How to Squeeze China

Force ruling elites to choose between North Korea and American colleges for their kids.

By William McGurn

If the first Duke of Wellington were alive today, he might advise that the battle for North Korea will be won or lost on Harvard Yard.

Add Stanford, Yale, Dartmouth, Chicago and other top-tier private American universities so popular with China’s “red nobility” i.e., the children and grandchildren of Communist Chinese elites. For if the Trump administration hopes to enlist an unwilling Beijing to check North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, visas for the children of China’s ruling class to attend these universities offer an excellent pressure point.

Beijing has been Pyongyang’s closest ally ever since the Cold War split the peninsula after World War II. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China provides North Korea with “most of its food and energy.” Though China has warned Kim Jong Un about his nuclear testing (which Mr. Kim has ignored), plainly it fears a free and united Korean peninsula more than a nuclear-armed North.

Revoking visas for Chinese students, of course, would not alone resolve the North Korea problem even if it did force Beijing to act. But Beijing could make life for North Korea difficult if it chose to.
Thus far most talk about U.S. options regarding North Korea has focused on economic sanctions or military action against the Pyongyang regime. The dilemma is that every meaningful option comes with big risks, including the devastation of Seoul, retaliation against U.S. troops and more suffering for innocent North Koreans. The advantage of starting with student visas is twofold: The unintended harm done would be more limited than any military strike, and visas are likely a more effective lever than sanctions.

Today 328,547 Chinese students attend American universities, according to the Institute for International Education. The Chinese represent the largest group of foreign students in America.

How many of these students are children of Chinese leaders is unclear. American universities are disinclined to provide this information. In addition, the children of Chinese government officials sometimes attend U.S. universities under assumed names.

The Chinese taste for prestigious American universities goes right to the top. Although President Xi Jinping rails against the corruption of Western values, his daughter went to Harvard, which Mr. Xi managed to swing on an official annual salary of roughly $20,000. A few years back, the Washington Post noted that of the nine members of the standing committee of China’s Politburo, at least five had children or grandchildren studying in the U.S. There are many, many more.

Officially, of course, China is an egalitarian society. In reality, hereditary favors, which now include access to top U.S. universities, are a fixed perk of Communist Chinese culture.

Put it this way: If China’s ruling elite were forced to choose between supporting North Korea and their children’s access to American universities, is it all that hard to see where they would come down? This might be especially true if we continued to allow ordinary Chinese citizens with no family connections to the party or government to come study here.

Would China retaliate? Probably. Would our universities scream? Without doubt. Would there be unfairness? Absolutely.

But if the U.S. does not act quickly, a despot who executes people with antiaircraft guns will soon have the capability to strike Seattle or Chicago with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

A White House unwilling to consider Chinese student visas as leverage to prevent this would signal Pyongyang and Beijing alike that America is not serious.

U.S. visas are the one thing we know people want. Before Ray Mabus served as Barack Obama’s secretary of the Navy, he was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. There he championed the cause of two American women who had been kidnapped as children and taken to Saudi Arabia by their father, after he’d been divorced in the U.S. by his American wife.

To make the pressure real, Ambassador Mabus cut off all American visas for the father and his Saudi relatives. That got their attention. Unfortunately the deal for the girls’ freedom collapsed after Mr. Mabus left Riyadh and his successor lifted the hold on the visas.

China is even more vulnerable to such pressure. Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California, notes that the family connections that lie just below the surface in Chinese Communist culture are more powerful than outsiders realize. He likens it to the Mafia.

Imposing sanctions on the offspring of China’s rulers “might raise howls in the U.S. but would be perfectly normal and rational—unexceptional—inside the culture of the people we would be sanctioning,” says Mr. Link. “They would ‘get it,’ and the pinch would be felt.

“Whether or not it would be enough to budge them from their 30-year-old position on North Korea is a different question. But I support making the try.”

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