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Chinese Students Say Free Speech in US Chilled by China

Chinese students listen to President Obama speak during a town hall in China.

Although Beijing is thousands of miles away, some Chinese students and China-studies professors in the U.S. say they fear the Communist Party is reaching into their classrooms.

Interviewed at a half-dozen U.S. universities, students from the People's Republic of China (PRC) reported self-censoring in class on topics deemed sensitive by the Communist Party -- such as the massive protests in Hong Kong and the status of Taiwan..

"I wouldn't feel safe to speak publicly or under recording," said a PRC graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington.

Chinese students said they were concerned about being watched by fellow Chinese students. One student said he feared it would negatively impact his family back in China, his future, and his visa.

"For me, I will go back to China and get a job," the student said. "Maybe, I will work for a government corporation. So, if I say something sensitive about Hong Kong, I worry that the Chinese government will know something about my opinion and that will influence my work or my future in China."

The PRC embassy in Washington did not return VOA's request for comment.

Students interviewed for this story said they feared retribution from the Chinese government if they were identified.

"In China, we don't want to talk about the government too much," said one University of Maryland student. "I send Twitter news to my friends in China but later delete the information from my phone, because I am afraid that when I get back to China, they will search my phone."

The student noted that his political-science undergraduate research is hindered by his discomfort speaking on certain class topics: mass protests in Hong Kong, the independent status of Tibet and Taiwan and recognition of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The Wilson Center, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, reported in 2017 that a small community of PRC students and diplomats have engaged in intimidation tactics ranging from intelligence gathering to financial retaliation. "A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education" examines PRC influence in American universities.

Western college professors say they, too, feel Chinese intelligence gathering in their classrooms.

"There have been a couple times where I have had these older gentlemen from the PRC show up in my classroom unannounced and claim they were visiting and who wanted to sit in on my class," said Crystal Chang-Cohen, who teaches political science at University of California-Berkeley. "But they could not produce any ID so I said no."

Professors who research Chinese politics and history said they suspect they are monitored by PRC intelligence officials. One instructor said Chinese who attend his class who appear older than a typical student are asked to leave if they decline to produce student identification.

A University of Maryland history professor said he, too, occasionally sees classroom visitors he does not recognize. He said he suspects they are gathering intelligence.

"I think it is a concern that we have organizations on campus that have significant ties to the Chinese government, and are used to monitor the behavior of my PRC students," said a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. Classroom discussions "are typically dealing with PRC sensitive issues, for example, history or political science," the professor said.

Almost all of the college instructors and professors interviewed by VOA asked to remain unnamed out of fear their American universities would not support them if the Chinese government protested their comments, they said.

Chinese students comprise more than 33% of the 1,095,299 international students in the U.S. They typically pay full tuition and fees, which many U.S. universities rely upon for revenue.

The PRC has slashed lucrative university programs when the program dissented from the Chinese government's policies, the Wilson Center reported. It retaliated against the University of Maryland in 2013, which hosted the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, despite warnings from Chinese diplomats. China has occupied Tibet for more than 60 years.

In 2018, Vice President Mike Pence described China's funding for the Maryland program as "suddenly turned from a flood to a trickle."

Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) "alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line," Pence said at an address at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

And Chinese student Yang Shuping, who addressed the 2017 graduation exercises at the University of Maryland about the "fresh air of free speech" in America, was swiftly rebuked back home. The Communist Party's official newspaper -- China Daily -- published her family's address in China and the family was roundly harassed online.

Shuping later apologized.

Professors and students point to campus Confucius Institutes and CSSAs as participants in intelligence gathering and political influence. The Chinese government, which funds Confucius Institutes worldwide, says these organizations disperse information about Chinese culture and society, not political dogma.

The Confucius Institute U.S. Center describes itself as supporting "the teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture in the United States and enable people-to-people exchanges, deepening cross-cultural understanding and language development. The Center promotes a nationwide network of Confucius Institutes that delivers educational and cultural programs that teach Mandarin, cultivate Chinese cultural awareness, and facilitate educational exchanges.

"The world is a big place. The CIUS Center brings a little piece of China to everything we do.

But some universities in Australia, U.K., and U.S. have terminated their contracts with Confucius Centers after bipartisan calls for internal investigations.

Chinese influence has been a top concern of U.S. intelligence agencies.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, in testimony before Congress, said his agency has "a thousand open investigations … involving attempted theft of intellectual property," and almost all the cases involved the Chinese.

"Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom," the American Association of University Professors published in 2014.

But the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) disagrees.

"We do support the type of work done by Confucius Institutes in terms of building libraries, funding Chinese language classes and promoting cultural exchanges," said Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U's president. "Our experience has not uncovered any evidence of interference by the Chinese government or infringements on academic freedom.

"China is our greatest collaborator for scientific research, and over-surveillance will have a negative impact on knowledge generation.

VOA reached out to six CSSAs through email and social media messages, which did not respond.

Georgetown University's CSSA mission statement describes itself as committed to "providing academic, professional, social and entertainment information and services to its members; promoting Chinese culture, history and languages; promoting dialogue within the Association and the broader Georgetown University community." Mission statements are similar at other universities with Confucius Institute contracts.

The CSSAs "receive guidance from the Chinese Communist Party through Chinese embassies and consulates … and are active in carrying out overseas Chinese work consistent with Beijing's United Front strategy," according to a 2018 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. That commission monitors and investigates national and trade issues, according to its webpage.