Source: The Independent (11/5/19)
Chinese government confiscating papers and getting events cancelled at British universities, MPs’ report warns
Battle to recruit students must not outweigh ‘risks’ to academic freedom, MPs say
By Eleanor Busby and Kim Sengupta
Papers have been confiscated and events cancelled at British universities as a direct result of interference from Chinese officials, a report by an influential committee of MPs has warned.
An employee of a Russian government-sponsored body also allegedly planted a bugging device to record an academic discussion in the UK, the Foreign Affairs Committee report claims.
Authorities in Britain are not doing enough to protect academic freedom from financial, political and diplomatic pressures from autocratic states, it concludes, adding that the government has “failed” to consider the threat posed by the likes of China and Russia, and that guidance warning universities of potential risks is “non-existent”.
The report warns that the battle to recruit more students and increase funding should not outweigh “serious risks” to academic freedom.
MPs said they heard “alarming evidence” about the extent of Chinese influence on the UK campuses.
A London School of Economics professor told the committee that papers which mentioned Taiwan had been confiscated by Chinese Confucius Institute officials at an academic conference.
Managers at the University of Nottingham, which has a branch in China, also put pressure on academics to cancel events relating to Tibet and Taiwan on campus, reports suggest.
Pressures from the Chinese embassy also led to a pro-vice-chancellor at a Russell Group university deciding to withdraw an invitation to a speaker, according to testimony gathered for the report.
Another vice-chancellor reportedly came under pressure from the embassy to ensure one of their academics did not make political comments on China for a specific period of time.
The report adds that the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of “remarkably little debate” despite the fact there are now more than 100,000 Chinese students in the UK.
Meanwhile, another academic at the University College London claimed that the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a Russian Government-sponsored body, is “active on UK campuses.”
He told the committee that an employee of the foundation planted a bugging device to record an academic discussion on Russia in the UK.
It comes as Boris Johnson’s government is under intense pressure over a parliamentary special report on alleged illicit Russian activities in Britain.
Eminent former security and cabinet officials have called on the government to stop blocking the publication of the document on Russian influence in the UK.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report also says the UK has not adequately used its powers, including “Magnitsky-style sanctions”, to counter money laundering and human rights abuse by foreign individuals and states.
It also highlighted the scale of illicit Russian money which had been coming into London and pointed to an investigation which found “unexplained wealth belonging to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle was often hidden in Western Europe.”
Tom Tugendhat MP, chair of the committee, said: “We must protect each other and ourselves in the face of autocratic states who are concentrated on undermining and interfering with hard-won liberties.”
He added: “There is a better balance to be found. The committee is not blind to the incentives for more students or stronger business links – but this should be weighed with full awareness of the serious risks involved.”
The committee is calling on the Foreign Office and universities to explore what “market incentives may serve to undermine academic freedom in the UK”.
Speaking on Tuesday, foreign office minister Andrew Stephenson admitted that the government has “concerns about academic freedoms” especially with China and Russian interference.
A Universities UK spokesperson said: “UK universities are global institutions and continued collaboration with education and research partners across the world is essential, as is mitigating any risk involved.
“Universities are autonomous and are responsible for developing their own policies and practices, which are developed with reference to available advice, information and other guidance, for preventing foreign interference.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said: “The UK is a passionate defender of democracy and the rules-based international system, showing leadership on issues from climate change to media freedom.
“When we leave the EU, we will set our own sanctions regime and hold to account those who commit serious abuses of human rights.
“We will look at this report closely as we continue to bolster our efforts to promote and uphold our democratic values.”