How might American academia respond to rising tensions with China?

What does the growing struggle between the United States and China mean for higher education?

Here I’d like to continue my exploration of the question. This post is a direct follow up on my last one. For more on the issue, check previous blog entries (here, hereherehere) as well as our book club’s reading of Ministry for the Future.

To recap: so far most indicators point to the Biden and Xi administrations alike pursuing policies of maintaining or increasing great power rivalry. This has implications for the world in general, and for higher education in particular.

Today I’ll use an important Bloomberg News item to anchor some thoughts, then will extrapolate further using other sources.

In this post I do not attempt to assess the validity or morality of the policies and strategies involved. Instead I want to identify their details, then explore their implications and choices for academia.

Nick Wadhams reports on key details of America’s China strategy, starting with the role of technology:

The Biden administration is moving to put semiconductors, artificial intelligence and next-generation networks at the heart of U.S. strategy toward Asia, attempting to rally what officials are calling “techno-democracies” to stand up to China and other “techno-autocracies.”

There’s a lot going on here. First, this foreign policy move directly involves a group of academic departments, starting with computer science and possibly including business and communication. It places them right in the path of geopolitics.  To those disciplines we might add biology and the life sciences, given this US Air Force wargame emphasizing a Chinese biological attack.

Second, note the opposition of “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies.”  That’s a major claim on global policy and political ideology, calling for the creation or understanding of two international blocs aligned on their use of technology. Academically, this is obviously a matter for political science, not to mention area studies and modern history.

Wadhams expands on this technology-based global alliance idea:

“There’s a newfound realization about the importance that semiconductors are playing in this geopolitical struggle because chips underlie every tech in the modern era,” said Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “It’s an effort to double down on the technological comparative advantage that the U.S. and its democratic partners.”

It’s an approach partly based on denying China access to certain technology for as long as possible, looking to quash Chinese juggernauts like Huawei Technologies Co. and even taking a page from the Communist Party’s playbook by boosting government involvement in key industries when needed.

Think very carefully about what denying China access to technologies means for higher education.  A key function of academia is sharing access to knowledge, both from the accumulated corpus of human scholarship and newly derived findings.  We share through research and teaching, albeit unevenly and in opposition to countervailing forces like paywalls and the ivory tower tradition.  So how should sharing-inclined colleges and universities respond when the federal government asks us to not behave this way on particular topics and for a specific audience?

This could play out in different ways. Universities could step back from open access in scholarly communication as a first step to hoard knowledge, but that’s easily circumvented by a credit card. Should universities provide faculty members with tools for keeping their discoveries offline? Should the relevant scholarly societies host dark archives of papers and monographs, with materials accessible only to certain interested parties? On the pedagogical side, should academic deans and department heads ensure that professors don’t teach certain content, especially to Chinese students? In fact, how does a department teach cutting edge topics in technology and at the same time keep them away from Beijing?

Thinking through the latter necessitates a strategic level choice about student recruiting. Will the Biden team encourage campuses to cut back on enrolling Chinese students? Could the feds offer a serious amount of financial support to colleges and universities, as might be in a new bill, then tie that help to campuses pursuing appropriate anti-China practices? Recall that Chinese students are the leading population of foreign students studying in America, counting for roughly one third of them. If we do cut back, how do campuses handle the financial hit?  At the same time, how do we manage to fully staff our research teams without those bright grad students?  Each college and university could face difficult choices on this point.

Such recruiting and research choices might play out differently for public and private institutions.  Public universities are, by their nature, subjected to state oversight. States don’t conduct foreign policy, but are sometimes a way for the federal government (which does) to convey policy preferences.  We could imagine, hypothetically, public universities in clearly Democratic states, such as SUNY or University of California campuses, responding favorably to a Biden administration imperative along these lines.  In contrast, that way of influencing private colleges and universities is lacking.  There are other ways for the government to influence them, of course: public pressure, reaching out to key donors and alumni, personal connections to presidents or trustees, national funding, etc.

Popular pressure might play a role as well. Pew reports that anti-Chinese feeling is rising within the United States.  Note in particular this finding about American attitudes towards Chinese students:

Pew_us-views-chinese students_0-27-1

That’s a majority of Americans – across the three most numerous racial demographics – backing restrictions on Chinese students.  Also, throughout that Pew report we read of American anxieties about Chinese research, especially in technology and digital fields. This kind of public attitude can be expressed against higher ed in order to cause campuses to change policies.

Some academics may also support such measures.  In that above Pew research college graduates are almost perfectly split on restricting Chinese students.  How many alumni and current students will urge faculty and administrators to cut enrollment back, or limit Chinese students to taking certain majors? For example, this report from an American university identifies six Chinese universities where faculty conduct digital research that that country’s military can use. Will we see similar American academic research calling on fellow academics to shun Chinese partnerships?

2034 novelAlong those lines, there has been a steady drumbeat of popular culture stories imagining a Chinese military success over the United States, decisively enabled by successful cyberwar (for example). How many people within the military-industrial complex, within foreign policy, within the Biden administration, share this particular fear? Will there be enough political will to encourage or compel academia to play a role in blocking such a disaster from occurring? For example, in screening Chinese students from studying certain aspects of computer science?

More, how many academics will share this specific fear?  Imagine, for example, political science faculty lobbying a dean to get computer science to not publish certain findings.

How many academics could afford to resist such calls, coming from inside or beyond the academic house? Recall that the preponderance of American faculty are not afforded tenure’s protections, and might in fact see following the anti-China lead as a way to maintain current employment or to win new contracts.  Remember, too, how many non-elite institutions have been suffering from multiple pressures: those from macroeconomics, demographics, failing business models, enrollment shifts, cuts to state support, etc.  How much room will they have to maneuver? Indeed, how many will readily see following federal direction as a shot at improving the odds of their survival?

