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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is dedicated to perfecting its global narrative, employing a combination of coercion and co-optation tactics to shape public discourse both within China and abroad. As part of its strategy, Beijing has increasingly intimidated global academia, targeting both individual scholars and higher education institutions. This includes Beijing’s regulation of academic activities through government-funded programs and informal networks and the erosion of the academic institutions’ autonomy by promoting financial dependency. 

Infiltrating Academia: Students and Scholars

A key player in this strategy is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a CCP agency focused on influence operations and intelligence activities. Central to its mission is the orchestration of China’s work abroad, aimed at establishing a global network to influence local politics, economics, diaspora communities, and academia. The UFWD has a significant presence within global academia, seeking to ensure that critical voices are either co-opted or coerced into silence. 

In 2015, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping acknowledged overseas Chinese students as a new key focus of UFWD’s overseas operations, recognizing them as valuable assets for managing foreign discourse. Xi’s approach requires these students to align their personal aspirations with the overarching vision of the “Chinese Dream,” urging them to acquire knowledge abroad that benefits the regime and “serve their nation” both abroad and upon their return.

CCP-Sponsored Scholarships

The China Scholarship Council (CSC) is one of many scholarship providers in China. It distributes funding to thousands of Chinese students pursuing studies abroad and international students studying in China each year. Overseen by the UFWD, the CSC operates as a nonprofit organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. 

Under the CSC scholarship, students are obligated to adhere to CCP directives. Scrutiny of the CSC intensified after Swedish media revealed the loyalty pledge recipients were required to sign. Applicants are explicitly required to endorse the CCP’s leadership, comply with Xi’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” undergo an assessment of their political ideology, and accept the “guidance and management” of Chinese diplomats, including declaring allegiance to the CCP and maintaining regular contact with the embassy. Should students fail to comply or engage in actions deemed detrimental to national interests, they and their families may face penalties. 

Despite the lack of academic independence inherent in CSC scholarships, fully funded CSC doctoral students are financially attractive to universities abroad. For instance, in the Netherlands, while CSC scholarships cover recipients’ tuition and living expenses, the universities receive bonuses from the Dutch Government for each successfully defended PhD dissertation. 

Amid criticism, CSC recipients have defended their scholarship requirements, stating that these are common in contracts in China and only have “symbolic meaning.”

Military Linked Research

Universities have also expressed concern over research supporting the Chinese military, as evidenced by several well-known universities in Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the US cutting ties with such government-funded programs. 

Under Xi’s strategy of “Military-Civil Fusion” (MCF), the CCP has made substantial investments in science and technology to realize a “world-class” military by 2050. This doctrine, directly overseen by Xi, mandates that independent research, including by Chinese science and technology enterprises, must serve to advance China’s economic and military development. 

As part of this effort, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sends thousands of military personnel for educational exchange abroad before returning to China’s military system — called “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China” (异国采花中华酿蜜). 

In the Netherlands, more than 90 Chinese military scientists have studied as PhD students over the past decade, most returning to China’s military system afterward. Some students confirmed that their purpose was to learn groundbreaking science and technology to serve their military.

Deutsche Welle’s research reveals that 26 prominent Chinese researchers in Germany — in fields such as mathematics, computer science, natural sciences, and technology — were employed at elite universities with close ties to the Chinese military. Twenty-two returned to China through the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP)1, the CCP’s flagship talent recruitment program aimed at top scientists in fields relevant to MCF. A 2022 investigation found that nearly 3,000 scientific publications were collaborations between European researchers and military universities in China.

Scientists sent by Chinese military-affiliated universities, whether for short-term exchanges, PhD studies, or collaborative research, typically specialize in fields crucial to the MCF scheme, such as artificial intelligence, computer vision, and quantum research. One such military affiliate is the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), China’s top military institution, operating under the Central Military Commission chaired by Xi Jinping. NUDT has an extensive overseas network, dedicating significant resources to Chinese military missions and involvement in Chinese espionage activities abroad. 

In 2019, a Chinese spy who defected revealed that NUDT’s “intelligence center” had provided him with a fake passport for a mission in Taiwan aimed at interfering with elections. In 2020, a federal arrest warrant was issued for NUDT researcher Yanqing Ye for falsely identifying herself as a “student” and concealing her ongoing military service at NUDT. While at Boston University, Ye was an active PLA lieutenant, carrying out missions with access to US military websites and documents.

China has dedicated significant efforts and resources to improving its military technology, and partnerships with foreign universities are considered instrumental to that progress. Xi does not view these collaborations as bona fide academic projects but as information that can be used and weaponized to further national interests. As Xi stated in 2013, “science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland.” Consequently, it can be challenging for researchers to ascertain whether their collaborative research and innovations are being shared with and used by the Chinese military to perpetuate atrocities such as the Uyghur genocide.  

