Backdoor Foreign Influence Schemes Should Continue to Be a Presidential Priority

Legal challenges are ramping up in states across the nation, keeping the winner of the 2020 presidential election in flux and leading to questions about what Joe Biden might do on the foreign policy stage, particularly as it relates to the Middle East and China.

While Biden is signaling he’ll continue Trump’s tough approach to China in particular, there were some important last-minute moves made by the Trump administration just before the election that flew mostly under the radar, initiatives that a Biden administration would do well to continue.

A little under a month before the election, the State Department issued a succinct press release that expressed the administration’s concern over foreign funding in the U.S. nonprofit world, “the academic community, think tanks, and various external sources of expertise in foreign affairs,” and called for those entities to “disclose prominently on their websites funding they receive from foreign governments, including state-owned or state-operated subsidiary entities.”

Later in October, the Department of Education released a report detailing a disturbing failure by universities and academic institutions to report “$6.5 billion in funding and resources from foreign sources including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar,” something they are required to do by law.

Though not without some controversy, these moves were likely necessary in an age of Russia collusion hoax investigations in which covert influence-peddling is often linked, legitimately or not, to national security threats.

But there is, as Capital Research Center’s Special Projects Manager Robert Stilson wrote, a question of donor privacy, a protection afforded donors to keep them from suffering harassment in an age that also embraces “cancel culture” and smear campaigns against people that don’t express the “correct” political opinions.

Stilson writes:

On one hand, advocates for an independent civil society and donor privacy might cry foul: Most of the impacted groups are likely 501(c)(3) nonprofits, which must disclose their donors to the IRS, but need not do so publicly. They might see the request as a government attempt to coerce a private organization into doing something that it is not required to.

On the other hand, the request applies to those groups that “wish to engage with the Department”—in other words: influence the U.S. government. And the government’s concerns are well-founded. Indeed, they’re one component of recent and mounting trepidation over the influence that foreign state actors (China in particular) are seeking to build in American civic institutions.

The dilemma, and it’s one a Biden administration will have to consider if it intends to remain tough on China and other foreign nations seeking to build covert influence, is even broader: How do we balance the desire to protect donors and keep potentially hostile foreign nations from using the openness of our system to promote their own interests over the interests of America? And how do we do this without compromising that cherished openness?

Some attempt to address these issues has already been made, with the Republican ranking members of three House committees introducing letters showing six U.S. universities — the University of Delaware, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Yale University — reported “a combined $242 million in anonymous grants or contracts from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia since 2015.” A separate August letter to Stanford University from the Department of Education noted that Stanford had reported over $64 million in anonymous funding from China since May 2010, Stilson wrote.

There is also a bipartisan group of senators backing the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which seeks to criminalize reporting false information on federal grant applications and to create a Federal Research Security Council to provide better oversight over federally funded research, among other things. It would also, perhaps most controversially, expand the grounds for denying visas to certain foreign researchers.

This last provision may be the first challenge to Biden’s promise to keep true to the tough stance of the Trump administration. He has already indicated a willingness to embrace foreign researchers, particularly in the STEM field.

Doing the hard work of balancing donor privacy and national security threats is the job of the next administration, no matter who leads it. There have already been legislative suggestions to update the Foreign Agents Registration Act to include scientists and researchers. Such initiatives have been encouragingly bipartisan, and the next administration would do well to continue taking these issues seriously.


This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner on November 15, 2020.

Tags:  China, university

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee was born and raised in Atlanta, Ga., but found herself drawn to Washington, DC, the birthplace of her mother, after completing a master’s degree in public administration from…
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