrys, 2014). In the contemporary period, Countries are using 'Education' to promote their national interest. A classic illustration is the American MBA model, which still is pertinent among the youth in the world, especially in India. The extent of academic exchanges and inflow of international students to the US indicates how successful the US has been in its structural and soft power hegemony over time.

A practical and successful national education system will always give an edge to the global audience. An advanced education system will allow the state to become a technologically driven economy, adapt to new technologies and integrate into international spaces. India has introduced a New Education Policy (PN, 2020) to internationalise higher education through a wide array of activities in India. India has been taking measures to introduce India as an attractive education destination and attract international students. It is allowing India to expand its global outreach and soft power diplomacy.

A narrative (Powell) has been set up emphasising the decline in the west and the growth of contemporary education in China. The 2023 QS world ranking ( Express News Service , 2022)revealed that the third-largest share of ranked universities belongs to China. In comparison, Indian universities' tally has risen from 29 (2021) to 35 in the world ranking.

The Chinese view (Powell) of education is more comprehensive and not only confined to schools and universities but achieves modernisation in military, science and technology, agriculture and industry under China's four modernisation programs. The education policy of China enables its citizens to grow educationally, physically and morally to stay loyal to the Chinese communist party and evolve as experts in the given domains. This goal results in integrating Mental labour with manual labour. The three main educational aims are to sow the seeds of patriotism for their motherland and internationalism through morality in the younger population, obtain fundamental education and overall physical development. The Chinese educational curriculum includes Chinese, English, Foreign language, politics, natural sciences and others. The current Chinese system is similar to that of America. According to Dr Jain (Jain, 2021), China is incorporating "Geointellect" in its manifestation of global intellectual dominance. "Geointellect", as defined by Dr Jain, highlights the dominance of a country in higher education, research and innovation across geographies. Global intellectual dominance will allow China to set up narrative warfare. The modalities of this Agenda can be witnessed in the BRI Educational plan 2016, knowledge production in China, China's research impact in developing countries, International scientific and academic collaborations and China's 'going out' approach, which will be further highlighted.

Understanding China's Non-Kinetic Warfare

China's growing global footprints can be witnessed through its influential operations, which can be classified under Political warfare (Kania, 2016) consisting of public opinion, psychological and legal domains. This strategy aims to extirpate its external threats and strengthen its influence abroad through various instruments like weakening social cohesion, destabilising host governments, media, public diplomacy, disinformation, strategic narrative setup and others in the host country. However, due to the growing awareness and ability of the public to verify fake news, the disinformation has advanced in a way that can be factually verifiable yet incorrect, usually done to promote their respective propagandas by triggering the fear and anger in respective sections of society or individuals. This strategy aims to influence and shape the narrative of host countries for a positive representation of China. It also infiltrates and coerces society and shapes it under its Confucian approach. China's Non-Kinetic Warfare primarily targets media, diplomacy, diasporas, economy, politics, culture and others. However, this article highlights the Chinese footprints in the host country's education and academic institutions.

China's Influence On Global Educational Institutions

Under the UNFW (United Front Work Department) (Bowe, 2018), The CCP, through its overseas Chinese organisations, groups, and networks, as well as via media and universities, conduct influential operations. China's global intellectual dominance can be analysed through the economic dependence of foreign universities on China, the role of Confucius institutes, a substantial number of outgoing Chinese students, China's 'going out' approach, the Thousand Talents Plan and global scientific and academic collaborations.

