WHITE PAPER: Students from China Bring Big Money and Clout to Indiana University

July 1, 2020

The author, an alumnus of Indiana University, is a veteran journalist now working from Bloomington. She has reported for U.S. News & World Report, the Miami Herald, Columbia Journalism Review, Breitbart, the New York Observer and the American Conservative.


March 6 was a busy morning on the campus of Indiana University.

Every seat in the auditorium in the new, glassy, Hamilton-Lugar School of Global and International Studies was taken and people were standing up both aisles and against the back wall, in between the tripods and cameramen.

The head of the school, former diplomat and Obama foreign policy advisor Lee Feinstein, had just walked in with U.S. Sen. Todd Young. The president of IU, Michael McRobbie, had arrived a few minutes earlier, taking a seat in one of the first few rows with longtime former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton. 

Senator Young was there to give a lecture at the university’s “America’s Role in the World” conference. He spoke at some length at the podium before taking a seat in a chair on stage to be interviewed by longtime Indianapolis TV reporter John Stehr.

Stehr launched into his interview with Young energetically:

“You know . . . you, toward the end there, you mentioned the Coronavirus,” he said, “and there was a report today on NBC and, I don’t know if you’ve heard this and I don’t mean to hit you with this cold, but maybe it’s not surprising to you that, the report is China has launched a disinformation campaign now about the Coronavirus, saying it may not have originated in China after all. Given that kind of approach . . .”

But then Stehr stopped mid-sentence and turned his head toward the back of the room. Because someone was yelling.

A tall Asian man in a black sweater was angrily calling out, “That is wrong! That is wrong! That is a lie!” and telling Stehr that China did not do what he is saying China did, or saying what he says China said.

All eyes were on the man, and everyone seemed to be holding their breath to see what would happen.

Nothing happened.

No one moved toward him. No one addressed him. Not Feinstein, or McRobbie, or Stehr.

“You can carry on now with your conference,” the man finally said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, as if to command the release of everyone’s attention.

Every head turned back toward the stage, and Stehr continued, asking Young how difficult it is for the United States “to work with China in dealing with the threat that the coronavirus brings to the world.”

But what had happened?

Had a citizen of China just prevented or tried to prevent an American journalist from asking a question of an elected United States senator? On American soil? At an American university? With the university president sitting right there?

It’s unknown if Stehr heard what the student from China was saying, or if he edited his question to mollify the man.

But Young, at least, seemed to pay no mind, going on to talk about the “garbage information” China was providing about the coronavirus, and saying he thought the 2022 Olympics should be moved out of China because China is running a “fascist state” and holding “several million Uighur Muslims” in “modern-day concentration camps” while also forcing women to abort their children and persecuting residents of Hong Kong.

The man in the black sweater said nothing, but stood stony-faced glaring at the two speakers on stage.

The Numbers

As of the fall of 2019, there were 2,295 students from China enrolled at IU-Bloomington, far more than from any other country.

Everyone notices. It is hard not to. On some evenings and weekends when school is in session, half the shoppers in the east-side Kroger are students from China.

The students from China are seldom seen with American students, and are almost always in twos and threes and fours, speaking Mandarin and making no eye contact with non-Chinese.

Locals will often tell you that they see a few of the students from China whipping around town in high-end luxury cars like Maseratis. 

In fact, in 2019, the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, published an article about a 20-year-old from China who founded a luxury car club for students on the IU campus that he calls Lucky 7. It has 30 members, he told the newspaper, all of whom are Chinese with the exception of a couple of Americans.

The article ran with a photo of the student, named Longjie Lin, sitting on the hood of his BMW i8 with its butterfly doors flipped up. The car sells for around $150,000.

Who are these students who can afford such expensive vehicles? Why are they here?

