American Complicity in Chinese Authoritarianism: Background information when reading The Scientist and the Spy

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The Scientist and the Spy

A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage

by Mara Hvistendahl

The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl X
The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Feb 2021, 336 pages

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About this Book

American Complicity in Chinese Authoritarianism

This article relates to The Scientist and the Spy

Print Review

Under President Bill Clinton, the United States agreed to allow the People's Republic of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The deal was finalized under President George W. Bush in December 2001. It was believed at the time that international trade would help depose one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world like perestroika did with the Soviets. American corporations were salivating with glee over the (at the time) 1.2 billion potential customers they might sell goods to, as well as the cheap labor pool China would bring to the global market.

It was an educated, if optimistic, geopolitical gambit by the U.S., and it did not play out as hoped. Today the Chinese Communist Party oversees the world's largest army and second-largest economy, and in numerous ways has become the most powerful nation-state on the world stage. It has also used its economic prowess to become even more authoritarian and illiberal than in the past.

It has done this in a variety of ways. First, economic success has raised the overall standard of living for most and allowed some to become wealthy. An affluent society is much more amenable to putting up with state restrictions on human rights. Second, it has created the world's most technologically advanced police state, with surveillance technologies such as facial recognition street cameras and communications interception systems that squash opposition or dissidence. The Great Firewall—an unparalleled censorship system—controls the internet, social media, and press, making it nearly impossible to see or hear anything critical about the ruling party. Finally, China has used its economic muscle to buy influence and corrupt liberal-democratic institutions overseas—stifling any critique of its regime globally.

One of these institutional targets is mass media—in particular, Hollywood. China is a gargantuan media market and consumes over $7 billion worth of cinema a year. No media studio wants to risk the ire of the Chinese Communist Party. Doing so could prevent a studio or publisher from accessing the Chinese market completely. Notably, there have been few to no movies critiquing the Chinese government since China joined the WTO.

Another Western institution that has turned a blind eye to the Chinese government's human rights abuses and totalitarianism is the American university system. You may remember the Free Tibet campus protests of the 1980s, and perhaps even the Falun Gong religious protestors of the 1990s. Though organizations representing these groups still exist, they no longer flourish on campuses. Nor will you find much support for the Hong Kong democratic protestors at American universities, as they fear alienating the People's Republic students paying handsomely to attend.

American universities actively recruit Chinese students and obviously do not want to lose this source of tuition money. (Nearly 370,000 Chinese students attended American universities in the 2018-2019 school year.) Campuses that espouse freedom of expression have gone mute when China sentences its students studying in America to prison for tweeting GIFs disparaging the communist leader, as happened at the University of Minnesota in December 2019. Money has bought academic silence. American universities are complicit in the maintenance of Chinese illiberalism.

Beyond using students to create institutional dependency, the Chinese government has also been actively using Chinese academics as spies within U.S. institutions of higher learning, as well as paying off non-Chinese professors and administrators for their knowledge. Professors frequently find themselves in an ethically tenuous situation once they have had research funded by the Chinese or been paid in cash for giving talks in China.

In recent months the FBI has begun to more aggressively investigate American and Chinese professors for espionage on U.S. campuses. The head of the Chemistry Department at Harvard University, for example, was recently arrested for espionage and lying to the FBI about millions of dollars he received from the Chinese government. Akin to Robert Mo going to prison in The Scientist and the Spy, this form of espionage—bribing academics to hand over technology and research that the federal government funded—is low risk for the Chinese government. In the end, only small fish (e.g., the Harvard chemistry professor) pay for the crime. Most will not be caught, and no matter what, few will be in a position to speak out against China.

Chinese citizens are legally required to work on behalf of their government at its request. The repercussions if you refuse can be severe. Those living overseas can be arrested when they return to China or prevented from seeing family. They don't have a choice in the matter—they must support the Communist Party or face the consequences.

Americans do have a choice on the other hand. At a considerable number of universities in the U.S. right now, many are turning a blind eye, opting for money over moral and humanitarian legitimacy.

- Stephen Mrozek, pseudonym for an American university professor who may wish to take their daughter to see the Great Wall one day

Filed under Society and Politics

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Scientist and the Spy. It originally ran in March 2020 and has been updated for the February 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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