Alliances between British universities and Chinese politics harms freedom for all

Dissidents such as Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok speak out against collusion between Western institutions and the Chinese Communist Party: ‘We will lose.’

The photo would not be out of place on the front page of China’s People’s Daily – suited bureaucrats, identical red shovels, stilted poses meant to inspire honest labour. But instead, the image records for posterity the ground-breaking ceremony for the University of Cambridge Nanjing Innovation Centre.

As Professor Stephen Toope turns Chinese soil, he rubs shoulders with Zhang Jinghua, Nanjing’s party boss. The partnership will channel CCP-backed investment into research on ‘smart cities,’ even while Downing Street has vowed to strip Huawei systems – a major state-owned player in smart city tech— from its 5G infrastructure by 2027.

This is not Toope’s first tryst with the CCP. His first act upon appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University was a visit to the Chinese embassy in London, after which he has since set Cambridge onto a headlong pursuit of Chinese investments.

It was recently reported that a Chinese billionaire is providing just under half the funds for the new Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. A month earlier, it came to light that the university’s Department of Engineering accepted a ‘generous gift’ from Tencent to fund research into quantum computers. Meanwhile, the US and China are embroiled in a trade war over the chips that make them run.

In December, Toope virtually addressed the Beijing Forum, an event organised by Peking University to discuss ‘The Harmony of Civilisations and Prosperity for All.’ He said that in a troubled world, collaboration was more necessary than ever. For all Toope’s principled words, the deal appeared to come down to money – it is valued at £10 million.

While Cambridge has strongly denied that accepting Chinese money in any way impinges on academic freedom, professorial discontent at the London School of Economics (LSE) suggests otherwise.

At the start of last year, leaked documents revealed that the LSE approved a three-year project worth £105,000 funded by Huawei to study “leadership” in the development of 5G technology. It was rescinded after four senior Chinese experts met with LSE director Minouche Shafik to warn of “increasing risks to the School’s reputation of exposure to China.”

“Particularly pressing is the need for a rigorous and meaningful review of the Confucius Institute for Business, the [Peking University] summer school… and the ethical implications of having joint MSc programmes with institutions in which academic freedom is increasingly constrained by the Chinese Communist Party,” the academics wrote.

This is not the first time the LSE has come under fire for questions of Chinese collusion. A year prior, the university had been forced to “put on hold” a proposed China programme funded by a staunchly pro-Beijing venture capitalist, Eric Li, after the plan was condemned by researchers.

The FT reported that the scheme would fund research, support new undergraduate and postgraduate courses on Chinese economics, politics, and society, and would be overseen by an advisory group of “distinguished individuals from China.”

Such oversight has struck fear in the heart of British academia: “It’s not going to be Ai Weiwei or Joshua Wong,” LSE professor Christopher Hughes said, concerning the proposed board members.

Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok would agree. From exile in the United States, the prominent Chinese dissident has been outspoken in his claims of CCP overreach in all aspects of Western democratic institutions. He continues to underline a message that often falls on deaf ears in the UK: we must not capitulate to CCP demands.

Britain may be slow on the uptake as the country has benefited the most from China’s growing appetite for foreign education. Due to prestige coupled with bargain tuition prices, Chinese enrolment in British universities has more than tripled in the past decade.

Just under 76,500 Chinese started a degree in a British institution in 2019, some of which consider themselves “an extension of the party state,” says Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS. But instead of championing free speech, this minority often attempt to crush the platforms of key democratic voices within the UK.

In 2017, students supportive of the CCP joined the Chinese embassy to protest a debate motion at Durham University titled “This house sees China as a threat to the West”, as well as the participation of a Falun Gong member, a religious group outlawed in China.

Last summer, an academic was removed from the management board of Nottingham University’s Chinese campus in Ningbo, after an essay he wrote critical of the 19th Communist Party Congress was met with backlash from students supportive of the CCP. Even an art installation on the LSE campus has been heavily contested for featuring a globe labelling Taiwan as separate from the Mainland, forcing the university to capitulate.

Unfortunately, it is clear which side university governance are willing to appease. After Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam ushered in a brutal crackdown against the pro-democracy movement last year, Hong Kong students at Cambridge protested her continued Wolfson honorary fellowship. University representatives remained silent, while the Hongkongers involved were met with online abuse and even death threats.

Yet, most overseas Chinese students remain guided by “fear… that anything they do or say could be reported and influence their future,” says Charles Parton of the Royal United Services Institute. The question therefore is this: how much longer until the whole of British higher education must perform the same self-censorship to appease the interests of an authoritarian state?

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