British lawmakers have warned of what they say is “alarming evidence” of Chinese influence on university campuses, and the potential risks to academic freedom of UK institutions targeting partnerships in China.
The United Kingdom is the latest country to warn of potential meddling by Chinese authorities in the education system, after years of universities aggressively targeting students from China – who pay significantly more than British or European students.
“Despite the fact that there are now over 100,000 Chinese students in the UK, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand and the US,” a report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said this week.
CNN is seeking comment from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding allegations in the report.
The UK is one of the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese students, along with the US, Australia and Canada, according to a recent survey, and multiple British universities – including Liverpool and Nottingham – have set up partnerships or other close relationships with Chinese colleges.
These partnerships – which are both economic and academic – as well as the huge financial benefit Chinese students bring, make British universities vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government, warned the House of Commons report.
“Universities have a strong incentive to establish overseas partnerships to secure funding and enhance collaboration on research projects, but this should be balanced with potential risks to academic freedom,” lawmakers said.
Multiple British academics are quoted in the report giving examples of Chinese political pressure, including officials linked to the Confucius Institute – a Chinese government funded cultural and language program which has a presence on most UK campuses – allegedly confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at a European academic conference.
“Where do you draw the line? When the head of the office in Beijing turns up at a conference in Portugal and confiscates the brochures and the papers and tears out all the pages that mention Taiwan and will not let the academics see them?” Christopher Hughes, a professor at the London School of Economics, told lawmakers according to a transcript. “Do we say that is unacceptable influence and interference? Do we start to say that maybe these organizations should not be on our campus? That maybe they have an agenda that does not fit our values?”
Hughes added that the presence of Confucius Institutes on British campuses – where they are often the only place where students can learn Chinese – is an example of subtle pressure from Beijing, which can have an effect on broader questions of academic freedom.
“We know the big Ts—Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. Now, there is Hong Kong,” Hughes said. “These things will be marginalized and squeezed out as academics have to work with the Confucius Institute and the Confucius Institute itself gets legitimacy.”
Hong Kong was an issue brought up by other witnesses interviewed by lawmakers, and the ongoing anti-government protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city have already led to scuffles and disputes on campuses across the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Chinese students in these countries have repeatedly staged counter-demonstrations to rallies held in sympathy with the Hong Kong protests, and while many students are motivated by patriotism and disapproval of the increasingly violent unrest, there have been allegations that local Chinese diplomats have played a hand in the demonstrations.
While academics who spoke to the committee were concerned about foreign influence, university groups pushed back on the claim, with Bill Rammell of MillionPlus, which represents 20 universities in the UK, saying he had “not heard one piece of evidence” backing it up.
The Russell Group, which represents some of the UK’s most prestigious universities, told lawmakers that “we are not aware of any significant or systematic attempts to influence university activity by foreign actors in any of the ways outlined in your letter.”
Concern over potential Chinese influence on campuses is not limited to the UK, and academics in New Zealand and Australia in particular have raised the alarm over potential threats to academic freedom due to meddling by Chinese diplomats and self-censoring in order to safeguard Chinese student fees.