Category Archives: Education

US Drops Charges Against Chinese Military Academics

AS A MATTER of record, this Bystander should note that the US Department of Justice has dropped charges against five Chinese academics accused of concealing their ties to the People’s Liberation Army.

The five faced charges of visa fraud, as we wrote at the time.

The cases were dropped shortly before the trial of one of the five, Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with court papers), was about to start on July 26. The Justice Department said it had ‘determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss [the charges]’.

That reflects some internal concerns that the cases were not legally watertight on some technicalities. Further, courts had already dismissed parts of two cases because the FBI had not properly informed the defendants of their rights against self-incrimination.

Reading between the lines, the Trump administration, which brought the charges, was overreaching in its efforts to find spies among Chinese academics working at US universities.

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China Cracks Down On E-Tutors

Screenshot of home page of New Oriental Education and Technology Group, China's largest e-tutoring company, taken on July 25, 2021

CHINA’S CRACKDOWN ON the tech sector has opened a new front — education technology (‘edtech’).

E-tutoring companies that teach compulsory parts of the school curriculum material can no longer make profits, accept foreign investment or list on stock markets. They are also barred from teaching foreign curricula and employing tutors overseas.

It is a radical upending of the fast expanding $100 billion edtech industry and more disruptive than anything that the fintech and platform app tech companies have been subjected to.

Motivations for the new measures are likely various: the general bringing to heel of the private tech sector that authorities fear is becoming too powerful; satisfying parents’ concern about the expense and stress of private tutoring necessary for their children’s advancement; and, no doubt, Party concern about children being educated outside the state system and thus at risk of not being schooled in the right values.

In a parallel initiative, state schools have been instructed to reduce homework and improve the quality of their after-class services.

Deteriorating mental health among children and young people, especially in cities, where educational, social and work pressures are demanding and competitive, is leading to more adolescents taking antidepressants. Authorities are aware that this could reflect badly on support for the Party.


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Hungary Grows As Beijing’s Peculiar Friend In Europe

HUNGARY OCCUPIES A peculiar place in China-EU relations. The country is run by a populist, right-wing government led by Viktor Orban, who is as strongly anti-communist as he is Eurosceptic.

However, If anything, his rift with Brussels is widening. Beijing is nurturing him as a wedge ally in Europe, although it portrays warm relations with Budapest as a bastion against those trying to weaken the China-EU relationship.

The strategy is meeting with some success. Hungary recently blocked the EU from issuing a statement criticising China’s treatment of Hong Kong. It was the first EU country to accept shipments of the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine, Sinopharm, against Brussels’ wishes, and has plans to produce it locally. Orban is also advocating the ratification of the EU-China investment agreement, about which many member states are now having second thoughts. He awarded a multi-billon dollar project to upgrade the railway line between Budapest and the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to a Chinese consortium.

Yet this weekend, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to protest against Fudan University opening what would be its first European campus in Budapest. The campus is due to open in 2024 with a student body of some 5,000 and 500 faculty.

The protesters claim that any government subsidies Fudan is receiving would be better spent on Hungarian institutions. The Hungarian government intends to borrow $1.8 billion from China Development Bank to build the campus, and will contract China State Construction Engineering Corp. (CSEC) to do the construction using Chinese labour and materials, according to Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative-journalism site.

CSCE was on US President Donald Trump’s blacklist of companies deemed to have connections with the People’s Liberation Army, although not on the Biden administration’s new list.

The estimated construction cost is more than the Orban government’s annual budget for higher education. This is being reduced by converting public universities into independent non-profits. In 2017, Orban pushed through a higher education law that forced the Soros-funded Central European University to move from Budapest to Vienna to continue functioning as a US institution.

In April, the government amended the law so that foreign-based educational institutions could operate in Hungary if they do so under an inter-governmental agreement. This opened the door for Fudan. The Sino-Hungarian international agreement also seemingly lets the construction bidding be exempt from EU competition law.

A further complaint is that the campus will occupy land previously designated to house domestic university students. The left-wing mayor of Budapest has shown his displeasure by proposing renaming three streets around the campus as Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Street and Uyghur Martyrs’ Road.

