20 January 2021

British universities should not be peddling China’s soft power

By Benedict Rogers and Jason Reed

If there was any doubt before now, the actions of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020 have shown that it stands in opposition to members of the international community seeking to promote liberty, democracy, and the protection of human rights. From the cover-up of vital data in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, to dismantling freedom in Hong Kong, threatening invasion of Taiwan, brazenly arresting journalists, and perpetrating a genocide of the Uighur Muslims, Beijing has placed itself firmly on the wrong side of the history.

As a result, democratic nations are now undoing decades of diplomacy and gradually disentangling their politics and economies from the CCP. US President-elect Joe Biden looks set to coordinate an international coalition of democracies to counter China – a more effective strategy than Trump’s trade war.

In the UK, Huawei is being entirely removed from the new 5G mobile network and the British government is seeking to shore up its reputation as a defender of human rights through a variety of diplomatic manoeuvres. The House of Commons narrowly rejected an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have allowed domestic courts to rule on whether the CCP is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang.

These moves away from cooperation and towards condemnation are becoming more urgent with each passing day. Recent document leaks have drawn attention to the hundreds of CCP members who have sworn oaths of loyalty to Beijing and are now working for the Chinese government in universities, defence and pharmaceutical companies, banks, and even British consulates. We are only just beginning to glimpse the tip of the iceberg of the ways in which the CCP wields its influence across the world.

There is one aspect of the CCP’s lurking presence in democratic countries that deserves our attention, now more than ever. Responding to the revelations surrounding US Representative Eric Swalwell’s connections to a suspected Chinese spy, Representative Liz Cheney called for democratic governments to shut down Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes can be found at over 500 universities across six continents. Among them are 29 in the UK, including the Confucius Institute for Business London (CIBL) at LSE. At first glance, Confucius Institutes appear to be innocuous cultural associations, much like the British Council, the American Center or the Alliance Française – but delve a little deeper and a more sinister truth emerges.

Confucius Institutes are a project of Hanban, a division of the Chinese ministry of education. The CIBL calls itself “a partnership between LSE, Tsinghua University and Hanban”. It is part of a project run directly by the Chinese government, initiated by Hu Jintao, its last president, to accrue soft power. This is not a conspiracy theory – it is the stated aim of the initiative. Former senior leader of the CCP, Li Changchun, describes it as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.

Under a thin veil of teaching, Confucius Institutes have allowed Beijing to quietly infiltrate British academia. They act as vehicles for the CCP to spread its malign propaganda and compromise the integrity of the British higher education and research sectors. Reports from Human Rights Watch and the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission detail the ways in which Confucius Institutes directly undermine freedom of expression. Investigations from intelligence agencies in Canada, Belgium, and the US have reached the same conclusion.

Of course, on the face of it, the reason Confucius Institutes exist – teaching and cultural exchange – is worthwhile, and many of those Institutes engage in valuable activities. Issues arise when they begin acting beyond their remit, as seems to happen frequently. There are countless examples of western universities, especially in the UK and US, behaving in extraordinary ways as a result of pressure from the Chinese government, facilitated by Confucius Institutes. In 2014, a Portuguese conference had its program directly censored by Hanban because it mentioned Taiwanese academic institutions. The offending pages of the programs were physically torn out as the conference opened.

When China expert Isabel Hilton contributed to an academic journal for a conference, she found that an inconvenient section about the arrest of environmental activist Wu Lihong, who had previously exposed the endemic pollution of a water system relied on by two million people, had been removed by one of the sponsors – a Confucius Institute. The Dalai Lama has been blackballed from campus events countless times, and discussion of the so-called “three Ts” – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan – is often designated as off-limits. The list goes on.

Around one in eight LSE students is domiciled in China. Research from LSE’s Professor Christopher Hughes found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they were not best pleased about their home regime’s formal presence at LSE. It is a cruel irony to travel from China, a country known for its closely surveilled research environment, to Britain, one renowned for its academic freedom and prowess, only to find that the Chinese government is operating in exactly the same way on the campus of the British university.

No other country in the world has a propaganda outfit based in its education department, controlling hundreds of academic institutes in other countries. China’s motives are transparently harmful and its Confucius Institutes are a key weapon in its armoury. Why are British universities like LSE opening themselves up to direct influence from Beijing in this way, and training up the next generation of Chinese state propagandists in the process?

As we enter a micro-era of international politics which is sure to be defined by a recalibration of relations with China, now is the time for our academic institutions, like LSE, to renounce the Chinese Communist Party – despite its deep pockets – and show the world that they will not compromise their integrity for the sake of foreign dictatorships. Governments and universities have turned a blind eye for too long – both have a role to play in the urgent removal of Confucius Institutes from British soil.

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Benedict Rogers is chief executive and co-founder of Hong Kong Watch and co-founder of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Jason Reed is UK Liaison at Young Voices and a policy fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.

Columns are the authors' own opinion and do not reflect the views of CapX.