Dr Parama Sinha Palit – India’s efforts to fend off Chinese academic ‘influence’

Palit LE Mag June 2022

Download PDF Here  Live Encounters Magazine June 2022.

India’s efforts to fend off Chinese academic ‘influence’*
– Guest Editorial by Dr Parama Sinha Palit.

China’s intent to re-shape the Western-led international system, along with its revisionist tendencies over the last decade or so, has raised both concern and apprehension within the international community. In particular, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempts to undermine academic freedom in foreign universities, employing both state and nonstate agents under its control, have recently emerged as a primary threat to academic institutions worldwide.

The Party’s penetration of civil society and use of foreign nationals (including academics) for influence operations has been unprecedented. Beijing’s efforts to develop overseas influence have included shaping the narrative of a ‘discourse power’ via a more forceful version of soft power, whereby the Party is seeking to train foreign academic community on ‘sensitive’ issues like Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong from a Chinese perspective. China’s pressure tactics, including intimidation, have also been increasingly employed to harass and coax senior academics and students, perceived to be critical of the Party or prone to discussing ‘sensitive’ topics, towards more accommodating views. Fully understanding and countering these operations and activities will be challenging for most of the world’s major democracies.

Additionally, Confucius Institutes (CIs) affiliated with foreign universities – designed as China’s cultural ambassadors under Beijing’s soft power strategy – are now employed to advance the CCP’s political interests abroad. The institutes, initially mandated to promote Chinese cultural exports across the world through specific focus on Mandarin language and cultural engagements, have gradually begun assuming propagandist roles, underpinning their connect with the Chinese state’s influence-embedding machinery.

Mature democracies with academic freedom and cultures of free flowing debates and discussions on sensitive issues of global and national importance have expressed concern over the interference of CIs in their university campuses and have become increasingly suspicious of their mandate.

For example, the United States (US) designated the CI US Center (CIUS) a ‘foreign mission’ of the Chinese government and identified it for its role as ‘an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses and K-12 classrooms’. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) have been similarly encountering problems with the CIs. Posing as ‘extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration’, CIs in most of the developed world are seen to be threatening the global academia.

The reliance of Western universities on incoming Chinese students and Chinese research funding has facilitated Beijing’s imposition of its agenda on these campuses. At the same time, CIs – visibly prominent in the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, and Germany – act as a propaganda arm of the CCP. CIs in these countries, do not hesitate to censure certain topics deemed counter to the Party’s interests. The CCP also resorts to punitive actions such as blacklisting faculty who discuss sensitive issues while retaliating with countersanctions when they refuse to comply.

There have also been several instances when Chinese nationals, posing as university researchers in foreign universities, have stolen sensitive technology to share with Chinese companies like the Huawei, which has deep ties with the Party. The chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department, charged with lying about a lucrative relationship with a Chinese talent recruitment program, was also arrested by FBI agents in his office. Another preferred method of intelligence gathering by China has been through joint research centres or funding research projects. Beijing had 15,623 such collaborations in 2019 with UK, making China, Britain’s biggest research partner after the US and Germany, and the fastest growing partnership.

India, though, provides an example of a country ‘ahead of the curve’ in responding to Chinese influence in its academia. In 2013, five years before the Doklam border standoff,  an article titled ‘Chinese Intelligence: From a Party Outfit to Cyber Warriors’ highlighted efforts by China’s Ministry of State Security to penetrate Indian government agencies and higher education. This article underscored India’s inherent strategic distrust of China’s motives and ambitions. Such distrust stems from India’s historical suspicion of China and may have helped better prepare New Delhi to protect its academia from an aggressive CCP influence.

Beginning with the 1962 war with China to recent tensions like Doklam in 2017 and the Galwan crisis  in 2020 – which also marked the deadliest incident in 45 years – a history of conflict between India and China has deepened mistrust between the two countries. While during the Doklam stand-off, the security establishment had discovered the Chinese-owned UC Browser filtering certain news on Android handsets in India to shape perceptions and outcomes, the Galwan showcased Beijing’s use of ‘unorthodox weapons’. Both are typical examples of Digital Age classic information warfare which will only become more visible and deadlier in the future. There were also evidences suggesting that contents, critical of China, were being taken down on one of the banned apps while other repressive incidents during the stand-off were being toned down to present a distinct narrative in line with the CCP’s agenda.

The Galwan crisis now not only shapes India’s new strategic perspective in which Beijing is considered a clear and an abiding adversary but it also establishes the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as violence-prone even with demilitarization efforts. Their bilateral relationship has declined to such an extent that China’s soft power tools, especially education, now face an intense scrutiny in India.

The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs have both cautioned Indian colleges and universities against any kind of academic cooperation with Chinese counterparts without prior government permission. Restrictions have also been applied to existing agreements, which cannot become operational until both the Ministries approve them. The restrictive regulations cover educational exchange programs, agreements, Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs), and joint announcements of intent with Chinese institutions at both private and publicly-funded Indian universities.

