After months of internal uproar and a letter from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the University of Texas at Austin has declared its China center will not accept funding from a Hong Kong-based foundation that the Republican from Texas said helps spread Chinese government propaganda abroad.
The decision – first reported in an article in the “Opinions” section of The Washington Post – was disclosed in a letter sent Friday from UT-Austin President Greg Fenves to Cruz.
The school must "ensure that the receipt of outside funding does not create potential conflicts of interest or place limits on academic freedom and the robust exchange of ideas,” Fenves wrote. “I am concerned about this if we were to accept funding from [the foundation].”
The week before, Cruz had written to Fenves to “express concern” about UT-Austin's new China center's relationship with the China-United States Exchange Foundation – a “pseudo-philanthropic foundation,” Cruz wrote, that has ties to an arm of the Chinese government that manages “foreign influence operations.”
In his letter, dated Jan. 2, Cruz wrote he’d heard that the UT-Austin center was considering a partnership with the foundation. Launched around the start of the fall semester, the China Public Policy Center was charged with making “fresh and enduring contributions to the study of China-related policy topics while advancing U.S.-China relations and Texas-China relations,” according to a UT news release.
Its executive director, David Firestein, was formerly a U.S. diplomat and senior vice president at the EastWest Institute. He forwarded requests for comment to a university spokesman.
Cruz said in his letter that he was worried about the center's collaboration with the foundation and that it would disseminate “propaganda within the center and compromise its credibility.” The same concerns were raised in emails circulated on an internal UT-Austin faculty e-mail list in December, just four months after the China center launched.
An ugly spat played out in one email exchange obtained by The Texas Tribune, with several faculty members voicing or agreeing with concerns about the center’s activities and funding from the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation. One lengthy email suggested an event held by the China center in November was infused with propaganda, and said it had upset students and led some to send concerned emails to the dean.
An official recap of the event – the center’s inaugural one – said it was co-hosted with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, which it described as a “Hong Kong-based non-profit dedicated to promoting a positive relationship and better understanding between China and the United States.”
Cruz, in his letter to Fenves, characterized the foundation as the “external face of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] internal authoritarianism.”
In his response to Cruz, Fenves said he shared the senator’s concerns and had been reviewing the issue since the campus’ China center and school for public affairs had first approached him about the funding source. He said he’d read reports about the foundation over the course of two months and spoken with U.S. intelligence officials and faculty with expertise in U.S.-China relations and national security.
Fenves assured Cruz the university would not accept “any funds for travel, student exchanges or other initiatives from the organization.” He said he’d decided before receiving Cruz’s letter to also disallow programmatic funding — such as to cover operational costs — from the foundation.
However, Fenves told Cruz that external funding is vital to the work of faculty members and researchers and that UT-Austin would “continue to pursue other sources of support, both domestically and internationally” for the center.
Asked about the usual process for vetting external sources of funding, Gary Susswein, a UT-Austin spokesman, said before the school “would accept any funding from an organization, we make an effort to look closely at” it. He referred to Fenves’ letter in lieu of answering further questions.
Other organizations – including Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies – have considered or received funding from the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation. According to the Post and Foreign Policy, the organization was founded by Tung Chee-hwa, the vice chairman of an organization that helps push Chinese government propaganda abroad.
A CUSEF spokesman told the Post that the foundation is supported by private donors and is not a government agent. And a director at Johns Hopkins University whose program has received funding from the foundation told Foreign Policy it came with “absolutely no conditions or limitations.”
Cruz could not be immediately reached for comment. But he said in a series of tweets that UT-Austin's decision to reject funding from the foundation was "prudent."
"Whereas similar programs have been lured by Tung Chee-hwa’s funding, the China Public Policy Center at UT-Austin recognized the risk partnering with the Communist Party of China poses to academic freedom & the robust exchange of ideas that are essential to the American university," he wrote in a subsequent message posted to Twitter.
With this decision, UT has exemplified the mindset America’s academic institutions must adopt to counter the PRC’s influence operations.— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) January 15, 2018
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.