Monday, July 17, 2023

How Beijing snuck its way into the heart of British academia

How Beijing snuck its way into the heart of British academia

Universities in U.K. have effectively been 'bought' by the China, Parliament’s intelligence and security committee finds

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British academics are being offered bribes to ensure they do not criticize the Chinese regime, MPs heard, as part of an inquiry which exposed Beijing’s growing influence in U.K. universities.

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Parliament’s intelligence and security committee uncovered evidence that Chinese officials were approaching lecturers and promising them “professional inducements” such as research funding and travel opportunities.

It was all part of the way that universities had effectively been “bought” by the Communist power, which is exposed in the 200-page report.

Too many universities rely on China for funding and were “turning a blind eye to the risk”, the committee found. It singled out the University of Surrey for taking a £7.5 million donation from Huawei, the Chinese telecoms firm, to fund its 5G/6G Innovation. against intimidating foreign nationals on British soil

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Meanwhile, academics and students are facing intimidation from Chinese state authorities, and the committee accused Beijing of infiltrating universities to steal research which could benefit their militaries.

Julian Lewis, the committee chairman, said: “China has been aggressive in its interference activities… It has been particularly effective at using its money and influence to penetrate or buy academia in order to ensure its international narrative is advanced and criticism suppressed.”

The report revealed that: “China not only seeks influence at an institutional level but will also target individual academics who focus on China, seeking to ensure that they act in the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] best interests either through professional inducements or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation.

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“China appears prepared to use levers, such as research funding and travel opportunities, to cultivate relationships with academics, and to encourage them to change their research direction or course content in line with CCP objectives.”

Prof Steve Tsang, of the School for Oriental and African Studies, told the committee that within six months of him taking up the role, a political councillor from the Chinese embassy approached him and offered him anything he wanted in an attempt to curry favour.

“It is as blatant as that,” he said.

China tries to use access to visas as leverage, the MPs found. Prof Tsang said: “You say something they don’t like, they deny you a visa.”

The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service told the committee: “If you are an academic and specialising in China, and your entire academic life is focused on China, the threat of not allowing you to travel to the country of your academic focus is a very powerful threat.”

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Two years ago, The Telegraph revealed that scientists at leading universities including Cambridge, Edinburgh and Manchester have worked on a string of projects with researchers at China’s nuclear weapons research institution.

U.K. academics published dozens of papers alongside scientists employed by a Chinese institution that is on a US sanctions list due to its research into developing Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

Inside the ‘Confucius Institutes’

Confucius Institutes were set up to deliver culture and language classes to international students. But last year, The Telegraph reported that staff have their political views and ethnic backgrounds filtered by Chinese officials.

According to researchers from the Henry Jackson Society, job applications posted by Chinese universities, which have partnerships to run Confucius Institutes with British counterparts including Cardiff, Southampton and Huddersfield, ask applicants to describe their “political profile/characteristics” and “ethnicity”.

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The report also highlighted the 29 Confucius Institutes saying that “U.K. students are taught an interpretation of China that reflects the CCP’s interests”.

Run by a body controlled by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, the institutes are “utilized by the Chinese government in order to dissuade universities from engaging in debates that the CCP considers to be unsuitable topics”.

It found: “The Nottingham University School of Contemporary Chinese Studies received money from the university’s Confucius Institute to fund core academic activities – thereby giving it influence over who came to speak at the university on Chinese issues.”

Chinese students in the U.K. are also being monitored by more than 90 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), partly financed by the Chinese embassy.

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Prof Tsang said: “The student bodies are infiltrated. We know there are meetings through the middle of the night and the following morning some Chinese students can get rung up by somebody at the cultural and education section of the embassy to ask them: why did you say that? Why did you do that?”

The committee said this was resulting in a “culture of fear and suspicion among Chinese students in the U.K.”.

Chinese students make up the largest overseas contingent of students in U.K. universities, with more than 120,000 – more than in the rest of Europe combined. China sends five times as many students to the U.K. as the second country, India, does.

“Pressure is exerted on institutions, academics and students to prevent engagement with topics that harm the positive narrative presented by the Chinese Communist Party,” the MPs said.

