Spy balloons hovering high overhead in U.S. airspace are one thing, but the Chinese Communist Party also has interests on the ground here.
Take Alfred University, for example. Alfred is a small (1,600 students), private institution in upstate New York. It is not known for much, but it has one important distinction; namely, its College of Ceramics, which is a national leader in materials science.
Back when the U.S. was designing its space shuttle program, ceramics vaulted into public view as an art concerned with more than making decorative clay pots. The heat shields that allow rocket ships to return to Earth without burning up are the product of high-tech ceramics research.
And no one does this work better than the faculty in Alfred’s College of Ceramics.
That’s why the university recently received funding to help develop “ultra-high temperature ceramic material” needed to develop hypersonic missile technology for the U.S. Army.
In December, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that he had secured additional funding “for the U.S. Army to help win the global hypersonic race” against powers such as China. The fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill allocated $4 million to Alfred to develop this ceramic material.
Schumer failed to mention that the Chinese Communist Party had already established warm relations with administrators at the university. Alfred is one of a handful of American colleges, universities, and K-12 school districts that maintains a so-called Confucius Institute.
These institutes were a creation of the Hanban, a CCP office charged with advancing overseas propaganda. Beginning in 2004, the Hanban succeeded in planting 118 of the institutes at American colleges and universities.
Ostensibly, they were a goodwill gesture to Americans. They taught Mandarin, introduced bland accounts of Chinese culture to American students, and were free of charge for the institutions that were lucky enough to be chosen for the program. Humble Alfred University was among the chosen.
Our organization, the National Association of Scholars, was among the first to wonder what else Confucius Institutes were doing. Our 2017 report “Outsourced to China” documented the CCP’s tight and secretive control over the institutes, which were staffed by personnel from China.
On many campuses, we found that these personnel were engaged in monitoring Chinese students and developing very friendly relations with faculty members in strategic departments. We sounded an alarm that caught the attention of the State Department, the FBI, members of both houses of Congress, and, eventually, the White House.
China responded by changing the name of the Hanban and announcing that many institutes would close, all while renaming and relocating the majority of them.
At this point, only a few of the institutes are left, including the one at Alfred. Alfred administrators have been adamant that they intend to keep it.
It might just be a coincidence that an advanced military technology program and a Confucius Institute share the campus of a small university. But there are more suggestive components of this relationship.
The assistant director of Alfred’s Confucius Institute is Susan Steere, who has both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in ceramic science and teaches mathematics at a neighboring university. Yiquan Wu is a professor in ceramic engineering and is one of the stars of Alfred’s faculty. Part of his work deals with creating ceramic and laser technologies that “have a high thermal conduction, which can dissipate heat quickly.”
Whether these materials or his research methods might be used to shield hypersonic missiles is an interesting question. Over the past decade or so, he has received more than $600,000 in research funding from the Department of Defense, the Office of Naval Research, and the U.S. Air Force.
But Wu also has close ties to China, which he has visited repeatedly and from which he received the Presidential Award of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. All of this might be an innocent coincidence, but China’s interest in, and success with, hypersonic missiles became international news in 2021 when it tested a hypersonic missile that was capable of delivering nuclear weapons and that “went around the world.”
Alfred University has established a partnership with the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, a key national university under the direct control of the nation’s Education Ministry. Alfred’s Chinese partner has had its own clearance from the CCP since 2009 to work with both the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese intelligence services.
That leaves Alfred University one step removed from the center of power in Communist China and from its drive for hegemony.
All this may add up to an unfair impression that an isolated American university in New York’s remote southern tier has become dangerously entangled with one of America’s strategic enemies.
We certainly have no hard evidence that U.S. taxpayer-funded research or vital military technology have moved clandestinely from Alfred to Beijing or that its College of Ceramics has lapses in security. There have, however, been numerous cases across the country in which faculty members have become, unwittingly or otherwise, complicit with the CCP or the People’s Liberation Army.
The U.S. government should take more than a balloon-level look at security issues at Alfred—and at other universities that combine sensitive military research with a warm welcome to China’s interest in their science and engineering programs.
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