May 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Lawmakers push Betsy DeVos for scrutiny of Chinese funding at U.S. universities

 US Secretary of Education Betsy Devos speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on March 27, 2020, in Washington, DC.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Ranking members of seven House committees asked the Department of Education to disclose the findings of the department's ongoing investigation into Chinese government funding at U.S. universities, according to a letter viewed by Axios.

The big picture: The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the rift between the U.S. and China, and it's renewed calls for decoupling across multiple sectors.

Details: In a May 4 letter addressed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seven Republican lawmakers cited the Chinese government's recent attempts to control scientific research relating to the coronavirus as the reason for greater oversight.

  • The letter also mentions theft of research and intellectual property, Chinese Communist Party propaganda on U.S. campuses, and concerns that Chinese government-connected funding puts pressure on U.S. institutions.
  • The letter was signed by the ranking members from the House committees on oversight and reform; education and labor; homeland security; science, space and technology; armed services; foreign affairs; and intelligence.

What they're saying: These actions "bring into question whether U.S. [institutes of higher education] receiving federal taxpayer dollars should be allowed to accept funds from China, the CCP, or other affiliated organizations," wrote the lawmakers.

  • "The interests of the two nations appear to have diverged."

“We cannot allow a dangerous communist regime to buy access to our institutions of higher education, plain and simple," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who spearheaded the letter, told Axios in a statement.

  • "The Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the early outbreak of the coronavirus immeasurably worsened this disease’s impact on the United States and the world. We owe it to the American people to hold China accountable and to prevent them from doing further harm to our country.”

Context: Last year, the Department of Education began investigating several U.S. universities to determine if they had failed to disclose foreign funding as required by law.

  • In February, the department announced it had uncovered at least $6.5 billion in undisclosed foreign funding and that it was extending the investigation to include Harvard and Yale.
  • The investigations include donations and contracts with foreign governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China and Russia, and companies with strong state ties.
  • The investigations have been deeply unpopular among some faculty and staff, and university administrations have said that the funding disclosure requirements are byzantine and difficult to follow.

The bottom line: Republicans feel the coronavirus has confirmed their worst fears about the Chinese government's intentions, leading them to double down on pre-coronavirus efforts to scrutinize China's influence in the United States.

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