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Funding for Penn Biden Center remains shrouded amid suspicions of anonymous Chinese funding

University has received millions in donations from China since center's founding, though it's unclear where the money has gone.

Updated: January 19, 2021 - 11:52pm

Ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's Wednesday inauguration as president, questions linger around the funding of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Biden Center, including whether the center's funding stream has included any of the millions in anonymous Chinese donations the school has received in recent years. 

The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement has been the subject of some scrutiny in recent years due to concerns that it may have been the recipient, directly or indirectly, of millions in donations from Chinese nationals.

Last year, a watchdog group called on the Department of Education to investigate the center, demanding that the feds look into "all monetary gifts and contracts that have been received by the University of Pennsylvania and its Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement from China sources."

The university has offered narrowly worded denials in response to allegations of improper funding. "The University has never solicited any funds for the Penn Biden Center," Penn spokesman Ron Ozio told Just the News last year. "Since its inception in 2017, it has received a total of three unsolicited gifts totaling $1,100. There have been no gifts to the Penn Biden Center from anyone in China."

Campus spokesman Stephen MacCarthy gave a near-identical response to Just the News this week ahead of Biden's inauguration, adding that the Penn Biden Center itself "has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity."

Asked if any Chinese donations to the university have been earmarked or dedicated specifically for the Biden Center, MacCarthy responded: "I don't know how to be more clear on this. No money from China has gone to the Penn Biden Center. Period."

Of course, money is fungible, and federal records show that the University of Pennsylvania has received significant donations from China since the center first opened, including an anonymous donation of $14.5 millionAbsent from the public record are any terms or conditions applied to the anonymous Chinese donations to the university.

MacArthy didn't answer when asked if, and how much, the university funds the Biden Center, or if it was entirely donor-funded. But Politico reported this week that, per a university spokesperson, the Biden Center "does not fundraise" while the university itself "uses general funds to operate the center."

Paul Kamenar is a lawyer for the National Legal & Policy Center, which last year called on the federal government to investigate the center. He argues that the Biden Center is, however indirectly, the recipient of Chinese funds. 

"We have no direct evidence of any Chinese money going to the Biden Center," he admitted to Just the News on Tuesday. "But it's a reasonable assumption, because of the amount of [Chinese] money coming to the University of Pennsylvania, and the Biden Center being one of the components of the Penn global system of outreach to foreign countries."

Kamenar pointed out that a scholar with the Penn Biden Center participated in Penn's "Chinese Research Symposium" early last year on a panel titled "China and the Future of Healthcare and Biotechnology," something he claimed was potential evidence of undue Chinese influence 

"This is foreign money coming into the university," Kamenar argued last year. "It's not going to their English department."

The Biden transition team — which in just a few hours will dissolve into the newly-minted Biden administration — did not respond to a Just the News inquiry about the Biden Center on Tuesday. But an unnamed official with the transition told Politico that the Biden team is working to ensure that it does not encounter any "ethically compromising positions" in office. 

"The administration will adhere to high ethical standards and ensure any affiliations with outside groups will not result in special access or treatment," the official said.