Concerns are growing over the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s bid to limit academic freedom, far beyond China’s borders on the campuses of overseas universities.
China is putting financial, political and diplomatic pressure on British universities to comply with Beijing’s political agenda, both directly and indirectly, the U.K. parliament warned in a recent report.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned last month that autocracies including China were seeking to use their influence to shape what is studied at U.K. universities by adding to conditions to research and educational funding agreements.
Funding and investment agreements could, for example, include “explicit or implicit limits” on what subjects could be discussed, while institutions had also been pressured not to invite certain speakers, or not to disseminate certain papers, the report found.
“We heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities,” the committee said, citing an earlier probe into Chinese influence.
“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.
China had attempted to limit the activities of U.K. university campuses or joint venture universities abroad in a way that constrained freedoms that would normally be protected in the UK, such as criticisms of foreign governments, the committee said.
Beijing had also exerted pressure on U.K.-based researchers through visa refusals, pressure on university leadership and pressure on relatives still living in China, it said.
China also puts pressure on U.K.-based Chinese students and their families to get them to inform on the speech or activities of other students, or to engage in government-backed political protest in the U.K., the report said.
It cited Professor Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics as saying that he had seen Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protesters, as well as officials from the Chinese-governments network of Confucius Institutes confiscating papers that mention Taiwan at an academic conference.
Chinese Students and Scholars Associations
Charles Parton of the U.K. think-tank RUSI said that Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA), which are supported and partly financed by the Chinese government, are also instruments of Chinese interference in freedom of expression overseas.
“Its stated aim is to look after Chinese students, but 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 committee quoted Parton as saying.
And Ayeshagul Nur Ibrahim, a Uyghur Muslim who became politically active while studying in the U.K., said that her family back home had been placed under surveillance and harassed as a result, it said.
The report came after similar concerns have been raised in the United States.
The Chinese Students Association at the University of Rochester, New York formally requested the cancellation of an event on Oct. 26 that heard the personal testimonies of three ethnic Uyghurs with family held in mass incarceration camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The event went ahead, amid concerns that the association had breached the school’s student code of conduct.
The college’s Eastman Philharmonia orchestra also canceled a trip to China after three of its South Korean members were denied visas by Beijing.
According to Eastman School of Music Dean Jamal Rossi, the move was a form of retaliation for Seoul’s support of the 2016 U.S. decision to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the Chinese government “has stepped up surveillance of diaspora communities, including through controls on students and scholars from China.”