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“Alarming” evidence of Chinese meddling in UK universities, report finds

There is “alarming” evidence of Chinese influence on university campuses and potential risks to academic freedom of British institutions targeting partnerships in China, a report published by the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee has revealed.

According to the committee, evidence was given of Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers that mentioned Taiwan at an academic conference. Photo: Wikimedia

The UK is a popular destination for Chinese students

“Not enough is being done to protect academic freedom from financial, political and diplomatic pressure”

According to the report published on November 4, there is evidence that China and other “autocracies” are seeking to shape the agenda of UK universities, as well as limit the activities of researchers on university campuses.

In one instance, the committee cited evidence from Nottingham University – one of two UK universities with a branch in China— stating that academics were pressured to cancel events relating to Tibet and Taiwan after complaints from Chinese officials.

In another example, it highlighted evidence of Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protestors and Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at an academic conference.

“Not enough is being done to protect academic freedom from financial, political and diplomatic pressure,” read the report.

And 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,” it continued.

The UK continues to be a hugely popular destination for Chinese students, and multiple British institutions have partnerships with Chinese HEIs.

However, while these partnerships bring huge financial benefit Chinese students bring, they also make the country’s universities vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government, warned the report.

The government has stated that research collaboration with institutions based in autocratic states can be vulnerable to misuse by organisations and institutions who operate in nations whose democratic and ethical values are different from our own,” it read.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat said that the evidence given is “much more than anecdotal”.

“There was rather more evidence than we were able to put into the report, and the reason not as much went in is because parliament dissolved earlier,” he said.

“But there is a reason the Australian government and the US government and the Canadian government crackdown down on Confucius Institutes; it’s because they have been seen as this column into the academic sector.”

However, several representatives of UK universities told the committee during the inquiry that they were not aware of any significant or systematic attempts to influence university activity in the manners outlined.

Quoted in the report, universities association Million Plus chair and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, Bill Rammell, said he had “not heard one piece of evidence” that substantiates claims of foreign influence in universities.

“British lawmakers should do more to advance China-UK relations, instead of making fictitious remarks”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, chief executive of Million Plus, Greg Walker said: “We simply said that we hadn’t seen systematic evidence of a concerted campaign by a non-democratic power to undermine academic freedom in the UK.

“The report outlines three or four incidents, and each of those incidents is unacceptable.

“But I think to say that this is a systematic, widespread attempt by non-democratic regimes to undermine academic freedom in the UK in a concerted way… would be an exaggeration,” he added.

In response to the allegations outlined in the report, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang described the remarks as “fictitious”,  stating that  “China has always adhered to a principle of non-interference in internal affairs”.

“British lawmakers should do more to advance China-UK relations, instead of making fictitious remarks and sowing discord,” Geng told a press conference.

The committee’s report comes as demonstrations in Hong Kong have sparked tensions across universities in places such as Australia and New Zealand.

In July, Australian education minister Dan Tehan said the government was investigating whether deals between 13 Australian universities and the Confucius Institute breached foreign interference laws.

However, as covered in the THEminister counsellor for education and research at the Australian embassy in Beijing, Brooke Hartigan, offered an upbeat assessment of the prospects for Australian institutions operating in China.

She highlighted opportunities to deliver micro-credentials under the country’s new hybrid model of combined academic and vocational education, known as the “1+X” system, although the scheme was still in its infancy.

Hartigan also explained that her team was close to finalising a memorandum of understanding with China’s Ministry of Education, charting areas of educational cooperation, to replace an agreement that expired in 2017.

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