Georgia L Gilholy is a journalist.
The cooperation between British universities and the Chinese state has long been an open secret. For years, stories of students and academics being silenced for the sake of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sensitivities, and Beijing swiping western research, have provoked widespread national frustration and embarrassment.
Yet still, little has been done to clamp down on this state of affairs.
This week, a new report from the right-leaning think tank Civitas has once again thrust these worrying links into the limelight, finding that one-third of all Chinese research funds given to UK universities come from entities that “trace back to the Chinese military in one form or another.”
Through Freedom Of Information requests to 46 British universities, Civitas confirmed that from 2017 to the 2022/23 academic year, British higher education institutions received between at least £122- £156 million from Chinese sources. Between £19,917,836 and £30,504,836 worth of these funds were from entities sanctioned by the United States.
That several universities refused Civitas’ requests, including internationally respected research-intensive universities King’s College London, Imperial College London, and the University of Nottingham, speaks to the scale of the problem.
Even if this were some wild coincidence it would be concerning. But we know this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Beijing to harness foreign expertise for its own ends, and undermine the very British institutions that have long allowed innovation to flourish. As the report explains:
“Whilst the CCP attempts to extend its overseas intelligence gathering and foreign policy agenda on to UK campuses, it is the CCP’s ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ strategy which further endangers national security, through attempts to rapidly expand its military modernisation programs, and ambitions for regional military hegemony across the Indo-Pacific.”
But what is Britain’s counter-strategy? As the paper’s author Robert Clark, Director of Civitas’ Defence and Security Unit explains, we do not seem to have one.
As Clark writes, “labelling Beijing an ‘epoch-defining challenge’ has become a “substitute” for substance. Nobody outside of the Foreign Office’s mandarin-pleasing department has the slightest clue as to what this means, and it shows.”
But many outside the corridors of Whitehall are instinctively concerned. The Covid-19 pandemic which may well be linked to a CCP lab leak, and the revelation of Beijing’s brutal abuse of Uyghur Muslims, were two major turning points in British perceptions of the Chinese regime.
In 2019 a YouGov poll suggested that 35 per cent of British adults perceived China as playing a positive role in the world, compared with 11 per cent in 2022. It is no surprise that Rishi Sunak decided to roleplay as a China hawk during last summer’s leadership race, claiming he would “face down” China and vowing to scrap Confucius Institutes.
These organisations, present on 30 British campuses, are a branch of Beijing’s Ministry of Education mainly concerned with delivering Mandarin and Chinese culture programmes abroad, but which have long been shown to deliver overt CCP propaganda.
Sunak vowed to banish them from our campuses. But over a year since taking office such plans are dead in the water, with Downing Street claiming it would be a “disproportionate” move. It is no surprise that just last Spring, the Prime Minister was pushing for free trade negotiations with Beijing, at the same time as the UK was reeling from the impact of major cyber attacks by suspected Chinese agents – an issue upon which the Government continues to fail.
Complacent Sunak is in good company with David Cameron, whom he inexplicably appointed Foreign Secretary on Monday. Cameron not only declared a “Golden Era” of relations with Xi’s China without appearing to secure any clear benefits for Britain, in 2017 he directly lobbied the Government on behalf of Beijing’s Belt and Road project, which is directly linked to its forced labour apparatus in Xinjiang.
Labour too has offered little alternative, with Sir Keir Starmer simply telling Esquire that Beijing represents a “strategic challenge”, and intermittently complaining about China’s human rights issues, an approach that speaks to a void of serious thinking,
These are not simply financial and ethical risks for the universities themselves but for the nation.
The Chinese Ministry of Education’s China Scholarship Council has provided thousands of scholarships for Chinese students to study at British universities which, as Civitas notes, “are heavily subsidised by British universities themselves, and therefore in part by the British taxpayer”. Its guidelines openly state that selected students must: “Thoroughly implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, serve the national strategy”.
Not only is Britain allowing Beijing to ship students here who are required to promote its agenda and foreign policy, but HM Government is happy for its own taxpayers to bankroll this arrangement.
The report is correct to urge Westminster to outlaw “all university funding, research collaborations, and donations which are associated with Chinese companies,” especially those subject to US sanctions, which also pose obvious threats to Britain.
Root and branch reform of our own education system will be required to meet this challenge. Rigorous academic selection that was phased out with the destruction of grammar schools must be reimplemented as a matter of national emergency; British children from all backgrounds and regions must be encouraged to pursue excellence, whether it be academic or vocational.
Likewise, this will necessitate an end to the commercialisation of higher education.
This cynical system, unleashed partly by Blair’s push to shove young people out of unemployment statistics and into universities, has helped transform once elite centres of learning into remedial sectors for failing comprehensives, money-hungry visa laundering operations desperate to sell out to dictatorships for the sake of quick cash grabs.
Only through these kinds of sweeping changes can we truly hope to forge a new generation of homegrown talent that can help Britain compete globally, and keep our expertise out of the hands of hostile foreign regimes.
There is no other way to deal with threats from aggressive ideologies like that of the Chinese Communist Party than with such tough measures. Those who suggest cooperation have been trusted as the so-called voices of reason for years despite having demonstrably failed in curtailing Beijing’s threats to academic freedom and national security.