A million imprisoned Muslims — their DNA stored in government databases — are forced to renounce their faith in “re-education” camps. High schoolers are shipped to boarding schools to study autonomous weapons. Plants manufacture fighter jets that look eerily similar to those developed by the Pentagon. Now, this illiberal government is directly challenging the United States in the arms’ race for Artificial Intelligence.
China’s technocratic autocracy represents the greatest threat to the United States since the Cold War. With STEM research and intellectual property at the forefront of this conflict, Stanford and other American universities must formalize a new relationship with the U.S. government: one that protects U.S. national security interests, supports groundbreaking research, and prevents China from surpassing the Artificial Intelligence capabilities of the United States.
Stanford and China
The university serves as the heart of China’s strategy to undermine the United States’ position as the global hegemon. At the epicenter of Silicon Valley and as the preeminent computer science university in the world, Stanford is a unique target for the Chinese government. Stanford and MIT “regularly share strategies to thwart” espionage by the Chinese. Marc Tessier-Lavigne told the faculty senate in October that, "Stanford [is] continually taking steps to protect the integrity of our research and our infrastructure from intrusion.” MTL’s assertive stance against foreign espionage, designed to appease U.S. officials concerned about intellectual property theft, reflects Stanford’s acceptance of $800 million from the U.S. government each year.
Stanford maintains a Confucius Institute on campus, an alleged cross-cultural exchange center designed to facilitate U.S.-China relations that is funded directly by the Chinese government. These institutes, which exists on over 100 American campuses, have faced bipartisan scrutiny. In February 2018 the Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, testified that Confucius Institutes are “just one of many tools that [China] take[s] advantage of” to monitor developing technologies in the United States.
China, however, has not amassed its status as a global technological superpower solely through espionage. As Wray noted, “[a] level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector” exists which the Chinese government is “exploiting.” China need not rely entirely on technological theft because American universities do not treat the Middle Kingdom as an adversarial government.
In 2000, out of the 514,000 international students studying abroad full-time in the United States, just 54,000 came from China. By 2017, the number of total foreign students in the U.S. had doubled to over one million. The number of Chinese students, meanwhile, increased by more than 600%. While China’s economic development and improved secondary schools explain most of this increase, the rapid drop in the percentage of these students staying stateside after graduation, given the odious nature of their government, is more cause for concern. Just 20% of Chinese students returned to mainland China immediately post-graduation in 2000. Now, that figure has quadrupled to 80%. This did not happen by accident. The Economist reports that China is luring U.S.-trained Chinese nationals back to their home country by offering healthcare, housing, and other benefits for workers with advanced American degrees.
The danger of myopic globalism
While Director Wray is correct to identify the alarming inattentiveness towards addressing the problem of foreign espionage on college campuses, this aloofness produces a toxic cycle when combined with America’s restrictive H1B visa policies. First, Stanford provides Chinese nationals a tremendous education in future-oriented disciplines like computer science. Then, the United States government makes it difficult for these graduates to stay in America and work. At the same time, China lures Chinese nationals with U.S. degrees back home through special programs that target high-skilled laborers. Upon return, these graduates found companies with their American acquired knowledge. Because there are no truly private businesses in China, these technologies are then shared with the Chinese government, which then uses this information to develop military capabilities, hack foreign servers, and spy on its own people. The U.S. technological education centers are aiding Chinese governmental oppression.
America’s ruling elite, ranging from the leaders of Stanford to The New York Times, has emphasized the economic benefits brought by Chinese graduate nationals over potential national security risks. Of course, high-level computer science and natural science research results in net-positive economic outcomes for the U.S. However, research had no less instrumental value during the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Since America recognized the U.S.S.R. as a foe, just 17 Russian students studied at American universities each year during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. The United States’ current educational policy toward China would be akin to admitting a massive number of Russian students in the 1960s to study nuclear engineering at American universities and then directing those students back to the Kremlin upon graduation.
Steps toward resolution
“China’s authoritarian system takes advantage of the openness of American society to seek influence,” yet simultaneously “impedes legitimate efforts by American counterpart institutions to engage Chinese society on a reciprocal basis,” Stanford professor of political science Larry Diamond writes. The United States should not passively accept this one-way relationship.
If China continues to spy on American campuses and hack government databases, the United States should sanction it harshly. By threatening to limit the number of Chinese students at American universities and restrict trade with American businesses, the United States can present China with an ultimatum: cooperate with a global order that benefits all participants or face immense economic pain.
The battle for technological supremacy is reaching an inflection point. Perhaps it already has. Chinese citizens filed six times more patents than their United States peers under the fields of “Deep Learning” and “Artificial Intelligence” in 2018. Three years into President Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 initiative, moreover, China is nearing its promise to be the world’s leader in "artificial intelligence theory, technology, and application” by 2030. The United States’ institutions, ranging from the U.S. State Department to universities to high-tech companies, must increase cooperation amongst themselves in order protect U.S. citizens from an illiberal power with creeping influence right at home.