Higher education has always been an indispensable vehicle for ambitious nations to extend their interests and agendas.
In the age of imperialism, education enabled colonialists to win the hearts and minds of their subjects. The University of Hong Kong was launched by the British in 1911 to co-opt local Chinese elites.
Similarly, National Taiwan University was founded by Japan in 1928 as Taihoku Imperial University to advance its colonial interests.
In the postcolonial era, higher education was nationalized by newly independent countries as part of the state-building process. Today, educational exchange is deeply embedded in the discussion of “soft power” — the circulation and competition of global ideas, values and norms.
While there are complicated motives for expanding international educational engagement, the recruitment of fee-paying students from developing nations is of great importance for cash-strapped universities in Taiwan, the US and the British Commonwealth.
Equally significant is a rapid erosion in public support for the higher-education sector in the West. An incremental decline of financial support for academia, especially among conservative lawmakers, threatens the sustainability of public and private universities.
With respect to US-China cultural encounters, Washington’s skepticism toward higher education’s ability to safeguard strategic laboratories and security resources against foreign espionage reveals the ideological remnants of Cold War thinking, and of the growing anxieties of China’s dominance in geopolitics and science.
Daniel Golden mentioned a number of espionage cases in his 2017 book Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.
The most notorious example concerns Liu Ruopeng (劉若鵬), who allegedly stole from his doctoral supervisor at Duke University the technology to develop an invisibility cloak for fighter jets and became a billionaire in Shenzhen, China.
In the current climate of extreme polarization in domestic and international politics, the concern for espionage has metastasized into suspicion and hostility toward outsiders.
As Taiwan and Hong Kong are becoming ideological battlegrounds in the US-China rivalry, a new cold war has emerged on the higher-education front, thereby making it harder for Chinese students to apply to major in science and technology at prestigious overseas universities, and to seek employment in the US’ high-tech and strategic industries.
This year, the US has put in place additional background checks for students and visiting academics from certain countries, such as China, Russia and Iran, that are perceived as undermining and overtaking the US in the fields of aeronautics, artificial intelligence, medical science and robotics.
Out of concern for institutional security and safety, some universities have started investigating US-based academics who have joined and benefited from China’s Thousand Talent Plan.
In May, Emory University dismissed two tenured biomedical professors of Chinese origin, one of them accused of hiding research funds obtained through the Thousand Talent Plan.
Meanwhile, high-tech corporations in the fields of armaments, biomedicine and nuclear power are rumored to have stopped reviewing applications from Chinese nationals.