That may be more to do with next year’s elections in Hungary than anything; the mayor is seeking to lead an opposition coalition to contest Orban’s Fidesz party. But the street renaming would be a provocation Beijing would find difficult to ignore.

Update: Following the protests, Orban’s chief of staff suggested that the Fudan University project could be put to a referendum in 18 months’ time. This co-opts an opposition proposal but would let the government defer a vote until it is too late to cancel the project. The opposition’s election campaign will likely have a strong anti-corruption and anti-Chinese theme.

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Washington Clamps Down Harder On Chinese Academics

BEIJING HAS REACTED more strongly to the revocation of the visas of 1,000 Chinese graduate students, post-graduate students and researchers in the United States deemed a security risk than it has in the face of many of the recent provocations by the US administration.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said:

This is outright political persecution and racial discrimination. It seriously violates the human rights of these Chinese students,

Zhao added that China reserved the right to ‘further respond’.

In May, US President Donald Trump ordered an immediate halt to the issuance of visas to Chinese graduate and post-graduate students and researchers deemed to be national security threats to the United States because of links to any entity that has a connection with the People’s Liberation Army. He also instructed the State Department to seek ways to revoke those of such students and researchers already in the United States as part of his campaign to deny China access to US technology and slow its military modernisation.

The same month, the administration warned US universities and researchers at pharmaceutical and healthcare firms of attempts by what it says are Chinese state-affiliated hackers to steel coronavirus research.

Following the president’s order, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said:

We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.

The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus a further 4,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk of an additional round of visa revocations. The Department of Justice has also been prosecuting Chinese researchers who it accuses of concealing their military connections in their visa applications.

Chinese students (the majority undergraduates) account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses were excluded from May’s issuance suspension.

However, the State Department recently warned the governing boards of US universities of what it said is the threat to them from illicit Chinese funding for research, intellectual property theft, intimidation of international students and opaque talent recruitment efforts.

It encouraged universities to disclose all Chinese companies that their endowment funds are invested in, especially those in emerging-market index funds, to divest from Chinese companies on the Commerce Department’s entity list and to avoid investing in Chinese companies listed on US stock exchanges (which the administration would like to ban because their accounting does not comply with US standards).

In a separate measure, senior Chinese diplomats in the United States will now require US government permission to visit US university campuses.

As with business, the United States now sees education primarily through a national security lens.

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Air Force Academics Open New US-China Front

IN MAY, CHINESE students with military connections were blocked from pursuing graduate study or postgraduate research at US universities.

By the executive order of US President Donald Trump, the United States suspended the issuance of non-immigrant F and J student visas to such Chinese nationals, effective June 1. It claimed that some students operated as ‘non-traditional collectors of intellectual property’ on behalf Beijing’s ‘wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of…the People’s Liberation Army’.

Newly unsealed papers filed in the San Francisco division of the US district court for the Northern District of California, are providing some detail to that accusation.

They depict an organised attempt by the PLA Air Force to send scientists from the Air Force Military Medical University (AFMMU), formerly the Fourth Military Medical University, and other military institutions to work on US university research programmes without revealing that the participants were in active service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Four people have been charged with related visa fraud, three of whom have been arrested in the United States, it was announced on July 23. Investigations have touched on 25 cities and are continuing.

The proximate case involves a bail hearing for Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with the court papers), a biologist researching at the University of California, Davis. She is said to work for the AFMMU’s Centre for Molecular Translational Medicine. (Translational medicine involves paring basic and clinical research to develop new drugs and medical products, and is a field getting a lot of attention in China.)

Tang is facing charges of visa fraud by making false statements on her application for her J-1 visa (for exchange programmes) last year. She is accused of falsely answering ‘no’ to three questions about whether she is a member of the military and the Party and whether she had had assistance in making the application. If convicted of the charges against her, which do not include any of IP theft at this point, she could face ten years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

The US government wants her held in remand until she comes to trial, believing her a flight risk. However, Tang, who is in her late 30s, is the one of the quartet not in US custody as she has taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. This threatens to create a significant tension point between Washington and Beijing if she is not handed over to US authorities.