The cost for a foreign undergraduate student to attend IU about $53,408 a year. This is the amount of money that IU estimates they’ll need for nine months of school and living expenses. It includes $38,314 for tuition and fees (the same amount that out-of-state students pay), plus $11,263 for room and board, $1,585 for health insurance and $2,246 for books and miscellaneous expenses. 

In the 2019-2020 academic year, students from China together paid just over $80 million to IU Bloomington in tuition and fees alone. This is close to half the total amount of funding that IU Bloomington gets from the state of Indiana each year, which is around $200 million.

Charles Lee, a Chinese dissident who came to the United States in 1991 to attend Harvard Medical School and was imprisoned in China for three years when he went back, now lives in New Jersey where he helps lead the Tuidang movement, to educate Chinese about the true nature of communism.

He says that China strictly controls who gets to go abroad, and who doesn’t, something most Americans probably don’t know. 

“Here’s the thing,” he said in a phone interview in June, “If you are a Chinese student inside China, and he or she views something against Communist Party, he’s not going to be able to get out. He going to be in trouble, unless he confess, you know sort of confess, you know write something, ‘I will never criticize Communist Party’ or something like that . . .”

Lee says almost all students from China — most likely 99 percent, he says — have either been in the Young Pioneers or the Youth League, two Chinese Communist Party organizations for young people.

“Once you enter these organizations,” he said, “you have to swear, swear to follow the communist guidelines all your life or something, you devote your life to the communist deed or something. So when you take an oath, then that oath will follow you.”

Lee says it’s a “huge problem” that American universities have admitted so many students from China who have sworn an oath to the Chinese Communist Party. At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he studied for a time, Lee said there were actual Communist Party meetings held on campus.

He believes that every student from China is potentially a spy, in particular those who study medicine or biology or engineering.

“They recruit everybody possible, you know, from university,” he said of the China’s  Communist Party. “Before you go out of China, they would come to you and say, ‘This is what you’re going to do . . . You need to give us information regarding this technology . . . you need to bring new technology to China.’ It’s to every Chinese students, they must go through this, unless what you study is not important to them.”

‘That’s not How It Works’

In May, I had called Chuck Carney, the spokesman for IU, and asked a rather pointed question: whether it was moral for Indiana University to host and educate so many young Communists, or at least the sons and daughters of Communists, who support a regime that puts religious minorities into concentration camps and sees the United States as its No. 1 enemy.

“Well, I would put it this way,” he replied carefully. “Indiana University’s mission from reaching well back into and then before, but certainly with Herman B. Wells, was to bring Indiana to the world. And part of that is what Wells himself did. He was integral in World War II Europe in setting up the first free universities in Germany, which is to give an example of the history of this university of trying to be a beacon of where education can shed light on a lot of the world. And it’s our mission in part to try to instill what the values are of higher education in this country to people from all over the world.”

I ask which values.

He lists “free thinking” and “discussion of difficult topics” and allowing an “open forum,” and problem-solving.

I ask if it has worked. 

“Well, I think that that kind of goal, changing the world, is something that is ongoing,” he said. “You don’t ever say that we’ve reached success, (that) we can stop.”

But, I ask, is there any real evidence that it’s worked at all — that any students from China who have studied at IU have renounced communism or become dissidents, or returned to China and worked to reform and liberalize it? Is there anything remotely like this?

“That’s not how it works,” he snapped.

Maybe it’s not. But more than 300,000 students from China are now studying at American universities every year. If their exposure to American ideas about free speech and free inquiry had any real effect, wouldn’t we be seeing some evidence of it?

I ask Charles Lee that question when I talk to him a few weeks later.

“They hate this country,” he responded. “In China they listen or watch TV all the time you know from the Communist Party. America is like imperialist. A good thing for them, ‘Ok, China is rising up, we’re going to take over the United States.’ So that’s their mentality.”

He went on to say that even if their mind was changed a little by their experience in the United States, it wouldn’t make a difference.

