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13 July 2021

How the Chinese government is buying its way into UK universities

From funding professorships to censoring students, the Chinese state has more influence on British educational establishments than we realise. 

By Freddie Hayward

When Professor Peter Nolan warned against debating the plight of the Uighurs or the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong at Jesus College, Cambridge, he exposed the impact of China’s growing influence in UK universities, according to the Sunday Times. In comments reported by the Times in early June, Nolan, the director of the college’s China Centre, advised colleagues to avoid contentious issues on China’s human rights record lest they be seen as a “campaigning college for freedom for Hong Kong, freedom for the Uighurs”. A spokesperson for Jesus College disputed the Sunday Times article saying Nolan was simply emphasising the challenges of organising debates on contentious topics to allow for balanced dialogue and that Nolan’s full statement was in accordance with the principle of academic freedom.

According to the Times, Nolan’s professorship was funded by a £3.7 million donation to the university from the Chong Hua foundation, a trust allegedly controlled by the daughter of Wen Jiabao, a former Chinese prime minister. Nolan also sits on the board of China International Capital Corporation (CICC), a Chinese state-backed investment bank.  

Nolan’s case highlights the risks of the Chinese government’s rising influence in UK universities. Through financial support, the Chinese state is potentially able to mould the boundaries of debate on UK campuses – sometimes explicitly, sometimes more insidiously. The chair of the Commons Foreign Select Committee and China Research Group, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, describes the problem as a “gentle, drip, drip, drip of silence” as academics shy away from controversial topics.

The influence isn’t always as blatant as a professorship being funded by organisations with links to the Chinese state. Nine UK universities depend on Chinese students for more than 20 per cent of their tuition fee income, for example, leaving them vulnerable to potential sanctions. Specific donations are also common: Oxford University recently renamed the 120-year-old Wykeham professorship in return for a £700,000 donation from Tencent, the Chinese software company.

Despite the assumption of academic independence, this financial support gives the Chinese government leverage over debates surrounding contentious events in China’s history. In 2017, for instance, it emerged that Cambridge University Press (CUP) had blocked access in China to online articles from a subsidiary journal, China Quarterly, on topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, at the request of the Chinese government (CUP later reinstated the articles). Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London, told me that he was aware of the Chinese embassy asking one university to stand speakers down, and academics being denied visas to China because of their research.

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“When the Chinese ambassador tells a vice chancellor that China will stop Chinese students from going to the university if the vice chancellor does not take a certain course of action, it crosses a line,” Tsang says. “Such examples amount to direct interference into academic freedom and integrity.” 

The problem is not restricted to the UK. Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report outlining the harassment and pressure Chinese students in Australia received for expressing pro-democracy views – inevitably leading to self-censorship and curtailed debate. The report follows a 2019 investigation by HRW alleging that the Chinese government conducts surveillance on students studying abroad: academics reported that their students had described how their families in China had been threatened as a result of something they said in the classroom.

The power of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress academic freedom abroad is in part grounded in legislation. Tsang points to the Hong Kong National Security Law – passed a year ago last month – as a powerful instrument in suppressing dissent in Western universities. The law criminalises acts of “subversion”, a charge so broad it can include virtually anything, from possessing a flag to reposting an article. It applies worldwide, and anyone deemed to have violated it risks arrest if they enter Chinese jurisdiction. Another law passed in 2017 enables Chinese intelligence services to compel Chinese organisations and students to support their intelligence-gathering.

Threatening students via their families is an explicit attack on academic freedom. But sometimes the influence is less easy to spot – as with seemingly innocent co-authorship between universities. Collaboration between Chinese and British universities has increased dramatically in recent decades. Before 1990, fewer than 100 papers were co-authored by academics from these countries a year, which rose to 3,324 in 2010, and then 16,267 in 2019 – equivalent to around 11 per cent of UK output.

Cooperation between universities is a routine academic practice and is in itself benign. But there is evidence that collaboration with certain institutions could benefit China’s military. In 2017, the UK produced 156 peer-reviewed pieces of research co-authored with Chinese military scientists. This is particularly significant in light of a recent report from think tank Civitas, which found that UK universities have been “unintentionally generating research” that is available to Chinese military institutions.

Fuelled by such reports, Conservative backbenchers have led the call for greater opposition to the Chinese government. Just as China’s behaviour is one of the few issues that unites Democrat and Republican legislators in the US, criticism of the Chinese government extends across the aisle in the UK. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has taken a critical line on China, and Labour is often on the same side as Tory rebels. Their opposition has quickened the end of the “golden era” of David Cameron’s government. Its open-armed approach to the Chinese state allowed, as Robert Tombs puts it in his 2021 book This Sovereign Isle, “penetration by a potentially hostile state to a degree unparalleled since Charles II accepted money and mistresses from Louis XIV”. 

Why is this interference happening to universities specifically? Tugendhat told me that it’s not that surprising: the Chinese government is looking for “every opportunity to leverage and influence the outcome of debates around the world”.  

But the Chinese government’s seeming ambition to control which issues are debated at universities is not the whole story. The Cameron government’s naïve embrace of China wasn’t its only policy that exposed the UK to capture. The marketisation of higher education brought about by the trebling of tuition fees and cuts to higher education created a key opening for foreign money to buy influence in universities. Catherine Owen of the University of Exeter told the Foreign Select Committee in 2019 that the commercialisation of the UK’s higher education increases its exposure to China’s attacks on academic freedom. Indeed, Tsang warns that universities with a research focus on China or heavy dependence on Chinese students for income are particularly at risk of interference.

Shutting down debate of controversial issues makes sense for a regime seeking to crush any dissent at home and enhance its reputation overseas. But at the same time, China’s increasing boldness when it comes to flexing its muscles abroad makes protecting the academic study of these topics more important than ever.

A spokesperson for Jesus College, Cambridge said: 

“Jesus College is strongly committed to the principles of freedom of speech and academic independence; no opinion should be stifled. It is our position that no subject is out of bounds, as the range of recent events hosted by the College demonstrates. It is a bleak day if outside forces succeed in inhibiting academic debate.

“In the last six months, the China Centre has hosted events covering topics including human rights, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and potential war with China, with speakers representing a wide range of opinions.”

This article was amended on 15 July to incorporate comments from Jesus College, Cambridge. ​