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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaUniversity Engagement with China: An MIT Approach

University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach

Authors: Richard Lester, Lily Tsai, Suzanne Berger, Peter Fisher, M. Taylor Fravel, David Goldston, Yasheng Huang, Daniela Rus

Affiliation: The MIT China Strategy Group

Organization/Publisher: MIT

Date/Place: November 2022 / USA

Type of Literature: Report

Number of Pages: 54


Keywords: China, Academia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Research, Engagement, Huma Rights, Bilateral Relations, US, Geopolitics


The outlook of this academic effort comes as no surprise, as it aids Washington’s new stance on ending dependence on China while moving to end the transfer of know-how in the tech industry. In an environment of intensifying geopolitical rivalry, this paper suggests American knowledge producers, including academia and researchers, “be prepared for scenarios that would force the termination of these (US-China) relations.” However, the authors advise against doing so under current circumstances because it “would weaken the foundations of American science, technology, and innovation.” This paper examines how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other American universities should engage with organizations and individuals in countries whose political leaders pursue policies irreconcilable with basic human rights and values and pose security risks to the United States.


The paper refers to the “risks” associated with China, citing the arrest of Chinese-born American Mechanical Engineering Professor Gang Chen as an “ill-judged arrest and failed prosecution.” The authors note that it “brought home to our community the dangers of overreach by US government authorities as they try to respond to the risks to US research security posed by the Chinese government.” Although Gang has since been released and all charges dropped, he says his “reputation is tarnished (and) my family suffered.” While the paper suggests a combination of selective engagement with targeted risk assessment and management, the report also reeks of “my way or no way” behavior, a long-standing approach used by the US state.


In his unprecedented third term as China’s President, Xi Jinping has stressed achieving superiority in science and technology as “central to his vision of Chinese state power,” with a focus on artificial intelligence (AI), clean energy, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, quantum science and engineering, and genetic engineering. Continued high levels of investment in these and other areas of research and development can be expected. The paper also criticizes the US federal government for providing “no clear, coherent and consistent” policy guidance on American research engagement with Chinese counterparts, acknowledging the need for “preserving open scientific research, open intellectual exchange, and the free flow of ideas and people – all of them essential for American universities to remain at the global forefront of research, education, and innovation.”


“The authors of the paper declare that the US government has a responsibility to prevent foreign governments from exploiting the openness of US research universities to undermine national interests. In their recommendations, they urge expanding opportunities for students to gain knowledge about China’s history, society, culture, language, politics, economic development, and science, and to develop practical, hands-on knowledge of Chinese business practices and innovation capabilities. However, the authors stress the need for a tougher approach by advocating against accepting Chinese individuals with links to military or other security institutions at American universities.


The paper also advises against participating in talent recruitment programs designed to transfer technology to China. Linking national security to academic engagement with China, the MIT paper states that the Institute has successfully pursued its dual mission of service to the nation and the world while highlighting that 41% of all STEM PhD graduates were temporary visa holders from other countries, with China accounting for more of these graduates than the next nine foreign countries combined.


Despite concerns, the authors caution against ending relations in academia, stating that the two nations provide opportunities in many fields of fundamental research, as well as in critically important fields related to climate change and areas such as food safety and cancer research, where the two countries have common interests and complementary capabilities. The paper notes that collaborations can also benefit the United States by providing critical windows into Chinese research. However, the authors stress the need to end any research collaborations, whether with public or private partners, that might help the government of China or other governments use advanced technologies against the United States.”


To guide the way, the paper stresses the importance of “raising awareness of risks” and developing information and approaches “that may be helpful for risk management.” The authors suggest several steps for potential foreign engagement, including assessing its benefits, disclosures on foreign engagements, research group operations, compensation for outside professional activities, participation in talent recruitment programs, and guidelines for writing letters of recommendation and informal collaborations. The paper also notes the use of gifts by foreign entities to influence research, stating that “all gifts from Chinese donors should comply with MIT’s general policies, principles, and processes for soliciting and accepting gifts.”


MIT has formed a Gift Advisory Committee to review the gifts received and stresses the need to meet federal law requirements on US-developed technology to foreign entities. On data protection, the paper recommends all entities to learn about Chinese laws, including the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL). Regarding traveling to China, the authors ask faculty, staff, and students to know beforehand about “the policies and practices of the US Customs and Border Protection authorities and the travelers’ rights during these interactions, as well as practical steps to reduce the likelihood of prolonged stoppages at the border.” The authors argue that following a particular code of conduct by American academia with regard to China “will help avoid the imposition of federal restrictions that would be damaging to US research and innovation.”


Warning of further deterioration in the geopolitical relationship between Washington and Beijing, the authors say, “Although this means a narrowing of the possibilities for such activities, in most scenarios, the space for productive collaboration and exchange will not close completely.” Emphasizing the importance of comprehensive and continuing dialogue between American universities and the US federal government on US-China research engagement, the paper notes that “new problems and new challenges will inevitably arise in this complicated and evolving environment.” In the context of China’s “rapid” pace “approaching the global forefront of many fields of scientific and engineering research, while Chinese accomplishments in important fields now match or exceed those of the United States,” the authors argue that American universities “need to draw on their more direct and detailed knowledge of educational and research practices and principles to develop approaches of their own.”

By: Riyaz ul Khaliq, CIGA Non-Resident Research Associate



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