“If you go back to China, you still cannot do anything,” he said, “and most of the time those who have come back to China, they would work within the system, within the communist system. So they’re not going to have any influence in the way of freedom of speech, that kind of thing, no. They would distance themselves, you know, not to say anything against Communist Party. So, it’s not in the way people have hoped that students, you know, go back and change the country. It never have been that way.”

Most Hoosiers would be shocked to find out how little most students from China in Bloomington actually are exposed to in the way of different ideas and different perspectives.

I happened to connect with a young man who just graduated from IU in May — a Uighur, a Muslim from the autonomous region in China called Xinjiang. He speaks both Uighur and Mandarin Chinese, and is friendly with some of the Han Chinese students here in Bloomington.

“I will not say they are communists,” he tells me when I ask about the Han Chinese students. “I will say they are, like, manipulated by communist ideas. They can connect limited information, you know. Chinese have like their own information system that they get information off. Like they don’t get Fox News, they don’t get CNN, they don’t actually see that.”

He said the students from China studying at IU never watch American television of any kind.

“It’s just like, in China the environment is like the U.S. is like your enemy, you know. Like every information or every idea from the U.S. like ‘Made in USA’ is like terrorist.” “Not terrorist,” he says, correcting himself, “but it’s the bad idea. It’s against the communist ideology and Communist Party.”

He said students from China communicate with their friends and get all of their information from a Chinese app called WeChat. And they communicate on WeChat entirely in Mandarin Chinese, not English.

He says he doesn’t think they access any American news sources, with the exception of maybe law students or others who have to for their classes.

The Indiana Policy Review agreed not to use the student’s name as he is seeking asylum in the United States, believing that he’ll be thrown into a concentration camp for “re-education” if he returns to China.

He said he started to speak with some of his friends from China about the CCP’s persecution of Uighurs, and they agreed with him, but cannot say anything outside of their small circle of friends.

“They know about the Communist Party doing the wrong thing and they agree. They know my situation and know that it’s the wrong thing to do,” he said.

Tibetans in Bloomington

Charles Lee, the dissident, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on human rights in 2016 about the mass murder by the Chinese Communist Party of Falun Gong practitioners — a mass murder that is ongoing today. Falun Gong is a movement that combines slow-moving exercise call qigong with spiritualism and is modeled on Buddhism, with some aspects also of Taoism, as practitioners describe it. It emphasizes truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.

In 1999, the Chinese government launched a campaign to eliminate Falun Gong and by 2001, estimates were that 1 million Falun Gong practitioners were imprisoned and being killed for their organs to meet a growing demand for organs for transplants — livers, hearts, kidneys, etc.

But it’s not just Falun Gong members who are being killed.

“By 2002, it was select House Christians. By 2003 it was the Tibetans,” journalist Ethan Gutman testified at the same hearing.

IU has a special relationship with Tibet, with the brother of the Dalai Lama, Thubten J. Norbu, having worked as a professor of Tibetan studies here starting in 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.

One of Norbu’s sons operated a Tibetan restaurant here for years called The Snow Lion. Another was active in the Tibetan independence movement, participating in walks all over the United States to raise awareness of China’s occupation of Tibet. He was killed in 2011 when he was hit by a car in Florida while on a “Walk for Tibet.” The third son works at a Sherwin Williams paint store on the east side of Bloomington. Most of the 2,295 students from China who attend IU live within two miles of his workplace.

In 2002, his father told Indianapolis Monthly: “The Chinese destroyed our country.”

The McRobbie Era

The number of students from China on the IU-Bloomington campus reached a high of 3,272 in 2014, and over the next few years, fell by about a third.

But why was it ever so high? And why has it remained so high?

From 1995 to 2009, South Koreans were the biggest contingent of foreign students on campus. The local newspaper, the Herald-Times, noted that the number of students from China at IU shot up 23 percent in 2007, the same year that Michael McRobbie became the president of the university. The year before, as provost of the Bloomington campus, he’d made an official trip to China.