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“This is particularly acute when it involves the so-called ‘Five Poisons’ [Taiwanese independence, Tibetan independence, Xinjiang separatists, the Chinese democracy movement and the Falun Gong].”

In November 2019, a Chinese student was photographed in Edinburgh with a sign supporting Hong Kong citizens’ demands for free elections. The following day, he was secretly photographed at Edinburgh Airport while escorting his mother to her flight.

Both pictures were circulated on Weibo, the Chinese social media site, by someone who believed he was returning to Chengdu, his home town.

The post – entitled “Brothers from Chengdu, beat him to death” – contained the flight number and a call for him to be arrested by police or assaulted by citizens. It was shared 10,000 times.

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In the same month, the Glasgow CSSA promoted flashmobs to confront Hong Kong demonstrations. One Hong Kong student said: “There is Chinese embassy involvement in these demonstrations… They surrounded us in a circle, waving Chinese flags, singing the national anthem and being hostile.

The MPs also mentioned the case of a Hong Kong student at the University of Sheffield, who said he and his friends were surrounded by mainland Chinese students when they were handing out pro-democracy leaflets.

The student said: “A glass was thrown at one of my friends and one of our flags was broken… We were terrified.

“In Sheffield, there are nearly 4,000 Chinese students and only a few hundred Hong Kong students… It’s the fear of what they might do that scares us. We are sure we will be on watch lists when we go home.”

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On another occasion, a film screening by Hong Kong students at Aston University in Birmingham was interrupted by mainland Chinese students who attempted to video those attending.

The chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee said he was aware of examples of intimidation used by the Chinese authorities, “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 of Barnes said that when he was chancellor of the University of Oxford, the Dalai Lama was invited to speak by the university’s Buddhist society.

“Within 48 hours, I had the-then Chinese ambassador on the phone saying: ‘This is a disgraceful insult to the People’s Republic of China’ and so on,” he said. He refused to intervene.

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The report also found that Beijing is using universities to act against British interests, such as by exploiting research programmes for the benefit of the Chinese military.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the People’s Liberation Army has sent approximately 500 military scientists to U.K. academic institutions in the decade up to 2017.

“Once established in academic institutions, these students are in a position to identify and exfiltrate valuable information, data and intellectual property back to China,” the committee said.

For example, the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute launched a five-year collaborative programme with China’s Aero Engine Corporation to “accelerate the application of graphene in the aviation industry and other sectors”.

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Chinese reports suggested that Beijing’s new Z-10 attack helicopter had graphene armour which may have been developed thanks to the partnership.

Manchester also worked with Central South University China on a new ceramic coating which could “revolutionise hypersonic travel for air, space and defence purposes”.

“It appears highly likely therefore that collaboration on joint U.K.-China research projects is being exploited for military use,” the report said.

“The Government noted that research related to engineering or physical sciences was most likely to have a defence use (and therefore was at greatest risk).

“By way of example, the case of Huang Xianjun was publicised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“After completing his PhD at the University of Manchester, working with the discoverers of graphene, Huang is now a researcher at China’s National University of Defence Technology, working on key defence projects for the People’s Liberation Army.”

China’s ‘talent programmes’

The MPs said that in addition to using students to steal information and intellectual property, China also utilises so-called “talent programmes”, offering very significant remuneration and research budgets to foreign scientists to work or teach in China.

Chinese talent programme participants have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of offences, including economic espionage and theft of trade secrets, export-control law violations, and grant and tax fraud.

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The report said: “In its quest for economic advantage, China often acts in plain sight – directing, funding and collaborating on academic research for its own ends.

“In particular, it seeks to benefit the Chinese military through research on dual-use technologies, which is often unclassified in its early stages.

“There is a question as to whether academic institutions are alive to the threat posed by such collaboration, particularly given they often accept transfer of Information Data and Intellectual Property as a condition of funding.

“The vast number of Chinese students in academic institutions in the U.K that are involved in cutting-edge research must therefore raise concerns, given the access and opportunities they are afforded.”

The report concluded that the Government was not doing enough to safeguard universities, pointing out that there is not even a point of contact in Whitehall for academics worried about Chinese influence.

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