In the UK, calls are growing for greater scrutiny of UK universities’ “risky” links with Chinese institutions, some of which have been linked to the genocide of Uyghurs and the development of technology useful to the People’s Liberation Army.
A recent study by The times found that around 42 UK universities have links to Chinese institutions linked to “the oppression of the Uyghurs, espionage, nuclear weapons research or hacking,” the newspaper said in an editorial comment on the news article.
“More worryingly, some 21 top universities, including Cambridge, Sheffield, Leeds and Queen Mary University of London, are partnering with ‘very high risk’ Chinese institutions,” it said, adding that the government has warned that China ” openly harvests foreign research” to support its military development.
The report was published amid growing concern over potential threats to UK national security and interests from Chinese infiltration, espionage and political influenceas well as an ongoing push from Beijing to spread his propaganda far beyond China’s borders.
British universities’ Chinese partners include institutions directly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, known as the “seven sons of national defence.”
The partnership between Cambridge University and Beijing’s leading science and technology university Tsinghua University is well documented, Radio Free Asia found after a review of publicly available evidence for the times’ claims.
In May 2022, Tsinghua Vice President Zeng Rong told a symposium attended by Cambridge Vice President for Research and International Affairs Anne Ferguson-Smith that he expected joint scientific research to continue despite the pandemic under a funding scheme established in 2019, according to a report by the symposium on Tsinghua’s official website.
Voice recognition software
Tsinghua scientists led by Nurmemet Yolwas published a paper in 2018 outlining their research on how to train voice recognition software to recognize the Uyghur language as the ruling Chinese Communist Party began the mass incarceration of millions of Uyghurs in “re-education camps” in its northwestern Xinjiang region.
The camps, widespread reports of forced labor, rights abuses and mass technological surveillance later led the State Department to describe what was happening in the region as genocide.
Details of teaching and research collaboration between Harbin Engineering University in north-east China and three of the four Scottish universities mentioned by The times — Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Dundee — are also well documented on the university’s websites.
Harbin Engineering University’s Department of Naval Engineering describes itself on its website as “an important scientific research and talent training base for China’s shipbuilding industry, naval equipment and marine development.”
The university is among the seven “national defense universities” listed on Baidupedia, the Chinese Wikipedia, and was listed as the recipient of sensitive information in the 2019 espionage case against Houston entrepreneur Shan Shi.
Alicia Kearns, who chairs the UK House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said the extent of ties between UK and Chinese universities was “extremely worrying”.
“Pleading ignorance is no longer going to cut it,” Kearns told me The times. “Universities must come clean about relationships they enter into with institutions designed to strengthen China’s military capabilities or those guilty of facilitating serious human rights abuses.”
Former golden era
The Times said the partnerships were “a hangover from the ‘golden era'” of Sino-British ties under former prime minister David Cameron, and said many more partnerships exist that “pose no risk” according to a risk rating scale developed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The newspaper’s disclosure came after warnings from British defense analyst Robert Clark in October 2022 that at least 60 Chinese nationals from high-risk institutions linked to the Chinese military are currently employed at British universities.
In a paper for the think tank Civitas, Clark found that two people were employed while simultaneously listed as officers on the People’s Liberation Army staff, one with the Air Force Engineering University and the other with the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.
Clark also found eight individuals who worked at various Chinese military-linked institutions during their collaboration with British universities and academics, and three individuals who had previously worked at PLA institutions prior to collaboration with British universities and academics.
the times’ the article was published along with three letters calling for action to limit cooperation with high-risk institutions.
In one of the letters, Steve Tsang, who heads the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, urged the government to set up a scientific review body to enable “a smart decoupling” from risky partnerships, while urging universities to take action to end their dependence on income from fee-paying Chinese students.
“The Chinese Communist Party is a hostile power: it plays by no rules but its own,” warned Charles Parton, of the Rusi and Merics think tank, in another letter. “UK universities should not help their military or repression systems.”
Benedict Rogers, who heads the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said in his letter to The times that “dependence on or partnership with China is extremely dangerous.”
“The grip of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship means that everyone in China is bound to do the party’s bidding,” he wrote. “This means that knowledge is transferred in ways that can strengthen China’s military expansion.”
“It also means threats to academic freedom as China exercises its influence to spread propaganda and silence dissent,” he wrote.
“I think there’s a broader question about how dependent our universities have become on Chinese students, funding and academic connections,” Rogers told Radio Free Asia in a later interview. “I think the UK government and universities now need to work together to act to stop some of these conditions.”
“We should not have relations with institutions in China that are either complicit in genocide and atrocity crimes, or with organizations that pose a threat to us.”
The Hong Kong-based China Media Project seemed to agree with him, warning in a Jan. 25 report that Chinese universities are also engaged in facilitating attempts to spread Beijing’s propaganda on overseas campuses.
“Such a scheme is already underway in China,” according to the report. “It is one of the more egregious examples of how a range of actors in the country – including high-level organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), state media, local governments and universities – are responding to the top-down mandate of CCP leadership to pursue greater ‘discourse power’ around the world as a community-wide effort.”
The report by David Bandurski cited the recent establishment of the Jiangxi International Communication Research Center in collaboration with the state media parent company, China Media Group, at Nanchang Aviation University.
“The new center is an experiment in combining central CCP media and universities to carry out international communication using the university’s ‘overseas student resources,'” Bandurski wrote, citing coverage by a newspaper controlled by the Ministry of Education.
Nanchang Aviation University has cooperation agreements with more than 70 universities in 20 countries, including the United States and Great Britain.
“The existence of the new center and its utilization of programs conducted in the spirit of exchange may also mean that Chinese students in programs abroad … are recruited for government communication work unrelated to their studies,” Bandurski warned.
The Nanchang Aviation University project is likely the first manifestation of a Chinese propaganda concept known as “international communication by all,” he wrote.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.