To begin with, foreign universities' economic dependence on China has made Chinese students an essential source of revenue for many universities. Chinese academic operations are conducted mainly in the US, UK and Australia because of international students' welcoming and friendly status. As discussed earlier, The US Department of Education investigated many prominent schools like Harvard and Yale in February 2020 over questionable undisclosed funds from foreign sources, including China. The Chinese international students contributed about $14 billion to the US economy (ICEF Monitor , 2019), accounting for one-third of all international students. Most of them were self-funded in 2017. The University of Illinois is often termed 'the University of China at Illinois' (Redden, 2015) due to the high enrollment of Chinese students. In the case of Australia, 60% on average of Chinese students represent the eight most prestigious Australian universities (Thomson, 2021). International students represent the third most revenue-generating export market in Australia. Chinese students account for almost £2 billion in revenue for the higher education sector in the UK. Russell Group universities depend on more than 20% of their revenue from Chinese students' tuition fees (EDMONDS, 2021). It has become evident that foreign universities depend on Chinese students due to the decreasing government subsidies. Chinese students accommodate 43.6% of International students in South Korea (Kim & Kim, 2020).

Therefore, this financial dependence is sometimes backed by the presence of a Confucius Institute in the host university. Confucius institutes can trace China's influence on global academic institutions. There are around 530 Confucius institutes worldwide as of 2019, with almost 100 million students (Dig Mandarin, 2021).

Confucius institutes advertise and teach Chinese culture and language globally. Sometimes it includes specialities like Chinese medicine or calligraphy. However, the CCP (Chinese communist party) has accepted using these institutes for 'overseas propaganda setup' (Sharma, 2022). China spends $10 Billion dollars on these institutes (Sharma, 2022). In the words of Xi Jinping, "Telling Chinese stories well and spreading Chinese well" (CMP STAFF, 2021)is the main idea of these institutes.

In 2017, Chinese students from Wilson Centre USA admitted that the faculties of the Confucius institute constantly monitored them (Redden, Gauging China's 'Influence and Interference' in U.S. Higher Ed, 2018). In 2018, The Victoria University of Australia had to suspend its screening on Chinese film after receiving objections from its own Confucius Institute (Jom, 2018). The funding of Confucius's institutes is intentionally opaque. Few institutes fortuitously issued the agreements labelled 'should not be published. (GAO, 2019)'

These institutes are not set up in association with universities, yet they operate within universities without actually being part of it. It functions in a way that the academic board of a particular university will not have any mandate and monitor the activities of these institutes since it is termed a 'non-academic' program. The reason is to shield them from scrutiny by the host government. The leaked Confucius institutes agreements between the Chinese government and host universities revealed that The host pays for the infrastructural facilities and space and hires a local director. In return, the Chinese government will provide funds. The agreement also mentions that the host universities must give Chinese' visa support'. China maintains a typical template contract with the host universities (GAO, 2019)'.

The Chinese staff who work in an external International university are paid, overseen and promoted by their Chinese universities. Along with the income, China also provides the staff to work with Chinese partner universities. Since they are not employed, the legal status of staff is vague for espionage. Spies can bypass the visa scrutiny by using these institutes as a cover. For instance, In 2019, a university in Belgium shut down its Confucius institute over allegations of a professor involved in the act of espionage for China (South China Morning Post, 2019).

However, it is challenging to reveal this act of espionage since it is all shrouded in secrecy involving the host universities.

The foreign universities' involvement in the Chinese influence operations is due to the significant dependence on Chinese International students and funds received to set up and maintain these Confucius Institutes. Thus, Confucius's institutes are the product of Chinese influence in foreign countries. In 2020, the University of Maryland had to show down its Confucius Institute after revealing China's political attempts to influence academics (Peterson, Oxnevad, & Yan, 2022). China has continued chiefly to not meddle with any foreign government in the matters of education of Chinese International students.

The Chinese students are a crucial factor for CCP. Xi Jinping's priority target was the Chinese students at the United Front Work Conference in 2015 (Suzuki, 2019). Thus, The CSSA (Chinese Student and Scholars Association) is the primary platform for CCP or United Front activities. CSSA mobilises Chinese students to spread CCP propaganda, welcome its leaders, and defend China on various issues. It is a medium through which Chinese International students are monitored to ensure they are not influenced by Western culture. CSSA primarily works according to the CCP's interests. Every foreign university has its version of CSSA. There are roughly 265 CSSAs in the US itself (Paskal, 2022).