Intimidating Foreign Academics

While the CCP exploits the research of Chinese students abroad through government-funded programs, Chinese diplomats also suppress foreign scholars and their research. One notable case is New Zealand professor Anne-Marie Brady. Brady faced written threats and break-ins at her home and office for her report analyzing China’s political influence activities in Western democracies. 

Such tactics have escalated in aggression, leading to scholars facing visa denials, frozen assets, and even sanctions for their academic endeavors. For example, European scholars Jo Smith Finley, Björn Jerdén, and Adrian Zenz were sanctioned for their scholarly activities and for engaging in public discourse on China and their human rights violations in the Uyghur Region. 

Chinese embassies and consulates are also involved in hostile behavior to muzzle academics. Political historian and director of the SOAS China Institute in London, Professor Steve Tsang, faced pressure from university administrators to refrain from criticizing Xi or CCP policies publicly. The Chinese embassy in London even summoned Tsang to cancel invitations to Taiwanese politicians to speak at the school. Pressure from Beijing allegedly resulted in the closure of the School of Chinese Studies at Nottingham University in 2016. 

Similarly, in 2021, the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., pressured officials of the US National Academy of Sciences twice to disinvite the Dalai Lama and Taiwanese Nobel Prize recipient Lee Yuan-Tseh during the Nobel Prize Summit, which, when ignored, resulted in two apparent cyberattacks. The Chinese government has attempted to censor Lee on multiple occasions, including the embassy in Brazil’s attempt to prevent his attendance at the Rio+20 meeting in 2011.

Informal Informant Networks on Campus 

In China, university students are encouraged to monitor and report their professors and fellow students if they engage in academic activities that contradict the official discourse of the CCP. University professors face the risk of suspension or other disciplinary actions for teaching subjects deemed sensitive, particularly those prohibited in Doc. 9 — a widely circulated secret document that prohibits universities from teaching topics such as constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and Western notions of human rights. Students have been reportedly punished for participating in anti-COVID “white-paper” demonstrations or distributing rainbow flags on campus, often after being reported by their peers.

Practices of peer-to-peer surveillance extend beyond China’s border to campuses abroad, where the CCP leverages its overseas informal networks of Chinese students and student unions, such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA), to spy on academic activities on foreign campuses.

CSSAs, under the control of the United Front Work Department, is the official organization for overseas Chinese students and scholars. The CSSA network comprises party loyalists dedicated to fulfilling Xi’s call of “studying abroad to serve the country.” Members are encouraged to monitor and report on individuals and events critical of China’s domestic policies. Despite presenting as non-political student-led organizations, CSSAs have a history of reporting and harassing individuals and activities on campus. At UChicago, the local CSSA requested to cancel Nathan Law’s speech, the UC San Diego CSSA prevented the Dalai Lama from giving a commencement address, and the president the CSSA’s Egypt chapter reportedly interrogated Uyghur students about their Islamic practices on behalf of Chinese and Egyptian authorities. CSSA members even facilitated a crackdown of over 200 Uyghur students, who were subsequently deported and arrested. 

CSSAs are also committed to promoting the Chinese narrative within their respective universities, publicly censoring discourse on sensitive topics such as Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and the Uyghur Region. In 2021, representatives of the Bristol CSSA requested the removal of the Flag of East Turkestan from a cultural event poster titled “Oppressive Regime Series – Focus on Xinjiang,” falsely claiming it represented a terrorist group. After the organizer complied with the removal, CSSA representatives pushed for the deletion of the word “oppressive” from the event title, citing a lack of factual evidence to support characterizing the Chinese regime as such.

Additionally, CSSAs receive direct instructions from Chinese Embassies and diplomats. The former chairwoman of the Durham CSSA in the UK claimed that the Chinese Embassy required her to “intervene” in a university lecture titled “China’s Threat to the West.” The president of the Durham Union, who hosted a similar debate, also confirmed receiving numerous messages opposing the event, followed by a threatening call from the Chinese embassy warning of potential trade repercussions for the UK if the debate proceeded.

Chinese embassies and consulates also exert pressure and control over individual students, requiring them to monitor and report campus activities  — an extension of China’s domestic peer-to-peer reporting culture. Certain Chinese students, already primed with nationalist sentiment from their domestic education, naturally follow the embassy’s guidance of their own volition. However, those who refuse to cooperate face consequences; they become targets alongside other students whose views contradict the official Chinese narrative. If identified by their classmates, photographed, or reported to Chinese law enforcement, they and their families in China may even face harassment and threats, including physical violence and cyberbullying.

In 2019, a student photographed a Chinese student in Edinburgh holding a sign supporting free elections in Hong Kong and condemning police violence. Upon his return to Chengdu, China, the photos were posted on Chinese social media with the caption “Brothers from Chengdu, beat him to death,” which garnered 10,000 shares. Another student at the University of Minnesota was sentenced to jail for posting cartoon images of Lawrence Limburger and Winnie the Pooh, a character used to mock Xi. He was accused of denigrating the national leader’s image and creating a negative social impact.