New Delhi’s strategic discomfort with Beijing and suspicion of its over-ambitious neighbour has conditioned India’s perception of China since the India-China war in 1962. These perceptions have driven India’s policies and strategies towards its big neighbour. In a clear departure from the rest of the world, India has always been reluctant to host CIs since the time they were launched in South Korea in 2004. While a fair amount of progress was made to establish the institute in India’s leading university, the Jawaharlal Nehru university (JNU) in New Delhi, it could never take off due to some issues on both sides. Notwithstanding India’s reservations in hosting CIs in India, subsequently a few did come up while cultural exchanges and economic collaboration remained a priority for every Indian government in power.

Post-Doklam and Galwan, the scepticism has only returned and become more acute. In fact, the author’s interviews revealed that most Indian academics and scholars are reluctant to discuss CIs, especially in official interactions. This could be due to several reasons. First, the close monitoring of CIs and other Centres on China by the government has made them unappealing subjects of discussion. Furthermore, the current environment of mistrust towards China is clearly impacting the inclination of academics to talk about these Chinese state-backed institutes. Finally, discussion on China and CIs is not widely welcomed by the academic community, who fear that these interactions might produce unnecessary controversies, complicating the situation even further for them, since state scrutiny has been upped post-2020.

Post-Galwan standoff, India’s National Education Policy, administered by the Ministry of Education, was also contemplating to remove Mandarin from the list of suggested languages for students. The government had sent letters to at least five institutions that offer Chinese language training programs, asking them to send all details of collaboration since 2017, including the few functioning CIs in India, which have now obviously come under the radar. Interestingly, Chinese language programs in certain universities, with no links to Hanban, also received these letters. The heightened scrutiny is a clear spin-off from recent military clashes that have exacerbated anti-China sentiments in India. In fact, several Indian academics are even eager to pressure the Indian government to close CIs in India since they are now increasingly being seen as surveillance tools of the Chinese government.

It is not the Indian academia alone which has been witnessing government scrutiny and includes the telecommunications industry as well. India has not allowed Huawei Technologies and ZTE to participate in the country’s 5G rollout trials. Given that the objective of the trials was to test 5G phones and devices, as well as the technology’s application in areas such as tele-medicine, tele-education, augmented/virtual reality and drone-based agricultural monitoring, excluding the Chinese companies was deemed critical to keep them safe and away from Chinese snooping. According to the National Intelligence Law (2017), Chinese firms and citizens are bound by law to support China’s intelligence operations abroad. India is not alone in raising its national security concerns. The Huawei has particularly been either blacklisted or blocked in several countries like the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

While the Indian government, supported by many academics, have demonstrated their reservations and highlighted their concern regarding Chinese presence in the Indian academia and future higher education collaborations with their Chinese counterparts, its penetration might be difficult to stall. Given the international prestige of Chinese universities, Indian students will continue to flock to China for pursuing higher education.

To address this, the Indian government needs to re-focus on strengthening its own higher education system by making universities world-class and offering wider choices for study. While India’s reliance on Chinese funding in education is low, there are ways in which such funding still finds a way through. This discreet funding tendency by Beijing, like in many other countries, will require India to implement more stringent laws, while ensuring more funding transparency.

Western nations like Australia and Germany, while struggling to keep Beijing from interfering in their education systems, are devising ways to deal more effectively with China. India can collaborate with Australia, Germany, and the others that feel similarly threatened by China’s academic intrusion.

Individual researchers and scholars in India and many other countries, including the West, could be mutually encouraged to alert universities and think-tanks to potential reputational risks and other costs of cooperating with China. In addition to exchanging notes about their experiences, they could also help individual academics and institutions in their respective countries to develop new policies to deal with censorship and self-censorship. Similarly, it might also be worthwhile to reach out to the rest of the world, particularly Asia, to engage Chinese language teachers and faculty from outside the mainland.

In fact, their Chinese history and language-teaching skills might be employed to nurture local academic understanding of the Middle Kingdom and its cultural, social and institutional practices. Knowing China well is a must to counter China effectively.

* [The blog reflects findings from a detailed research report, ‘China’s “influence operations” in academia, Confucius Institutes and Soft Power: Strategic Responses of India, Bangladesh and Nepal’ done by the author for the Sandia National Laboratory, Department of Energy, US, in 2021.]

© Dr Parama Sinha Palit

Dr Parama Sinha Palit is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She was a Cooperative Monitoring Center (CMC) Fellow with the Sandia National Laboratories, the US Department of Energy and a Consultant with the CRDF Global, USA. She is also the author of the ‘Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives’. The views expressed are entirely personal to the author and does not reflect, in any way, those of the organisation she is affiliated with.

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