In July 2017, a group of nine Chinese students and faculty from Huazhong University of Science and Technology participating in a summer program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) formed a Chinese Communist Party branch on the third floor of Hopkins Hall, a campus dormitory.
The group held meetings to discuss party ideology, taking a group photo in front of a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, according to a July 2017 article and photos posted to the Huazhong University website. The students’ home institution had sent four teachers on the trip, directing them to set up the party cell to strengthen “ideological guidance” while the students were in the United States.
The Illinois university partners with several Chinese universities in exchange programs; at least two of those Chinese universities have directed participants to form party cells on the Urbana-Champaign campus, using those cells for ideological monitoring and control, according to articles posted to university websites and interviews with student participants.
One Chinese exchange student who studied at UIUC in the fall of 2017 says that before embarking on the study tour in Illinois, the students had to attend a lecture on the dangers of the Falun Gong, a strongly anti-party spiritual group banned in mainland China but active in the United States.
After the students’ arrival in Illinois, their home university asked the group to set up a temporary party branch and requested that the students hold a viewing party to watch the 19th party plenum in October, the major party planning conference held every five years. (The plenum was the subject of a major global propaganda push, with Chinese embassies and consulates reaching out to Chinese community organizations around the world, asking them to organize events for their members.)
The exchange students at UIUC were also asked to report on any potentially subversive opinions their classmates may have evinced while abroad, according to the student.
“After we went back to China, we had one-on-one meetings with our teachers. We talked about ourselves and others performance abroad,” the student says. “We had to talk about whether other students had some anti-party thought.”
Illinois is not alone. Party cells have appeared in California, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia. The cells appear to be part of a strategy, now expanded under Chinese President Xi Jinping, to extend direct party control globally and to insulate students and scholars abroad from the influence of “harmful ideology,” sometimes by asking members to report on each other’s behaviors and beliefs.
These overseas cells fit in with the party’s broader goals, says Samantha Hoffman, a visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “You still know that if you actively protest against [the party], or if you make some kinds of comments, you know that that could harm you later on,” she says. “Information gets around. It’s a way of controlling what you are willing to do.”