Having closed down the Houston consulate-general this week, citing the need to protect US intellectual property, the US president might be tempted to impose the same sanction on the San Francisco consulate, which US intelligence officials hold to be the centre of China’s espionage efforts in the United States.

A similar case, for which the court has also released the bail-hearing papers, involves Song Chen, who is in US custody. A Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, she has been working on neurological research there since the beginning of last year.

Like Tang, she is said to be a member of the AFMMU’s Civilian Cadre, technical specialists regarded as active military personnel. Her affiliations cited on her published academic papers have included the Department of Neurology at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, a clinical teaching hospital for the AFMMU. The court papers regarding her also include a photograph of her in uniform.

More substantive court filings about the cases against Song and Tang have not been made public.

However, in Song’s case, in addition to being accused of committing perjury over her visa application by falsely stating her military duty ended in 2011, she is charged with destroying evidence and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (a federal offence in the United States).

The bail papers refer to ‘several’ similar cases, two of which are identified, Wang Xin, a J-1 visa student at the University of California, San Francisco, and one at Duke University referred to as ‘LT’. Wang was arrested on June 7. The third Chinese student who has been detained has been named as Zhao Kaikai, who was arrested on he same day as Song.

Zhao is studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University. She is said to have attended the Air Force academy, Aviation University, and worked at the National University of Defense Technology, the PLA’s elite scientific research institution.

Chinese students in the United States have increasingly fallen under the suspicious eye of the Trump administration in its relentless determination to keep US technology out of Chinese hands. Its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress identified the openness of academia and the scientific community in the United States as a vulnerability.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said after the May executive order was issued,

We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.

The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus an estimated up-to-5,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk if the administration can make good on its goal of finding a way to cancel existing visas held by Chinese graduate and postgraduate students, and not just stop new issuance.

Chinese students account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses are excluded from the new issuance suspension.

Overall, two in five international students in the United States are undergraduates. However, the more than one in three who are graduates and postgraduates and the further one in five who are working for US companies, as they can do after graduation to get practical experience, are weighted towards Chinese students, and especially in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where there is a shortage of qualified US job applicants. More than one-half of US graduate or higher- level STEM degrees are awarded to international students.

Senator Tom Cotton, a strident Republican critic of China, has introduced legislation into Congress that would bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. His proposal is being fiercely resisted by the US tech industry, which scours the world for the best talent. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told a conference earlier this month that ‘many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese’.  

None the less, a growing atmosphere of hostility towards Chinese students is noticeable in the United States as bilateral relations deteriorate over everything from trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus. At his regular press briefing earlier this week, in response to a question about the ordered closure of the consulate-general in Houston, Texas, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,

For some time, the US government has been … intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.

This week, the Chinese embassy in Washington started organising more charter flights home for Chinese students who have graduated, are about to see their visas expire, or are encountering ‘difficulties staying in the US’. It has already flown about 7,000 home who had been stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This Bystander expects that to be characterised as a military evacuation by the more belligerent China hawks in the United States.


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Kicking Out Freedom Of Thought

THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION, the dominant professional basketball league in the United States, got into hot water politically and commercially in China earlier this year when an official of one of its teams tweeted his support of the protests in Hong Kong.

Football may not carry the same geopolitical sensitivities in this era of Beijing-Washington confrontation as US pro sports. Still, reaction to critical comments over China’s treatment of its Uighurs by Mesut Özil a German of Turkish descent who plays for Arsenal in the English Premier League and who is Muslim, has been no less quick or punitive.

Planned live coverage of Arsenal’s match against the defending league champions Manchester City last weekend was dropped by the state broadcaster, despite the club quickly distancing itself from its player’s comments, saying it was an apolitical organisation.

State and Party media weighed into Özil with both feet. NetEase, the online technology company founded by billionaire Ding Lei, patriotically removed the player from three of its video games, including the highly popular Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 Mobile.

Özil did get support, however, from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted that:

China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Özil and Arsenal’s game all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross human rights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.

