UK universities ‘easy’ target for Chinese infiltration – MPs

China is ‘stealing UK academic research’ in ‘plain sight’ and suppressing political dissent on campus, says intelligence committee

七月 13, 2023
Source: istock

British universities are providing a “rich feeding ground” for China to achieve “political influence” and “economic advantage over the UK”, a parliamentary report claims.

In a wide-ranging study of how China has sought to infiltrate UK institutions, the Intelligence and Security Committee explains that China had been “particularly effective at using its money and influence to penetrate or buy academia” with the aim of ensuring that “its international narrative is advanced and criticism suppressed”.

China had also managed to gain economic advantage by “directing or stealing UK academic research in order to build, or shortcut to, Chinese expertise”, with joint Sino-UK research on dual-use technology being used to benefit the Chinese military, it says.

The report, published on 13 July, says China was often acting “in plain sight” when “directing, funding and collaborating on academic research for its own ends”.

Academia is an “‘easy option’ when it comes to theft of intellectual property”, explains the report, which notes that “there is still no comprehensive list of the areas of sensitive UK research which need protecting” – a recommendation made two years ago by former universities minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone.

“Identifying these key areas of research must be a priority – they must be communicated to academia as a matter of urgency so that protective action can be taken,” it adds.

“There is a question as to whether academic institutions are sufficiently alive to this threat – particularly given that academic institutions will often accept the transfer of information data and IP as a condition of funding,” the committee report says on joint funding projects.

On China’s efforts to exert political control on UK campuses, the report explains that academics, institutions and students had been pressured into not talking about the “Five Poisons” – Taiwanese independence, Tibetan independence, Xinjiang separatists, the Chinese democracy movement and the Falun Gong. Meanwhile, China sought to push the positive narrative presented by the Chinese Communist Party.

With an estimated 120,000 Chinese students in the UK, generating about £600 million in student fees, China could rely on this “leverage” to inhibit free discussion of issues relating to China, says the report, which drew on classified materials as well as testimony from security chiefs, China experts and university leaders.

In other cases, academics and university leaders had faced direct threats for criticising China, it adds. Sir Simon Gass, chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, told the committee’s inquiry that he knew of “examples of intimidation…sometimes with the vice-chancellor getting a phone call, sometimes at student body level, to try to discourage universities from allowing speakers on issues like Tibet or Xinjiang”. Lord Patten, chancellor of the University of Oxford, told a parliamentary committee that he had received a call from the Chinese ambassador two days after the Dalai Lama was invited to speak at Oxford by its Buddhist Society, in which they described the invitation as a “disgraceful insult” to China.

Students from China who criticised human rights abuses had also been directly targeted, says the report. It highlighted a Times story in November 2019 in which a Chinese student pictured holding a sign in support of Hong Kong student protesters was photographed at Edinburgh Airport while escorting his elderly mother on to a flight to the city of Chengdu. That image was posted on the social media network Weibo – alongside the flight number and the message “Brothers of Chengdu – beat him to death”, with the post shared 10,000 times.

On the threat posed by China, there is a “dawning recognition” among many academic institutions that Chinese interference and meddling is a problem, but government departments are less alive to these risks, says the committee.

It has “still not seen any detail as to what action [departments] planned to tackle [these risks] – which reinforces our concern that policy departments are not taking [this risk] sufficiently seriously.”



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