Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66)
by Tom Rogan
Some Democrats are adopting a harsher tone and more aggressive policy approach toward China. But based on their new State Department funding bill, House Democrats don’t appear to support this effort.
Consider the bill’s requirement that “none of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts under this heading may be used to permanently close the United States-China Friendship Volunteer Program.” This refers to the Peace Corps’s China mission, which “from its main office at the Sichuan University, Peace Corps works closely with provincial departments of education and the counterpart universities to assign and support qualified and well-trained volunteers.”
Sounds good, right? I mean, whatever U.S.-China political tensions, this is simply a U.S. volunteer effort to help improve impoverished lives.
The Trump administration cut funding to that program in January, reflecting China’s ability to support its own people and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategic hostility toward the U.S.-led liberal international order. But this isn’t just about grand strategy. As I’ve noted, the Peace Corps’s China mission offers China’s military and civilian intelligence apparatus a recruiting pool with which to target young, impressionable, intelligent, and public service-orientated American minds for recruitment. Their hope is that these people will then return home to take up service at the CIA, State Department, or some other government agency.
More problematic: the Peace Corps’s home in China, Sichuan University, is a feeder school for the Chinese security services.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Peace Corps is a great organization that does much to help those in need and introduces people to more troubled areas of the world. Foreign aid also supports humanitarian interests and positive political development. But China and Sichuan University are not the realms in which to conduct Peace Corps operations. We’ve been slow to wake up to this truth.
As vice president, Joe Biden spoke at Sichuan University in 2011. It wasn’t a great choice of location. Just one year later, Sichuan University was added to the U.S. government’s “Entity List.” Organizations and people on that list face extra U.S. export controls due to their suspected involvement in activities hostile to U.S. national security. And just as Biden’s visit was ill-advised, Sichuan University’s listing was overdue. After all, this university houses a cybersecurity school of excellence (read, cyberattack). Incidentally or not, Sichuan Province is also home to the People’s Liberation Army’s elite cyber unit 78006.
Thus, the stupidity, here, of an American government agency housing itself within a de facto Chinese intelligence service is quite hard to articulate, at least, without profanity. It makes about as much sense as the New York Yankees placing its Monument Park above Fenway’s “Green Monster.” Oh, the university is also Chen Wenqing’s alma mater and formative political institution. Chen is the highly powerful Minister of State Security responsible for the Communist Party’s civilian intelligence and security apparatus.
These are not idle concerns. China’s universities exist to educate young minds but only in the service of the Chinese Communist Party. And the most talented minds at these institutions, be they Chinese, American, or otherwise, are targeted for recruitment into the long-term service of the Chinese state. While Harvard University hasn’t quite figured it out, Beijing doesn’t even try to hide this agenda. It puts top spies in charge of top universities. Considering that Xi aims to replace the U.S.-led liberal international order with an authoritarian, feudal-mercantile Chinese empire, we might not want to put the Peace Corps in his path.
Amusingly, the Peace Corps takes the exact opposite approach to the U.S. Intelligence Community than it does to the Chinese Intelligence Community. Its handbook warns that “if you have ever worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), you are not eligible for employment at the Peace Corps in any capacity, and you should not apply for employment.” Ironically, a 2018 advertisement for a role at Sichuan University lists texting while driving as a top security concern. Counterintelligence? Not so much.
Democrats should want to challenge President Trump on who can best constrain the aggressive tendencies of our new Cold War foe. Retaining the Peace Corps’s Sichuan home would obviously not appear to be the best way to do so.