Michael McRobbie is an Australian who came to IU in 1997 to fill the position of vice president for information technology. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

In his early days here, he conceived and led a project called TransPac to connect universities in the United States to universities in Asia, for which he and the university were awarded a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

As president, he’s taken at least eight trips to China, often leading large delegations.

And it’s McRobbie who set out to “internationalize” IU by “increasing the number of qualified foreign students” as he set forth in the IU Strategic Plan, which the university’s Board of Trustees approved in 2014.

But we don’t really know which students from China are qualified. A 2016 article in the Atlantic looked at the common use of “test brokers” in China whom students from China pay to have a stand-in take their college entrance exams, to get a score high enough to gain entrance to American universities. To cheat on the SAT and ACT, in other words. To game the system.

In January of 2016, the College Board had to cancel the SAT at 45 test sites in China and Macau over security concerns — concerns about cheating, that is. 

In any case, IU seems unwilling to address the significant issues related to the presence of so many students from China on campus, and in fact, seems desperate to keep these students coming.

On March 31, with the campus having just shut down because of the Coronavirus, the university’s vice president for international affairs, Hannah Buxbaum, appeared in a Facebook video in which she addressed foreign students, saying: “We want you to know that global engagement is an indestructible part of IU’s mission.”


The university, meanwhile, calls its ties to China “deep, extensive and continually expanding.” But at some point, there may come a reckoning.

In April of 2019, IU released a two-sentence statement that it was closing the Confucius Institute on the campus of IUPUI after several years of warnings from experts that Confucius Institutes are completely controlled by the Chinese government and are not really academic in nature but are foreign influence operations. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote at the time

“America’s universities have been  slow in coming to terms with the problems posed by Chinese influence. They are now finally beginning to work with the national security community to respond to China’s attempts to infiltrate the United States’ higher-education system and abuse those relationships to advance Beijing’s strategic agenda. But that pushback is just beginning.”

Earlier this year, the FBI charged a Boston University student from China with espionage, saying she was posing as a student and was actually a lieutenant in China’s People’s Liberation Army (which she admitted to) who came to the United States and enrolled at BU expressly for the purpose of supplying the Communist Party with information taken from U.S. military websites. She fled to China to evade arrest.

I became interested in writing about students from China at IU early this year when the news of the Coronavirus was becoming more and more alarming. I didn’t see any local reporters or anyone else asking whether Bloomington residents faced a heightened risk of catching the virus given that some students likely had returned to China over the Christmas break, and then returned to Bloomington the last week in December or the first week in January.

After all, it was two tourists from China who brought what’s now called Covid-19 to Italy, resulting in the deaths of more than 34,000 in that country, most of them elderly.

But the risks to national security are even more profound. And no one here is talking about them. Not in public, at least, even with national leaders sounding the alarm about the risks to universities from China.

“Some IHE (Institutions of Higher Education) leaders are starting to acknowledge the threat of foreign espionage and have been working with federal law enforcement to address gaps in reporting and transparency,” the U.S. Department of Education General Counsel’s office wrote in a letter to Congress on May 19, referring primarily to threats from China. “However, the evidence suggests massive investments of foreign money have bred dependency and distorted the decision-making, mission and values of too many universities.”

In summary, let us return to our first question. Had a citizen of China prevented or tried to prevent an American journalist from asking a question of an elected United States senator? On American soil? At an American university? With the university president sitting there?

If IU’s mission in bringing in so many students from China to campus is to expose them to Western ideas, including free speech, wouldn’t things have gone differently in early March when that student from China tried to stop the journalist from asking a question about China that he didn’t like? 

Wouldn’t the president of the university, Michael McRobbie, have used this as a “teachable moment,” as they call it in academia, standing up and explaining that in this country, we have a free press, and this means that no one gets to dictate to a journalist what question he can or cannot ask of a government official?

As things are going, it seems the Chinese in Bloomington may be exerting more influence on IU than IU is on them.   


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