By Berber Jin
The authors of a November 2018 report by the Hoover Institution that called for “constructive vigilance” against Chinese influence on U.S. institutions faced an oftentimes critical, predominantly Chinese audience in a panel discussion on their findings, which ranged from Chinese propaganda in U.S. media to illicit technology transfer.
Amid rising U.S.-China tensions and increased university precautions against Chinese cyber-security threats, the event and its heated question-and-answer session revealed the heightened concerns of policy-makers regarding China’s coercive influence in U.S. institutions, as well as escalating fears among segments of the Chinese-American community of a new wave of xenophobia and mistrust of their communities.
“I think we need to begin by saying we’re no longer in a period where [China is] a rising superpower,” said panelist Larry Diamond, a political science professor and Hoover fellow. “We now have a world of two superpowers, and we have a China with global ambitions … This is a deeply authoritarian regime that is becoming more ideologically and intolerantly authoritarian than it was even five, seven, 10 years ago.”
Calling China’s suppression of Tibetan autonomy a “cultural genocide” and warning of its “fusion of Party and State with high technology” in creating an “Orwellian surveillance state,” Diamond argued that the United States needs to take immediate measures to strengthen itself.
It was against this framing that the event’s other panelists articulated the particular actions the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is taking against a variety of American institutions. Elizabeth Economy, a C.V. Starr Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed CCP influence in U.S. think tanks and universities. John Pomfret, a Washington Post journalist, spoke of CCP media influence, and Kyle Hutzler, a Stanford MBA student and Hoover report co-author, explained government influence in U.S. corporations.
Pomfret spoke of how the CCP believed members of the Chinese diaspora “belong to China … and should support China and the goals of the Chinese Communist Party,” while Hulitzer’s description of the efforts of Chinese corporations and venture capital firms to acquire intellectual property for national security purposes hold direct implications for Stanford. A recent U.S. Trade Representative report accused the university of partnering with venture capital firm Digital Horizon Capital, which has direct links to Chinese government programs aiming to transfer foreign technology back into China.
After the event, audience members immediately pushed back on the panelists’ call for “constructive vigilance,” arguing that the report inflated the China threat and could trigger unwarranted anti-Chinese sentiments.
“What it says is that we should not stereotype, although it says that there may be reason to do so,” said Buck Gee M.S. ’72 in reference to the report’s framing of the China threat.
Gee, a former Silicon Valley executive and member of the controversial Committee of 100, a leadership organization for Chinese Americans, later told The Daily that though he did not dispute the report’s view of the issues, it has been interpreted by many as “stereotyping Chinese-Americans as potential spies.”
Audience member Wayne Lin, owner of the popular Chinese-language news and entertainment website Wenxuecheng, came to the event to “clear his name” after alleging that the report incorrectly stated that his company signed deals to run news from media outlets accused of promoting CCP propaganda, and falsely rumored that “the purchase of the website was subsidized by $1 million from the CCP Propaganda Department.” Lin told The Daily that such statements were “totally wrong,” that the author of that portion of the report apologized to him and that the panel “responded in positive ways” to his suggestions.
Aware of these audience sentiments, panel members continuously denounced any potential scapegoating or targeting of the Chinese-American community, many citing their personal connections to Chinese family members and friends.
“We are united in feeling that the distinction of America and what will be our asset in both the legitimate and more challenging dimensions of the global era of competition that is upon us is our diversity, and if we don’t embrace that and appreciate that and defend that, not only will be betray our ideals, but we will not be as effective as we should be,” Diamond said.
Pomfret echoed similar sentiments, remarking his view of the importance of acknowledging the “very difficult history that Chinese-Americans have had in the United States.” Schell also warned that vigilance should not translate into “overzealous” monitoring of Chinese-American communities.
One Chinese-American audience member adamantly voiced her support for the report, telling the panel that the report was “very reasonable” and “very balanced.”
“It says very clearly it’s not about racial profiling,” she said. “I’m Chinese-American; I have no issue with [the report].”
Other took a more cautious approach.
“I would think that people need to look into the fundamental data [of the report] so maybe we can make a more fair and objective view on this,” said Chao Gu J.D. ’14. “It’s too early to say whether we agree with it or not, but we need to look into the basis.”
Yet despite strong differences in opinion, the panelists were praised for their openness to conducting an evolving dialogue on the matter.
“Something I appreciated was that all the panelists [were] really trying to make an effort to have even private conversations and understand normal people who have their own views on this report,” said James Noh ’22.
Contact Berber Jin at fjin16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.