CSSAs receive funds through the Chinese embassies and consulates. Like Confucius Institutes, The Foreign University's administration is unaware of the functioning and funding of CSSAs. Several CSSAs (LLOYD-DAMNJANOVIC) from prestigious universities like Yale, Princeton and other universities participated in the 2015 Conference on "study the spirit of the United Front's work" (Suzuki, 2019).

Finally, China's 'going out' approach, the Thousand Talents Plan and global scientific and academic collaborations. The Thousand Talents Program or Overseas High-Level Talent Recruitment Programs is implemented to bring prominent Chinese academicians, scholars, entrepreneurs and scientists living abroad to mainland China. This program (Kang, 2020) aims at making China the world's leader in science and technology by 2050. This program has attracted more than 7,000 people overall. The rationale behind this plan is to retain influential positions and designations of these scholars and scientists in foreign universities and research centres and continue their research cooperation in China.

This program also lured researchers and scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Japan and others. In 2019, Chinese International patents rose to 58,990, surpassing the US (WIPO , 2020). Many Australian and US researchers and scholars are believed to have participated in the plan without declaring their involvement with their governments. There are more than 600 recruitment stations throughout the world (Kang, 2020). In the US itself, the plan traces can be detected in US research, National Institute of Health, Energy, Commerce and, Science and Technology. for instance, a US Senate committee claimed one participating researcher stole information regarding the US military jet engines to China. The Committee declared that the stolen information is used for China's own economic and military gain (Kang, 2020). According to a think tank, Chinese collaboration accounts for 40% of Australia's highly cited research from Chinese universities (Liu, Ma, Song, Qian, & Lin, 2021).

Implications on India

China is the second most powerful country after the US. China knows the US is reluctant to intervene directly in a few issues and areas. Recently the Chinese Foreign Minister has made a surprise visit to India even though India is aware of it (Das, 2022). China expects all the countries to accommodate its aggression, including the US. Japan, Vietnam and India have the substantial military power to hold back China in Asia. Therefore, China is constantly putting these countries under pressure.

China's academic espionage in India. Recently, the Ministry of Education has reviewed seven Indian universities and 54 MOUs on academic cooperation and exchanges under the Chinese Program (Hindustan Times, New Delhi , 2020). Indian covert agencies have been cautious about using Confucius institutes for global intelligence gathering by China. In order to prevent academic espionage in India, The Indian government, along with “UGC (University Grants Commission) and AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education)”, has come up with Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act ( Express News Service , 2022). This Act will now make any NGO/University/Academic institutions or schools take a prior clearance under Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.

However, besides Confucious institutes, India is facing issues from China-based centres. For instance, A reputed management institution offers a Post Graduate Program for Executives - Managing Business in India and China (PGPEx- MBIC). Under this, Indian students are sent to FUSM (Fudan University School of Management), Shanghai, to explore the Chinese language, culture and tradition and are later employed by Chinese companies. The May 2019 (Jha, 2019) of its monthly newsletter has mentioned "OBOR -Vantage from Chinese Perspective" under its 'Off Beat' highlighting Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory and Chinese perspective of the BRI.

Way Forward

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the Confucius institutes is always a question of matter. For instance, the University of Sydney, the Confucious institute, could not get enrollment for the last two years. Several universities have closed them due to expenses, and the COVID factor cannot be diminished. However, India should be cautious about the Chinese growing influential operations in other domains, especially its investments in EdTech industries, growing proximity of the Embassy and Indian academia, activities of Chinese professors in Indian universities and tracking down the Indians who might be part of China's thousand talents plan to prevent its talents from falling prey to Chinese covert operations and protect India’s national security and sovereignty.


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About the author:

Sathya Pulukuri is the Associate Editor of Indic Researchers Forum.

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