Do Duke’s principles and values call for a rethinking of its involvement with China?

In the aftermath of the removal of a memorial of Robert E. Lee from its chapel, Duke University established a “Commission on Memory and History at Duke” that, among other things, is to propose principles “related to the appropriateness of a memorial or the naming of a facility on campus.”  Its charter states that these “principles should reflect the deep values of the university…”

This prompted some questions in my mind:  am I correct in assuming that Duke’s principles and values include opposition to slavery and discrimination, a commitment to freedom, and support for national security?  If so, does information now available suggest that Duke ought to rethink its involvement with China?

Allow me provide some context for my queries:  according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, China has 3,388,400 people living in modern slavery.  (This horrifying number approaches the 3.9 million slaves in the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War. )

Furthermore, last year Washington Post journalist Ishaan Tharoor reported that “China and India have a huge problem with racism toward black people.”  According to Tharoor, “many Africans who have come in the tens of thousands to China and India as students and businessmen, petty merchants and backpackers, complain of persistent racism.” (Emphasis added.)  He also relates:

In China, it’s a similar picture [as India].  In a 2013 account, an African American English teacher recounted his students complaining about their instructor:  “I don’t want to look at his black face all night,” one said.  Africans across the country, whether on university campuses or elsewhere, have also been subject to attack and abuse. (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, even more reasons to be troubled have emerged recently: in the past week the New York Times’ reportage of the Chinese Communist Party Congress shows that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has imposed greater “political repression outside the party, including a crackdown on activists and more stringent media censorship, including on the internet.”  In a separate article, the Times says that in advance of the Communist Party Congress:

The police and military swarm the streets at all hours, checking documents and questioning passers-by.  Political critics have been jailed, placed under surveillance or sent to the countryside.  Popular gathering spots like nightclubs have been shuttered and home-sharing services like Airbnb banned.

As China’s political elites converge on Beijing this week for a seminal Communist Party meeting, President Xi Jinping is sending a stern message to China and the world: I am in charge, and nothing can stand in my way. (Emphasis added).

The Times quotes Frances Eve, a researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, as saying that “Left unchecked…Xi’s vision of totalitarian control would see civil society eliminated and freedom of opinion and expression strangled.” (Emphasis added.)  (Although it predates Xi taking power, Duke had a distressing incident in 2008 – see here.)

And today the Washington Post reports that the Communist Party Congress wrote Xi Jinping into its constitution, an act which will “make Xi the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.”  The Post cites Francois Godement, director of the China-Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and declares:

“Under [Xi’s] reign, there is no more hope of convergence,” said [Francois] Godement, referring to the idea that China would become more open, more ruled by law and more democratic, as it became wealthier, that its interests and political system with ultimately converge with those of the West. 

The article, by Simon Denyer, the Post’s China bureau chief, then says that Xi “promotes a nationalist, assertive China, with a much stronger military” and that for China, the “idea of political reform in a Western sense is now firmly out of the window.” (Emphasis added.)

All of this is especially important for students and educators at Duke because the University has done much more than merely build a “memorial” in China, it has spent tens of millions to build an entire campus there.  That decision was filled with good intentions over the years, but the information now emerging ought to give pause, and drive a rethinking of at least part of the University’s plans.

For example, beyond the recent reports of slavery, racism, and the suppression of freedom in China, U.S. national security should be another source of very major concern.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford testified to Congress in late September that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.”  (This is consistent with the threat analysis found in National Intelligence Estimates provided by the Directors of National Intelligence of both the Obama and Trump Administrations.)

Central to the emergence of the Chinese threat is the military modernization Xi Jinping spoke about at the Communist Party Congress this month, and specifically his call for “more innovation in weaponry.”  Last May, the U.S. Department of Defense in its annual report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 said:

“China’s military modernization is targeting capabilities with the potential to degrade core U.S. military-technological advantages. To support this modernization, China uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including cyber theft, targeted foreign direct investment, and exploitation of the access of private Chinese nationals to such technologies.” (Emphasis added.)

Regarding the “access of private Chinese nationals to such technologies,” America welcomes more students from China than any other country.  Duke has been exceptionally welcoming in that CollegeFactual reports that “[o]ver the last five years the total Chinese population of students on campus has grown at an average rate of 11.5%,” and they “could account for as much as 8.4% of the entire student body.”  Without question, Chinese and other international students can enrich campus life and I (and I think many others) would agree that it’s great to expose them to our freedoms and our way of life.  Duke needs to think global.

