Lawmakers flag ‘alarming’ Chinese meddling in UK universities
A group of British MPs has warned of “alarming evidence” that China is trying to influence activities at UK universities and urged the Foreign Office to act on the issue.
Parliament’s watchdog foreign affairs committee also said, in a report released Tuesday, that universities in Britain should consider “potential risks to academic freedom” when going into overseas partnerships.
Britain hosts more than 100,000 Chinese students — more than from any other country — while its universities increasingly pursue ventures abroad to secure funding and research collaboration, the committee noted.
But these trends can “come into conflict with the principle of academic freedom,” it warned in a newly released report titled “A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracy”.
“During our inquiry into China and the rules-based international system, we heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities,” the 25-page analysis said.
It noted that British institutions had warned the committee of a significant threat from hostile state actors of “misappropriation of research output, including the seizing of research data and intellectual property”.
Despite that rising threat, the MPs said there were “strong signs” that the Foreign Office is not treating the issues “as the priority it should be”.
“(Its) role in advising universities on the potential threats to academia from autocracies is non-existent,” the committee said.
“We recommend that the government and universities develop together a strategy to address the challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities,” it added.
Among the incidents referenced were a pro-vice chancellor from one of the 24 leading Russell Group universities cancelling an invited speaker after contact from the Chinese embassy in London.
The committee also heard testimony from Christopher Hughes, a professor at the London School of Economics, that he had seen Chinese students in the British capital engaged in activities to “undermine Hong Kong protestors”.
The academic told lawmakers he also saw Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mentioned Taiwan at an academic conference.
Meanwhile Charles Parton of the RUSI think-tank on international defence and security told MPs that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which is supported and partly financed by the Chinese government, helped spearhead the interference.
Although the CSSA’s “stated aim is to look after Chinese students”, Parton said, “it also reports on them to the embassy and authorities, tries to stop discussion of topics sensitive to China (Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen), and takes more direct action under guidance of the embassy.”
The Chinese embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.