China and the World

Degrees of danger

Americans at top Chinese university worried by FBI probes on return home


Peking University’s campus

The old saying “玉不琢,不成器” (yù bù zhuó, bù chéng qì) – “One cannot become useful without being educated” translates more literally as “If a jade is not cut and polished, it can’t be made into anything.” For decades, American universities have benefited financially from cutting and polishing the ‘jade’ of Chinese students arriving on campus. But in recent months that flow has become much more politicised because of US national security concerns about espionage and technology transfer. As WiC reported in issue 459, Chinese students are resultingly finding it harder to get visas to study at US colleges and especially to do sensitive post-graduate research. And now it seems that Washington’s hawks are worried about US students attending courses in China too.

Earlier this month NPR revealed that at least five returning Yenching Academy graduates were approached by the FBI in the last two years for interviews about alleged espionage. All five had US citizenship or residency.

The same report said there had been no known instances of similar interviews for people studying as Schwarzman Scholars, a parallel programme in Beijing, which also welcomes American students from the Ivy Leagues.

The Yenching Academy – housed in Peking University – is a two-year master’s programme founded in 2014 and predominantly funded through donations from Chinese philanthropists and special grants from the Chinese central government. Scholarships comprise free tuition, a monthly stipend of $500 and a roundtrip airfare. The academy targets elite students and has an acceptance rate of 2.7% of applications.

Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman Scholars is a similarly elite one-year master’s programme founded in 2016 by American financier Stephen Schwarzman. With a new cohort of up to 200 annually, and an admissions rate of 3.7%, its mission is to “prepare young leaders to deepen understanding between China and the rest of the world”.

The NPR article has proved contentious among Yenching’s American students. “These suggestive innuendos, left largely unanswered by NPR’s reporting and the FBI’s response to the story, will undermine the value of our degree [and] make it more likely that a fresh college graduate interested in bettering US-China relations will view other career paths as a safer bet than heading to Yenching,” complained Ethan Paul, a second-year master’s candidate, whose research focuses on the Democratic Party’s China strategy.

The Communist Party’s presence at the academy is real, however. Erin Dunne, who graduated from Yenching this year, wrote in The Diplomat: “It’s also a graduate programme in China – and one that is fully funded, in part with money from the Chinese government. That means that not every class includes free and open discussions, certain research topics – even if mentioned in classes – are understood as off limits, and there is oversight from the Chinese Communist Party.”

Dev Lewis, another recent Yenching graduate told WiC: “There is a parallel environment. Peking University is different. There, the ‘red lines’ are tightly enforced, as they are anywhere in China. The Yenching curriculum, as a part of Peking University, has to respect these red lines too. However, spending a significant amount of time studying and living together, everything is discussed (between Yenching’s 100 students). Controversial issues related to China are at the top of [our] list as many of us try to grapple with geopolitical challenges as a way to critique and expand our worldview. In class, I have never held myself back from raising questions, and have discussed controversial issues on numerous occasions with professors.”

In an article that Schwarzman co-wrote in 2014 for China Business Review – the house magazine of the US-China Business Council – the private equity titan argued that America needed a workforce and leadership that was more “China-fluent”. “Regardless of economic or personal background, all Americans must understand China. This is a national imperative, one that our two governments have recognised and endorsed,” he said.

Five years later that view doesn’t seem to mirror the prevailing sentiment in Washington. Indeed, news of the FBI probes will probably put more Americans off applying to Yenching.

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