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“Alarming” evidence of Chinese interference at UK universities, report shows

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has published a report containing “alarming” evidence of Chinese interference in UK universities and academia.

The report, A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies”, criticises the government’s supposed “failure” to respond to the risks posed to academic freedom by “autocracies” like China.

It calls on the government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and universities themselves to do more to prevent interferences, which include shaping agendas, student activism, research and the curricula.

The report suggests the Government has failed to employ sanction tools, such as those enabled by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act and the “Magnitsky Powers”, to limit financial, political and diplomatic pressure on universities.

The Chinese government has since criticised the report, calling it “fictitious”. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, said: “China has always adhered to a principle of non-interference in internal affairs.”

He also stated that British lawmakers should instead focus on improving UK-China relations.

The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, has asked the FCO to explain its failure to use sanctions in response to repression by state authorities in Hong Kong, at a time when protests against China’s actions in the region are springing up across the UK.

[The University has done] a lot of work with the Chinese universities and academies of sciences

– Stuart Croft

The Chinese-funded Confucius Institute and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) – a branch of which is active at the University of Warwick – were highlighted by the committee. They were noted for supposedly facilitating Chinese interference at academic conferences and on university campuses.

The Confucius Institute’s activities at Australian universities have recently been investigated by a government task-force.

Contracts at four universities allowed the institute the final say on “teaching quality” and whether activities respected “cultural custom” in exchange for funding and teaching materials.

Whilst Warwick does not host a Confucius Institute, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft told The Boar in an interview in October that the university has recently engaged in “a lot of work with the Chinese universities and academies of sciences”. The University stated this was part of being a “global institution” amid Brexit-related uncertainty.

Evidence highlighted in the report also indicates the Chinese Government’s use of CSSAs to monitor students in Britain. Martin Thorley, a PhD Candidate at the University of Nottingham, has described branches of the association as “latent networks”.

He alleges these networks are sometimes by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “to coordinate either support for a Chinese dignitary, or opposition to a university activity that doesn’t conform with the CCP’s conception of
truth”.

The CSSA at the University of Warwick was recently a signatory in an open letter published by the Students’ Union (SU)’s non-EU International Students’ Officer (ISO) Zishi Zhang, alongside Warwick Chinese Society (ChiSoc) and Warwick China Development Society (WCDS).

The letter expressed solidarity with Chinese students, challenging the University’s approval of a request to create a Lennon Wall on campus. It claims the Lennon Wall contained “discriminatory and misleading information”.

[Student’s actions] undermine Hong Kong protestors

– Christopher Hughes

A counter-response from the group of students from Hong Kong who put up the wall was included in another open letter. This letter denied the ISO’s “groundless allegations” as “smear” techniques.

It also criticises the University’s decision-making as campus security removed parts of the Lennon Wall following complaints from Chinese students. They wrote: “Such a decision following the one-sided complaint has inspired within us concern regarding how the significance of our group is inferior to those who complained.”

The University of York’s SU has also been criticised by students for its handling of complaints against a Lennon Wall erected by students from Hong Kong, which was said to be infringing on student’s freedom of speech in an open letter.

Furthermore, the government report highlights Chinese interference taking place at a number of unnamed UK universities, by both students and government branches.

Christopher Hughes, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), said he witnessed Chinese interference as students in London engaged in activities to “undermine Hong Kong protesters”.

It was also reported that an Uighur Muslim at a British university claimed that the CSSA had monitored her and her family in China had been harassed after she became politically active.

Furthermore, the report alleged that a pro-vice-chancellor at an unnamed Russell Group university cancelled a speaker after being contacted by the Chinese Embassy.

Another vice-chancellor was pressured by the embassy to ask a senior academic not to make political comments on China for a specified time.

There is a better balance to be found

– Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report

With a growing number of Chinese students studying in the UK – around 10,000, over 2,000 of which are at Warwick – the report recognises the importance of funding received by universities from China.

It also argued: “There is a better balance to be found…The committee is not blind to the incentives for more students or stronger business links – but this should be weighed with full awareness of the serious risks involved.”

The University commented that Warwick’s relationship with China has “no bearing” on research or other activities. It characterises its relationship with Chinese organisations and universities as the same as those with other countries.

“Warwick researchers do work in partnership with a range of colleagues from a range of Chinese universities just as they do in many other countries of the world,” the University added.

When asked whether the University felt confident that it was being protected by the government from foreign interference, it responded that it felt safe “by (their) own independence”.

Universities UK (UUK) also rejected the report’s suggestion of there being widespread attempts at interference.

“As autonomous institutions, universities are responsible for developing their own policies and practices for preventing foreign interference,” they said, and claimed to be “unaware of any systematic attempt to interfere with the sector”.

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