Less noticed was that the German club FC Cologne has finally pulled out of a deal to run a training academy in China. Stefan Müller-Römer, a lawyer who is a member of the football club’s council, told his local newspaper that ‘as a non-profit organisation that is socially active, [FC Cologne] cannot support such a brutal and totalitarian dictatorship’.

No such qualms at FIFA, world football’s governing body, which recently voted to stage its inaugural world club championship in China in 2021. Its newly-appointed head of global football development, Arsene Wenger, who when he was the manager of Arsenal signed Ozil for the club, tiptoed along a fine line, saying:

Mesut Özil has freedom of speech like everyone else, and he uses his notoriety to express his opinions, which are not necessarily shared by everybody. What’s important is that Ozil has an individual responsibility…When you make a comment about your individual opinion, you accept the consequences of it.

At least, Özil retains his freedom of speech, even in the politically sanitised world of professional sport. The charters of at least three universities in China, including the relatively liberal Fudan University in Shanghai, have been rewritten to remove or downplay references to academic independence and freedom of thought, with ‘implementing the Party’s direction, principles and policy’ and similar patriotic prescriptions superseding them.


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China Kicks Schools Football Up A Notch

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

ONE AREA IN which China is not an emerging power but wishes it was, is football. As our man among the muddied oafs has noted before, China quietly harbours ambitions of staging a FIFA World Cup.

However, for now, the national team, still recovering from the corruption and match-fixing scandals that beset the professional game in the not so distant past, does not match up to that expectation. Despite its unexpected success in reaching the quarter-finals of the recent Asian Championships, it currently still ranks joint 83rd in the FIFA World rankings (though the women’s national team ranks 16th).

President Xi Jinxing is a fan of the sport, which China claims to have invented (see picture above). Xi also understands the statements about national soft power that sporting success can make. So there is a state plan.

The State Council has issued a 50-point development plan. One of the central points is to switch responsibility for developing the sport to the China Football Association from the General Administration of Sport. That may restore some of the authority the association lost after the corruption scandals.

Another is to boost the game in schools. One immediate impact of this is the creation of a school football leading group. It comprises the education ministry and five other government departments, including the National Development and Reform Commission, which suggests it will have some clout.

The education ministry says it is increasing the number of primary and secondary schools designated as football academies to 20,000 by 2017 from 5,000 now. This will mean they get new facilities including pitches, which across China have been swallowed up for property development in recent years. Thirty counties will trial promoting the development of young players and raising the popularity of the game among schoolchildren.

Last November, education minister Yuan Guiren said that football would become a compulsory part of physical education classes in all schools and that 6,000 school coaches would be trained this year. Seven volumes of instructional text books are in preparation, according to the People’s Daily. The goal is for there to be 50,000 schools specialising in football by 2025. In 2016, football will become an option in the national university entrance examinations in an attempt to overcome parental reluctance to let their children swap studying time for chasing a ball around a pitch.

With Qatar cementing its hold on the 2022 World Cup, the next likely opportunity for China to host the tournament for the first time is 2034. Would China have a team suitably good enough by then? Never discount the power of Party discipline, but as the U.S. has shown, two decades is the bare minimum for raising a generation of footballers good enough to compete with the world’s best.


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Feeding The Mind

It is smart for children to eat well, and eating well can make children smarter. This Bystander’s eye was caught by this story of a type we always find pleasing: research turning into policy with a beneficial outcome.

This particular piece of research was conducted in Shaanxi by a team of researchers from Stanford University in the U.S. which showed that 40% of school children in the rural parts of the province were suffering from anemia, and that their school performance improved once their diet was fortified with iron to address that.

With an estimated one in three children living in rural areas across the country being anemic, Beijing now plans to spend 16 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) a year over the next nine years on a pilot project to improve school meals for 26 million elementary and middle school students in the countryside.

The Stanford researchers conducted their initial study in 2008, with a broader four-province back-up study following.

The results prompted the directive from Beijing last month to improve school meal nutrition. “The social return is huge,” says Scott Rozelle, the research team’s leader. “These kids will be able to do better in school, work harder and sustain China’s growth.”

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