Chinese students ‘unfairly demonised for political purposes’

Flimsy evidence provided for China’s political interference in UK academia has raised questions over the motivation for calls for tougher regulation

November 14, 2019
Chinese students show support for Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives to tour the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University in 2015
Source: Getty

International students risk being viewed with suspicion and fear if Western politicians continue to unfairly drag universities into wider geopolitical conflicts with autocratic regimes, experts have warned.

While the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee claimed in a report last week that it had heard “alarming evidence” about the extent of China’s influence on UK campuses, academics and university leaders have highlighted the lack of evidence to support its call for action to curb the threat posed by China.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus mission group, said that the “three or four incidents” of state interference provided by the committee, while “unacceptable”, did not constitute “evidence of a concerted campaign by a non-democratic power to undermine academic freedom in the UK”.

The committee, chaired by Tom Tugendhat MP, recommended a strategy to combat the influence of autocracies, noting how the US and Australia now required international students to notify the authorities if they have any links with foreign governments.

It also suggests that the UK should explore “ways to protect universities from attempts by autocracies to use their financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding” – citing how UK institutions had become increasingly reliant on the income provided by more than 100,000 Chinese students.

However, Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, told the committee that he had “not heard one piece of evidence” to substantiate claims of foreign interference in UK universities.

“There are all sorts of claims for the influence of autocratic regimes at UK universities, but where is the evidence? I haven’t seen it,” the former higher education minister told Times Higher Education.

“There are, of course, risks which need to be managed. UK universities have partnerships with many foreign nationals, but if these relationships are managed well, there should not be a problem.

“China is soon going to be the second biggest global superpower – we can stand apart from it or engage,” he continued, adding that “educating thousands of Chinese students each year [in the UK] can only help move China towards a more progressive direction.”

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said he was worried that Chinese students were being “demonised” to further political arguments that China should not be trusted. “It would be a pity if the UK went down the road of Australia, which is increasingly claiming that Chinese students are up to no good,” he said.

“The Chinese government should not be interfering in British academia, but nor is it right for Chinese students to be beaten up, metaphorically, by people who have a conviction that China is a great geopolitical threat.”

Creating an “unhelpful, simple narrative” about Chinese students obscured a more mundane reality, Professor Brown said. “They are under pressure financially, quite isolated culturally and most are working very hard,” he explained. While some students may have links to the government, “China would not be the first country to have students claiming they are doing one thing but doing another”, he said, remarking that “the Chinese did not invent espionage”.

The report’s claims that the Communist Party of China was coordinating student political activity in the UK obscured a more complex reality, Professor Brown added. “Many Chinese students are very patriotic and will take views on Taiwan or Tibet without intervention from the embassy,” he said. “Governments may also expend a lot of effort on getting student groups to be disciplined, but I’m not sure they are getting the results they want.”

Suspicions over the alleged subversive influence of Confucius Institutes on campus were also overblown, Professor Brown added. “They have generated intense scrutiny over things for which there is very little evidence,” he said. “If China is using these institutes [for hidden purposes] it has been very counterproductive.”

Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, also questioned the committee’s findings, given the “anecdotes and suspicions” it presented, rather than firm evidence. “China is certainly no friend of academic freedom: domestically, the regime has clamped down on critical scholars” and even detained Marxist students at Peking University, said Dr Jones.

“But there’s a general tendency to blame foreign powers for homegrown problems – first, Russian bots are to blame for Brexit; now China is threatening academic freedom in our universities.

“What really threatens academic freedom is neoliberal governance and empire-building managers, which push institutions to expand into authoritarian states, or become reliant on their students or donations,” Dr Jones continued, adding that “properly funding universities would avoid this problem, removing any leverage for such states”.

However, Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, said the paucity of evidence provided to illustrate China’s political interference was explained by the committee being “very careful” about making unproven allegations.

“The issue is not the number of international students from a certain country, but whether a state is weaponising them,” said Professor Tsang, who gave evidence in private to the committee. “Foreign governments will try to have influence on campuses and that is objectionable – we should welcome foreign students, but an issue arises when institutions become beholden to certain states given the [financial] leverage they hold over them.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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