Reset of UK-China research relations ‘will harm global science’

Forthcoming restrictions on Sino-British research are short-sighted, driven by ‘ideology’ and mark a rapid policy U-turn, say education experts

February 17, 2021
Young Asian man with robot
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New measures to limit scholarly engagement with China in research areas thought to jeopardise UK national security indicate that “ideology” and “Cold War anti-communist sentiments” are now shaping British science policy, experts have warned.

The UK government was expected to outline new security vetting rules for overseas academics and students in fields related to national security, with restrictions likely to apply to artificial intelligence, mathematics, physics, chemistry and some engineering disciplines.

The Times said thousands of Chinese researchers could be blocked from entering the UK under the rules, which aim to prevent the theft of intellectual property and to address concerns about the potential use of UK-Chinese research for military purposes.

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Times Higher Education that a reassessment of UK-China research cooperation was “long overdue” and that some university collaborations “raise alarm bells”.

“We need to develop a much deeper understanding of the profile of China’s universities and military companies, and then we can begin to draw the lines of acceptable collaboration,” the MP said.

But banning UK universities from working with “military-linked” Chinese universities would be an unreasonable restraint given that “all strong research universities [in the UK] have ties with the military or security-related research”, said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford.

Similar bans on academics with Chinese Communist Party ties would also be too restrictive, he added. “To require universities or scientists in China – and for that matter, Chinese students going abroad – to have no ties with ‘the Communist Party’ is exactly like saying ‘no ties with the government’ because it is a one-party state,” Professor Marginson explained.

“To require east Asians to be ‘like us’ before we’ll deal with them or trust them is, frankly, neo-imperialist arrogance – that is saying not only that ‘our system is superior to yours’ but also ‘only our system is legitimate or possible’.”

Imperial College London, one university which has faced scrutiny for its ties with Chinese companies, told THE that its collaborations focused on “fundamental scientific research” and that it worked closely with UK government agencies.

“Our research outputs, which are in the public domain and routinely published in leading international journals, are good for science, innovation and the UK’s global influence. Science is a global endeavour, and we are proud to work with our peers in academia and industry all over the world,” an Imperial spokesman said.

Professor Marginson said that the latest policies towards China probably reflected “Cold War anti-communist instincts still buried in the Western psyche”.

“To stigmatise everything in China as part of a single monolith controlled by a unitary party-state reflects a childish level of political analysis, and an overdeveloped instinct for playground-level stereotyping. It shows how ideology is showing signs of taking over this discussion,” he said.

Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, said he was concerned that the UK was “moving into a period where all Chinese researchers and students, regardless of their motives, will be treated with increasing – and possibly baseless – scepticism and hostility in Britain, mirroring a shift that has already happened in the US”.

“Whatever one thinks about this policy drift, it is clearly problematic to bash universities for having followed previous government policy,” added Dr Jones, who said it was “only in 2015 that the UK’s prime minister [David Cameron] was heralding a ‘golden age’ of UK-China relations”.

“It is government policy that has made British universities dependent on Chinese students, whether studying in the UK or at China-based campuses, while inadequate research funding drives scientists to collaborate with their Chinese counterparts,” Dr Jones continued.

“If the government is really worried about British universities’ dependence on, and relationship with, Chinese students and researchers, it should fund them adequately and create clear limits on what is, and what is not, acceptable engagement with China.”


Print headline: UK rules on China ‘will hit science’

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Reader's comments (3)

Aspects of the contribution to the discussion above are naive. In 2019 I attemded a workshop at a college in Oxford which was hosted by a (in other ways) very strong Beijing university. However, the actual workshop ( at which Marginson also spoke but did not attend in full) was led by a Dean and an organisation who is very closely associated with the Xi Jinping social management institute at BeiShi. Discussion was not permitted, and as the only non-host whos stayed for the whole event so that it was usually incumbent on me to try and push for it, I was well aware that other junior academics were not abnle to gtalk to their strengths or even their usua area of expertise. Thios was all about PR and it duly turned up in Global Times. On the day my own interactions with the Party representative were redolent of the 70s. If you do not speak Chinese and only listen to the interpreted content of your own talk you will not know how your interventions are used, however senior you are in global education. There are many great Chinese academics and scientists, but we do need to be mindful of the PR arm of the Party-State and its activities in HE, and its attention to internal and external comms. Chinese Studies academics at Oxford and I complained about this particular and lisleading use of the University name. But in a broader sense, if we are serious about wanting to support knowledge creators and thinkers and academics in China, then we also need to remain wide-eyed about the structures of power within which they labour, and know when to withdraw or to refuse.
and as usual - apologies for typos.
"But banning UK universities from working with “military-linked” Chinese universities would be an unreasonable restraint given that “all strong research universities [in the UK] have ties with the military or security-related research”, said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford." Perhaps I misunderstand the point being argued here, but I think the point is that links to our own military are not seen as a threat to our security, but links to a potentially hostile major power's military might be.