However, while I don’t really know the situation at Duke, the Wall Street Journal suggested in 2016 that – nationally – Chinese students “are finding themselves separated from their American peers, sometimes through choice,” and that many “are having a tough time fitting in and keeping up with classes.”  I suppose then that we should not be surprised that Forbes found that China’s “best and brightest” do not stay in the U.S.; rather, “82.23% of the students who studied abroad returned to China last year, up from 72.38% in 2012.”

We should still hope that they take back to China the best of America’s liberal values and principles – and that might very often be the case (I just don’t know).  What is not in doubt, however, is that they certainly return with a lot of technical expertise.  U.S. News tells us that a rather sizable percentage of the Chinese students in the U.S. – 42.7 percent – are studying in areas related to science, technology, engineering and math.  These disciplines  can certainly enable peaceful activities, but the uncomfortable truth is that they are also precisely the kind of courses that will help China innovate and modernize its weaponry as the now super-empowered President Xi said this past week he wants to happen.

So what about Duke in China?  According to the University, Duke’s China campus (which will mostly serve Chinese students) will offer an undergraduate major in “material science with a focus in physics.”  Duke describes this course as follows:

Many of tomorrow’s innovations in fields such as fast computing, renewable energy generation, batteries, and transportation will rely on the unique and novel properties of materials. The development of such materials requires integrated knowledge in physics, chemistry, and biology, along with advanced mathematics and computation. Material Science/Physics introduces students to atomic structure, macroscopic elastic and thermodynamic properties, electric and magnetic properties, and fabrication methods and applications.

If it isn’t already obvious, physics and material science are key disciplines with respect to many aspects of national security, but particularly nuclear weapons – and that should be disturbing.  Stratfor reported earlier this year that:

China is in the middle of a campaign to expand both the scope and capabilities of its nuclear forces. Not only is it adding newer and more capable ballistic missiles to active duty, but it is also expanding its capabilities in other areas, such as the development of technologies that would give its missiles the ability to carry multiple warheads and the buildup of the sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent.

Duke’s China campus will also be offering “applied mathematics with a focus in computation” – another area with significant national security implications.  Here’s how Duke describes that major:

The study of applied mathematics and computational sciences deals with the use of mathematical concepts and computational techniques in various fields of science and engineering. It has become an indispensable component of almost every discipline of science, engineering, industry, and technology.

Again, I would think that most would recognize how this area of science enables weapons’ developments, but if not, consider that in the waning days of the Obama Administration, the National Security Agency and the Department of Energy (which has a vital role with respect to nuclear weapons) issued a report which warned that “national security requires the best computing available, and loss of leadership in [high Performance Computing] will severely compromise our national security.” (Emphasis added.)

In an alarming story that came out just yesterday (“China speeds ahead of U.S. as quantum race escalates, worrying scientists”) journalist Tim Johnson says that “China’s quickening advances and spending on quantum communications and computing, revolutionary technologies that could give a huge military and commercial advantage to the nation that conquers them.”  (Emphasis added.)  Johnson also explains that the:

Military applications are vast and range beyond breaking enemy encryption to include quantum-enabled weaponry, navigation systems that can’t be jammed, and the use of quantum-powered artificial intelligence in war fighting. (Emphases added.)

In short, with the all this recent information about China and its authoritarian regime, don’t we need to ask ourselves some tough questions?

While we absolutely should welcome Chinese students to study the full range of liberal arts (as well as business, law, and even sophisticated medical science), does that also mean we should offer courses in China in the exact technologies that China can use to develop “more innovation in weaponry” as Xi Jinping wants?   Weaponry that clearly can threaten the U.S. and the nearly quarter of humanity that America’s treaties and commitments call upon it to defend?

Moreover, shouldn’t opposition to slavery be a modern-day principle and not just a historical, symbolic one?  Are we, in effect, giving a stamp of approval to a country where millions live modern-day slavery if we don’t speak – and act – boldly against it there?

And given the obvious power of the Chinese state (and taking into account how we’ve recently seen China use that power) is it realistic to think that Duke’s China campus can become in the foreseeable future “a sea of academic freedom in an ocean of repression”? 

As we like to say on Lawfire, get the facts, consider the arguments, and decide for yourself!.

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