Back to that Bloomberg article and the intersection of national alliances with academia:

Several people familiar with the administration’s planning, and especially that of Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Asia coordinator, say he foresees a broad approach that puts greater emphasis on a few key partners such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while offering incentives to bring chip fabrication back to the U.S.

Chips figure in plans to bolster the Quad — a once-sputtering alliance of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that got a boost of support during the Trump era — including by eventually bringing more technology production to South Asia…

Biden’s supporters say his strategy will include working more closely with other countries. And it’s looking to strengthen existing partnerships that were rarely utilized. Chief among them is the Quad and the belief that India may be newly willing to set itself against China given recent tensions between the world’s two most populous nations.

This offers a different set of choices from what we discussed above.  If the Biden administration wants to shift American energies away from China and towards these other nations – Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – should the academy follow suit? That is, do we double down on recruiting students from those nations, perhaps to balance losses from China? Should chief academic officers encourage their faculty to seek research partners from the Quad et al?  Should provosts also expand academic study of those nations, including area studies and language programs, in order to contribute in our way to the strategy of assembling a global “techno-democracies” alliance?  Establishing a university partnership with India, expanding Japanese language teaching, hosting Australian writers and so on may appear as patriotic moves.

Speaking of the Quad, here’s a tweet from this morning:

Back on the domestic front, some in Congress are aligning with the president. Wadhams doesn’t specify party dynamics, but we might guess Democratic senators and representatives are following the lead, perhaps joined by Republicans who see anti-China as a bipartisan foreign policy issue.  To wit:

The [anti-China, technology-grounded] approach is already getting a positive response from Congress, where lawmakers are proposing a number of bills aimed at bolstering U.S. technology, such as the Chips Act, which would offer incentives to bring chip manufacturing back home, and the Endless Frontier Act to invest more broadly in technological advancement.

For academia, such Congressional activity could play out in several ways.  First, imagine senators and/or representatives writing higher education incentives and disincentives into various bills, including whatever happens to the Higher Education Act reauthorization. Second, as each Congressional senator and representative is a state politician, they can exert some form of influence on their state’s government, which can them impact higher ed in multiple policy and legal ways.  We could imagine, for example, a China hawk urging her state government to not support academics who are “soft on China” and to punish individual professors deemed to have assisted Beijing.

Back to the technology question, Wadhams introduces an economic theme:

China has essentially forced the U.S. to start breaking off elements of business and technology relations in a pattern known as decoupling. China has essentially erected its own Internet infrastructure, barring many U.S. media outlets and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and has shown a willingness to use the size of its market and its economic might as a weapon to make other nations fall into line.

Such a business and technology divide hits higher ed in several ways.  Decoupling at scale will likely injure the American economy, as Tom Lairson and others observe, which will add more financial stress to a higher education sector already massively strained.  On a practical level, as long as Chinese students study in the United States and Americans work with Chinese colleagues such a technological divide will make learning and research materially more difficult, including duplicating tools and dealing with divergent standards.  (I’ve already experienced this with some of my Chinese students who, having returned home, were blocked from accessing some class-related sites and software.)

Now, all of the preceding discussion is based on a single, rickety assumption: that American higher education will follow the Biden China policy. Obviously this is unlikely at a national level. American colleges and universities have various levels of autonomy, as do their members, depending on their private or public nature, tenure status of faculty, financial clout, political resources, and so on.  These institutions are famously hard to corral.

Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine dissent.  Progressives may criticize an increasingly strong anti-China policy as racist. Researchers and instructors can object to externally imposed restrictions on their practices, and cite academic freedom.  Faculty, staff, and students opposed to war and military enterprises may object to such a new Cold War as dangerous. Financially minded campus leaders may dread economic impacts on their institutions.  On geopolitical grounds some academics might see an anti-Beijing policy as just wrongheaded, perhaps preferring one aimed at another threat (Russia, Islamicists).

The preceding discussion also rests on the assumption that this is an accurate read on the Biden and Xi administrations’ actions for the near and medium term future. I could easily be wrong. Biden might be opening hard in order to set up negotiations, or he could die and a president Harris take policy in a different direction. The Chinese government’s grasp on power might slide.  Climate change could loom so large as a thread that Beijing and Washington decide to partner, rather than feud, in order to address that pressing crisis.

But if these assumptions play out, what then? What becomes of the academy?

(Thanks to many friends for conversation. I will follow up with more on this theme.)

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3 Responses to How might American academia respond to rising tensions with China?

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    I’m a little confused here.
    First, it’s all about change, but then you turn around and dismiss that.

    “… imagine senators and/or representatives writing higher education incentives and disincentives into various bills, including whatever happens to the Higher Education Act reauthorization. Second, as each Congressional senator and representative is a state politician, they can exert some form of influence on their state’s government, which can them impact higher ed in multiple policy and legal ways.”

    Then, closer to reality, is:
    “Now, all of the preceding discussion is based on a single, rickety assumption: that American higher education will follow the Biden China policy. Obviously this is unlikely at a national level. American colleges and universities have various levels of autonomy, as do their members, depending on their private or public nature, tenure status of faculty, financial clout, political resources, and so on. These institutions are famously hard to corral.”

  2. Glen McGhee says:

    Here’s Malcolm Gladwell via David Labaree’s blog that includes some cultural assessments that need airing in any assessment of “Chinese” citizens.
    https://davidlabaree.com/2021/03/08/malcolm-gladwell-on-what-an-iq-test-really-measures/

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