University professors also fall prey to this reporting scheme, facing pressure from Chinese students regarding anything that deviates from CCP orthodoxy. Professors have been coerced into apologizing for referring to Taiwan as an independent country or displaying maps of the China-India border that may trigger Chinese students in the class. In extreme cases, certain modules have been removed from university programs, as when University College London professor Michelle Shipworth was banned from teaching a course due to complaints from Chinese students about her lecture mentioning China’s modern slavery index. 

Ensnaring Institutions: Global Universities  

The growing reliance on Chinese students’ tuition fees and funding from the Chinese government is raising concerns about Western universities’ acquiescence to telling China’s story on the Chinese dictatorship’s terms. 

In leading British universities, approximately 25% of tuition fee income comes from Chinese students, not accounting for additional state and military-sponsored funding. For example, Jesus College of Cambridge University receives large amounts of funding from both the Chinese government and the Beijing-affiliate and UK-banned Chinese telecom company Huawei

Within Cambridge University, the Chong Hua professorship in development studies is funded and controlled by Wen Ruchun, the daughter of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Peter Nolan, a professor from Jesus College and current Chong Hua Chair, also has deep ties to the CCP and a record of discouraging student discussions on controversial topics such as Uyghur human rights and the Hong Kong democracy movement. Nolan also leads Jesus College’s China Forum, which has drawn scrutiny due to its charity link with the Cambridge China Development Trust, where Nolan is a trustee. This trust organizes annual China Executive Leadership Programs, sponsored by CCP’s Central Committee, with previous participants including executive members of the Party Committee and officials from the UFWD. 

China increasingly infringes upon global academic discourse. In 2021, Fudan University signed a memorandum of understanding with the Hungarian government to establish an international campus in Budapest. This was met with widespread opposition due to concerns about increased Chinese influence in Europe. The university, previously one of China’s most liberal institutions, also saw its academic freedom hampered when the CCP removed the phrase “freedom of thought” and included a pledge to follow CCP leadership in its university charter.  

Satellite campuses of Western universities in China, such as NYU Shanghai, are even more vulnerable to CCP censorship and influence. NYU terminated its fellowship with pro-democracy activist Chen Guangcheng in anticipation of the inauguration of its Shanghai campus and adopted self-censorship by adding “patriotic education” courses to its curriculum to adhere to Chinese academic norms. 

Resorting to Self-Censorship

This chilling effect results in international students and Chinese students who support pro-democracy efforts alike becoming targets of retaliation. Often the first to succumb to self-censorship, many Chinese students carefully curate their academic activities, from course selection to research topics, to avoid scrutiny. Many instances of self-censorship and harassment go undocumented, which in turn contributes to universities’ failure to address issues associated with diminishing academic freedoms on campuses. 

Additionally, many China experts grapple with navigating academic freedom and CCP pressures, as many of their research subjects can easily be perceived as too sensitive. Many tread cautiously, refraining from overly critical discourse to maintain access and funding while also resisting the complete adoption of the official Chinese dictatorship narrative to preserve academic integrity.

Some universities have become increasingly vigilant, scrutinizing lectures and even terminology deemed politically sensitive. One notable example is a North American university’s Asian Studies department, which revised its guidelines to categorize topics like “Tibetan independence” and “Hinduism from a critical perspective” as sensitive terms. 

The delicate balancing act adopted by scholars and institutions underscores the far-reaching influence of the Chinese regime’s assertiveness and the urgent need for a robust defense of academic freedom globally. 


As signs of pushback, the US has reduced the number of Confucius Institutes (CIs), and the UK banned over 1,000 Chinese researchers who were a risk to national security from working in the UK, signaling a recognition of the CCP’s transnational repression of global academia. However, Beijing’s influence persists. The intricate web is stitched together by the enticement of Chinese money, Beijing’s intimidation and fear tactics, and the reluctance of many Western institutions to acknowledge the severity of the situation. The lack of reporting and protection mechanisms may leave international Chinese students and faculty vulnerable to CCP coercion and co-optation, forcing them to self-censor to avoid potential trouble.

It is crucial not to indiscriminately ostracize all students and researchers associated with China. Universities should instead adopt individualized approaches when assessing if the student is a victim of or complicit in Beijing’s transnational repression. A comprehensive investigation is also necessary to identify the risks associated with collaborative research involving Chinese researchers and to ground cooperation in transparency and integrity. Universities must also prioritize ethical due diligence while minimizing financial reliance on Chinese funding, thereby safeguarding academic autonomy and integrity.

1 In 2018, due to heightened scrutiny and investigations into TTP with regards to intellectual property theft, the relevant units are required to refrain from publicly mentioning the term TTP (千人计划), and by 2020, the term was completely blocked from Chinese online discourse. However, it was quietly reintroduced in 2023 under the new name of “Enlightenment Plan” (启明计划).