China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, recently bade farewell to this country in characteristic style. Dwelling on golden memories of his time here, he recalled his ‘humble part’ in President Xi Jinping’s state visit in 2015 and New Year’s Eve parties on the banks of the Thames.
He also mentioned the happy days when he was awarded honorary degrees in ceremonies at the Universities of Huddersfield and Nottingham. The details were telling. What had the Chinese ambassador done to merit these garlands?
Here was a man who represented a country accused of genocide by our closest ally, the United States; whose state broadcaster has been refused a licence to disseminate propaganda in the UK; and whose companies are connected to an army that targets our innovations. He was certainly no natural friend to Britain.
Sickening details of the persecution of Uighur Muslims – involving concentration camps, torture, sterilisation, brainwashing and rape – have been emerging for years.
Yet Beijing’s ambassador to Britain would blithely argue – albeit unconvincingly – that video footage allegedly showing vast numbers of blindfolded, shackled and shaven-headed Uighurs waiting to be led on to trains, was an everyday prisoner transfer. The next minute, he’d be given the red-carpet treatment by British universities.
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, recently bade farewell to this country in characteristic style
Huddersfield University gave him an honorary doctorate in 2019 when a new Confucius Institute there opened, ‘in partnership with the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai’. The focus of this tie-up was ‘innovation in science and technology’.
Meanwhile, His Excellency became an honorary Doctor of Law from Nottingham, urging his young audience to ‘consolidate the China-UK Golden Era’ and to ‘handle differences with wisdom’.
Such snapshots – and the murky web of financial deals they hint at – look increasingly like a sham.
Why have Britain’s universities been prostrating themselves so enthusiastically to the Chinese state that denies freedom of thought?
Huddersfield University (pictured) gave him an honorary doctorate in 2019 when a new Confucius Institute there opened, ‘in partnership with the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai’
The ugly truth is that some of our universities, a fundamental part of the UK’s innovation-based economy, have been motivated by a mixture of naivety and greed.
Among the most prestigious institutions in the UK are some which have been topping up their income with sponsorship from Chinese military and tech firms which, it should not need saying, have aims that run fully counter to our own. And these universities have been doing this while in receipt of billions in British taxpayer cash.
The Commons foreign affairs committee, which I chair, has noted that despite 100,000 Chinese students at British universities, there has been precious little debate about China’s influence on campuses, despite evidence that it is undermining academic freedom and closing down free debate on subjects such as Tibet and Taiwan.
Even Universities UK, which represents our 140 universities, has warned of ‘misappropriation of research output, including the seizing of research data and intellectual property’.
Has UK-based research been used in the repression of minorities and democracy activists in China? I fear it is all but certain our universities have, perhaps only in part, become enablers in the crushing of dissent.
Three examples stand out from new research by Civitas. There are Cambridge’s ties to China’s National University of Defense Technology – an organisation sanctioned by the US over nuclear missile development.
Also, Imperial College’s research units, sponsored by Chinese weapons suppliers, including the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which is designing the latest generation of stealth fighters.
Finally, there are the Scottish centres, one of which is researching radar jamming with a military-linked laboratory in China.
Make no mistake: these are some of the best universities not just in Britain, but in the world. They are at the cutting edge of research and attract the world’s brightest students and teaching.
Universities should collaborate with the private sector in research. For example, millions of us will benefit from the partnership between Oxford and AstraZeneca to produce a vaccine for Covid-19.
But in the race to stay ahead, it is obvious some in Britain’s universities have lost their moral bearings and are not promoting academic freedom, but undermining our strategic interests.
In opening the doors of our universities to China, we are bargaining away our competitive advantage – and, for a price, handing over the secrets that will help an often-hostile country become the greatest military power of the 21st Century.
University leaders must recognise that the great hope of the past two decades – that China was steadily opening up politically as its economy became more competitive – has been dashed. A Maoist personality cult has been established around President Xi, with his personal ‘thought’ inserted into China’s constitution, to be studied by all.
He has allowed what Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has called a ‘grievous attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms’ by ordering the mass arrest of politicians and activists. Freedom is being crushed so blatantly that the UK is giving many of Hong Kong’s residents – all British passport-holders – the right to live and work here.
Universities need to wake up to these abuses.
The Government must introduce rules that govern the research British higher education institutions carry out with Chinese involvement, sponsorship or support. Particular attention must be paid to science and technology, where it is clear our competitive advantage is being handed to a strategic adversary.
It seems Xi has learned from Lenin – the capitalist really will sell you the rope you use to hang him. Or in our case, design it.