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Duke Kunshan is a trojan horse

roused rabble

It's worse than anyone ever thought possible. Snatched from the foul, frothing maw of China’s depraved security state, the Xinjiang Papers reveal the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) crimes against the Uyghur Muslims of East Turkestan. 

Haunted by the legacy of Soviet leniency that he blames for the USSR’s ultimate collapse, Chairman Xi Jinping commanded his apparatchiks to “use the organs of dictatorship” with “absolutely no mercy” as they extirpate the “virus” of “religious extremism” embedded in East Turkestan. To accomplish Chairman Xi’s directive, the CCP has placed anywhere from 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs in labor, concentration and prison camps where they are, in typical doublespeak, being “reeducated.” Loyalty pledges, religious persecution, mass surveillance, forced abortions, medical experimentation, and sexual assault are common practice. 

Although the Uyghurs are the primary victims of the CCP’s brutality, a secondary victim is a seductive theory—the notion that tighter Sino-Western ties would both augment China’s economy and liberalize its politics. In a fit of Panglossian arrogance masquerading as political science, many leading Americans truly believed that China, a civilization that was ancient before Columbus arrived on Hispaniola, would march to the beat of our drum. 

The opposite has occurred. In the last year, dozens of American multinationals have revealed that they are multinational first and American second. Infamously, the NBA apologized to the CCP and chastised Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey when he dared voice support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The NBA is not alone, either: there are plenty of American tongues slobbering the CCP’s boot. Apple’s iOS helped China track down Uyghurs for internment. According to Delta, United and American airlines, Taiwan does not exist. Even Disney, a company that has traditionally been critiqued for perpetuating the superstructure of American imperialism, has found a new Chinese master. 

Is Duke next? In 2013, Duke entered a partnership with Wuhan University to create Duke Kunshan, a full-fledged American liberal arts and research university based west of Shanghai. Duke Kunshan is premised on a dead consensus, on the dubious notion that Duke can, as Professor Alexander Rosenberg put it, “establish an institution that expresses the values that we are committed to in a country that may, or may not, need [that] kind of exemplar.” A lovely sentiment, if only Duke were entirely in control of whose ends Duke Kunshan serves. But as Apple, the NBA and Disney demonstrate, American institutions are just as, if not more, likely to import illberalism as they are to export American values. 

Of course, Duke has received certain guarantees. Kunshan students have open access to the worldwide web without fear of the Great Firewall’s censors. There is also open academic inquiry and discussion on campus. But as Law Professor Lawrence Zelenak argued, Duke Kunshan could easily be a “boiled frog problem” whereby China initially permits certain abnormal freedoms and privileges only to later slowly retract those concessions once Duke is inexorably invested. 

What then? Will Duke stand on principle and abandon Duke Kunshan? I doubt it. Instead, the Duke administration will probably spread out the balance sheets, evaluate the growth projections, consider the millions of dollars in sunk costs and cringe at the massive damage to Duke’s prestigious brand that a retreat would entail. Then they’ll give in. Two major Board of Trustees Members, Apple CEO Tim Cook and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, would evidently endorse that general strategy.  

In a recent Chronicle article, Duke Kunshan’s outgoing executive vice chancellor, Dennis Simon, expressed that the Kunshan administration “always, always, always [carries] the principle [of] ‘don’t stick your finger in the eye of your counterpart unnecessarily.’” What a telling, terrifying statement given who the “counterpart” is. I wish the Chronicle had asked Dr. Simon when provocation might be necessary. Maybe when the Chinese government is putting millions of minorities in camps and crushing democratic protests? 

There are already some potential signs of creeping Chinese interference at Duke Kunshan. After reviewing Duke Kunshan’s roster of student clubs, I realized that not a single one was political or religious in nature. There is a Debate Club, a GSRM (Gender, Sexuality and Romantic Minorities) club and a Model UN club, but those are not political advocacy organizations per se and they are certainly not religious in nature. Maybe everyone at Duke Kunshan is profoundly apolitical and have no desire for political change whatsoever. Maybe they are all atheists who have no need for a spiritual community of fellow believers. Or maybe Duke Kunshan has a tacit arrangement with their Chinese “counterpart” (read: overlord) that such clubs are undesirable. 

Another peculiar tidbit: Duke Kunshan only offers “majors approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education.” Unlike American higher education institutions, which only have to be institutionally accredited, Duke Kunshan’s individual academic offerings are apparently submitted to the CCP for review. Presumably, the CCP carefully scrutinizes Duke Kunshan’s academic programs so as to axe courses like “The Politics of Authoritarian Regimes” or “Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Civil Disobedience” that are offered on Duke’s main campus.

The CCP already exerts a chilling effect on academic discourse at peer institutions. According to Princeton Professor Perry Link, the spectre of CCP influence has created a culture of self-censorship where scholars “don’t talk about ‘Taiwan independence.’ [They] talk about ‘the cross-Strait relations.’ [They] don’t talk about ‘the occupation of Tibet.’ [They] don’t call the June 4th Massacre ‘massacre.’ It is June 4th ‘incident,’ or something like that.”

Duke Kunshan is a dangerous prospect. By investing itself in Kunshan, Duke has granted a nefarious external force significant power over its affairs. Soon, I predict that CCP diktats will be felt right here at home, in Durham. When that day comes, Duke will have tragically failed to live up to its role as a caretaker of liberalism. Only then will we truly understand that liberal values are not robust and universal: rather, they are precious, fragile and contingent. The freedoms that we traditionally associate with a dynamic, liberal arts institution are in the CCP’s crosshairs. Did Duke hand them the gun?

Reiss Becker is a Trinity junior. His column, roused rabble, runs on alternate Thursdays.

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