Chinese students show support for President Xi in Manchester (Photo by Richard Stonehouse - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

February 10, 2021   6 mins

When Britain’s second national lockdown came into force last November, the owners of Manchester Airport had little choice but to mothball two of their three terminals. With fixed costs spiralling into the millions and revenue almost non-existent, there was simply no way they could justify keeping them open.

There was, however, a small glint on the horizon: a fleet of 31 privately chartered passenger jets that were scheduled to land, regardless of the new restrictions. Their cargo? Some 7,000 students from China — all specially flown in to study at universities in Manchester and the north of England.

After they landed, a handful of Manchester’s leading dignatories lined up to talk about the importance of “links between Britain and China” and “greater cultural understanding”. The socially distanced love-in was cemented by none other than the Chinese Consul General in Manchester, Mr Zheng Xiyuan: “We trust all students will work hard to become not just the backbone of our society but also messengers of friendship between our two peoples.”

Of course, no one would surely deny that it is important to maintain cordial relations with one of the world’s superpowers. But, as those planes touched down on the runway, there was no getting away from the cold reality — even in this time of crisis, even with all scheduled direct flights between China and Manchester cancelled at the time, Britain’s university sector simply could not do without Beijing’s moneybags. And the implications of this extend well beyond the beleaguered souls and balance sheets in the finance departments of our universities. In fact, as other countries across the world are starting to discover, we are not just offering China the chance for a British education; but quite possibly the keys to our nation’s security as well.

In the UK alone, Chinese students account for almost £2 billion in revenue for the higher education sector. Crucially, nine British universities — many of them members of the Russell Group — depend on Chinese students for more than 20% of their revenue from tuition fees. Take Imperial College London, which gets more than 20% of its tuition fees from China. Without these students, it would face a £73 million black hole; all at a time when its research projects — which include a Covid-19 vaccine trial aimed at targeting the new mutant strains of the virus — could not be more crucial.

But this link between Britain’s universities and the Chinese state is hardly a new phenomenon. For years they have made for an inseparable couple, one whose relationship has longed looked, at the very best, questionable; at worst, potentially criminal.

“I think it’s probably going too far to suggest that we have become a client state of the Chinese,” Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute tells me. “But we have certainly been putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket. Inevitably having such dependent relationships with a country such as China — or Saudi Arabia even — is going to bring with it political challenges.”

In light of recent events, however, Mr Hillman’s use of the term “political challenges” seems worthy of a PhD in understatement. Indeed, such is our desperation for foreign investment that one particularly apposite Chinese proverb seems almost too prescient: “In every crisis, you will find an opportunity.” The Chinese state is certainly testing that maxim to its very limit.

Only yesterday it was revealed that Oxford University has agreed to re-name its Wykeham Chair of Physics as the Tencent-Wykeham Professorship — after Tencent, a Chinese software firm with links to the Communist regime’s intelligence services, offered a £700,000 donation in return. Meanwhile, on Monday it emerged that almost 200 British academics are being investigated by HMRC on suspicion of helping the Chinese Government build weapons of mass destruction. They have not been accused of spying per se, but unwittingly passing intellectual property to the Chinese authorities and thus violating strict laws on exports.

The British government is yet to send enforcement notices to the staff, who teach at more than dozen universities. Yet its warning certainly lends a sense of urgency to a report, published by Civitas this week, which alleges that 20 British universities have dealings with 29 Chinese institutions, as well as nine companies that have military links, including weapons conglomerates. It warned that UK research sponsored by Chinese organisations could have an “inadvertent dual use” in a military capacity — including hypersonic technology and research into Graphene which is used by the Chinese military in helicopters.

Yet Britain’s universities seem more concerned with the economic fall-out from than pandemic than with any unseemly political or security repercussions. Perhaps this is hardly surprising when, for example, Manchester University has more Chinese students — they make up roughly one in eight of its student body — than any other university in Europe. That may explain why, when the pandemic first hit last year, Britain’s higher education sector was struck by a sense of impending doom. One minister reportedly said last summer that officials were “shitting themselves” at the prospect of a Chinese brain drain.

All of which raises an obvious question: how has Britain got itself into this mess? After all, there is nothing new about the Government’s security concerns over Beijing inveigling its way into our higher education sector. Even two years ago, the academic world was warned that “hostile state actors are targeting UK universities to steal personal data, research data and intellectual property, and this could be used for their own military, commercial and authoritarian interests.” University staff were also told that they “may also be targeted by an academic institution to undertake research which is of strategic benefit to that country”.

In fact, GCHQ had by 2019 already counted 500 Chinese military scientists attached to British universities who were working on technology platforms with a number of military applications, including missiles, supercomputers and fighter aircraft. And it’s all too easy to see how this research could end up being used as part of Beijing’s ever-expanding toolbox of state repression. Only last week, Manchester University was forced to cancel a contract with a Chinese company after it was warned that the software it supplied was being used by Beijing in its mass surveillance of Uighur Muslims.

Nor is that an anomaly. As recently as last summer, some UK universities were testing a new online teaching link which could prevent students based in China from remotely accessing material deemed unfavourable to or critical of the Communist regime. Moreover, a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on the infiltration of our universities by China lists, among others: Cambridge University’s links with a Chinese military institution already blacklisted by the US Government; a recruitment drive by Imperial College at the Harbin Institute of Technology, whose scientists work for the PLA and which is one of only eight Chinese universities with access to classified weapons research; and a laboratory funded jointly by Manchester University and a Chinese developer of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

For their part, the universities insist that due care and diligence is in place. In the wake of the ASPI report, Manchester University put out a back-covering statement: “We take all necessary measures to assure ourselves that our research is not used beyond its agreed application.” But whatever steps are being taken — both by universities and the security services — it may be too late.

Last year, a report by the Henry Jackson Society found that 900 graduates of Chinese universities allegedly linked to the PLA were enrolled in postgraduate studies at 33 British universities. And while we are yet to experience the full repercussions of such folly, we need only look across the Atlantic to see what could be in store for us.

Just a few weeks ago, the US attorney’s office announced the arrest of Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for “failing to disclose contracts, appointments and awards from various entities in the People’s Republic of China to the US Department of Energy.” It came just a day after Meyya Meyyappan, NASA’s Chief Scientist for Exploration Technology, pled guilty in New York for lying about his participation in a Chinese government recruitment program.

But not all such American investigations have proved so fruitful. Last year, the FBI issued an arrest warrant for Boston University student Yanqing Ye, who was unmasked as a lieutenant in the PLA. She was charged with being an agent of a foreign government, accessing US military websites and sending classified material back to China — but is now believed to have fled back to her home country.

In Britain, meanwhile, we continue to turn a blind eye to such threats. No doubt this is an inevitable consequence of the unseemly lengths our universities go to in order to secure funding from China. But it’s worth noting that Britain’s begging bowl has been in place for some time, and not just in the higher education sector. Indeed, it seems not so long ago that David Cameron spoke so enthusiastically about the “golden era” of Sino-UK relations.

This new relationship was sealed by Cameron and President Xi Jinping over a pint at the Plough, a pub near Chequers which, like all drinking spots in Britain, it is now firmly locked down. Locals, however, have every confidence that it will have the wherewithal to open again when the pandemic restrictions are finally lifted. The reason? The Plough was bought up by Chinese investors almost as soon the Supreme Leader downed his pint.

Mark Edmonds is a journalist, author and former Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine.