By Peter Zhang
Recently, there has been some buzz in the media about President Donald Trump’s alleged characterization of virtually every Chinese student studying in the United States as being a spy, despite the fact that he didn’t identify the country by name. While the mainstream media might find his words far-fetched, Trump wasn’t totally off the mark.
On Feb. 13, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified at a Senate hearing that a massive Chinese intelligence espionage network, “whether it’s professors, scientists, students,” is in operation at universities across the United States. “We see [that] in almost every field office the FBI has around the country. It’s not just major cities. It’s small ones as well,” he said.
“I think the level of naiveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it.”
There are some 350,000 students from mainland China (about 35 percent of all foreign students in America) currently enrolled at U.S. higher-education institutions. According to Michael Wessel, commissioner of the congressional U.S.–China Economic Security Review Commission, Beijing is recruiting some of them to secure technology knowhow.
Cases such as Ruopeng Liu, a former Duke doctoral student accused of passing sensitive technology to China, aren’t uncommon, although often not as sensationally covered as a Russian spy story by the press.
The Shady CSSAs
Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) exist at virtually all U.S. universities that have enrolled Chinese students. They are influenced and frequently funded by their local Chinese consulates.
These are not typical student clubs; rather, they serve to monitor fellow Chinese students and carry out a variety of state missions such as harassing the so-called anti-China speakers on campus and greeting any visiting Chinese leaders, rain or shine, outside their hotels.
In 2015, when Chinese head of state Xi Jingping was in Washington, the Chinese Embassy used WeChat and relied on these CSSAs to mobilize some 700 Chinese students from nearby universities to show up, waving red flags to welcome their communist leader, each being compensated later with $20 for their effort; some were even bused into town from locations hours away, such as Virginia Tech.
In a jaw-dropping example, hundreds of Chinese students studying in Europe were flown to Iceland when Jiang Zemin made an official state visit there in 2002. The Iceland authorities fell on their knees to receive Jiang, while denying the entry of hundreds of Falun Gong and Tibetan protesters at the Reykjavík–Keflavík Airport, using a blacklist provided by Beijing.
As if such CSSAs weren’t bold enough in their missions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has openly set up its branches on university campuses across America.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, a student member of the CCP cell at the University of Illinois said: “After we went back to China, we had one-on-one meetings with our teachers. We talked about ourselves and others’ performance abroad. … We had to talk about whether other students had some anti-party thought.”
Such CCP cells are operating in California, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
The culture of students spying on one other isn’t unique in an Orwellian society. In fact, students are also encouraged to report on their professors.
As a result of tip-offs from students, professor You Shengdong of Xiamen University, professor Zhai Juhong of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, and professor Tan Song of Chongqing Normal University have all been suspended from teaching for making politically incorrect comments in the classroom.
I once asked a Chinese student, a devoted Christian: “Why would you answer the CSSA’s call to greet the visiting Chinese leader while your underground church brothers and sisters in China are hiding and being persecuted by this atheist communist regime? If anything, I could understand if you would go and protest on their behalf.”
He was visibly at a loss, struggling between whether he should fulfill his patriotic duty or defend his personal faith. Neither was he able to differentiate what has become an ambiguous line between China and the CCP, thanks to decades of systematic propaganda that has equated the nation with the party.
Some of these active CSSA members may very likely have parents or grandparents who went through a tough time during the Cultural Revolution, but the CCP seems to have succeeded in convincing these students that “without the CCP, there is no New China,” according to a universal slogan.
Dr. Jingduan Yang, an Oxford-trained psychiatrist, was the first Chinese doctor who sought to explain the internal conflict the Chinese people have suffered all these years.
At a well-attended Yenching Auditorium at Harvard in May 2006, Dr. Yang used the case of the famous Chinese writer Ding Ling to illustrate how the entire Chinese population has been a victim of Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome, coined after a 1973 bank robbery that took place in Sweden, is used to describe the paradoxical feelings a victim experiences for his or her abuser.
Ding Ling, who barely survived the living hell of the “Anti-Rightist Movement” in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, to the surprise of many, ended up vigorously defending the CCP’s “Anti-Rightist Movement” after she was rehabilitated. Of course, Ding Ling wasn’t alone in this regard, as an Orwellian society that is sustained by fear and mind control can mass-produce individuals with such distorted thinking.
Although no one living in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai compound—the headquarters for the CCP—may have ever heard of B.F. Skinner, it appears that they have certainly mastered his behavior-modification model, better perhaps than many counselors in the West.
Skinner’s model, referred to as operant conditioning, is based on the premise that behavior can be shaped by external stimuli. Through multiple experiments, Skinner discovered that such stimulation, specifically rewards or punishments, is most likely to impact behavior in a well-controlled environment. Few regimes have done a better job than the CCP in isolating their citizens to better manipulate and control their thinking and behavior.
Often, longtime victims of Stockholm syndrome may not be aware that their thinking is distorted or that they have been victimized. From a young age, Chinese people aren’t educated with objective facts but instead indoctrinated with ideas the government wants them to believe. This is dangerous for the Chinese people, as well for those living outside China’s borders.
This is not to say that a democratic government is completely free of ideological manipulation, but there is a big difference: The success of a democracy depends on the active participation of its citizens whereas the success of a communist regime depends on the passive adherence of its populace, which can only be achieved through relentless propaganda and a draconian grip on all media, including a well-insulated intranet for its 600 million internet users.
Therefore, the only treatment for an entire people held hostage by a massive authoritarian system is a free society.
Overcoming the effects of Stockholm syndrome or other types of mind control from years of communist education is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks facing all Chinese people, particularly overseas students who have a decent opportunity to transform themselves in a free society. George Orwell wrote in “1984,” “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Instead of offering overseas Chinese students scientific and technology know-how exclusively, U.S. universities may find it a worthy cause to invest resources in studying mind control and Stockholm syndrome under the Chinese communist system. Workshops on these topics may help students overcome the traumatic effects of the constant and insidious propaganda to which they were subjected, so that they can feel safe enough to think critically and creatively.
Winston Churchill said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” If we are to help China become a peaceful and trustworthy nation, nurturing a healthy mind is perhaps a good place to start.
Peter Zhang contributed this article which was previously published on EET. He is a researcher on political economy in China and a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the Harvard Kennedy School.