Chinese students are not free. Richard Stonehouse - WPA Pool/Getty Images

March 20, 2024   5 mins

“Surreal.” This was how Professor Michelle Shipworth described her ordeal at University College London, after a Chinese student complained about an innocuous presentation slide on slavery in China. Instead of leaping to her defence, UCL accused her of being anti-Chinese and endangering its lucrative income from Chinese students. After she was banned from teaching her “provocative” energy and social sciences course, her case was taken up by the Free Speech Union, which presented documentary evidence of what they called “undue deference to the sensitivity of some Chinese students that is utterly incompatible with academic freedom”.

Shipworth is not the first to run into trouble. And that’s because the problem is more profound than many realise. Many universities need these students. Were their fees to disappear entirely from Britain, with no other income found to replace them, many institutions would go under within a year or two. Some universities will even accept Chinese students without proper qualifications or basic English-language skills, so great is their desire for the fees.

Sometimes, issues arise because many Chinese students have been moulded by the jingoistic politics of authoritarian China. Xi Jinping’s promises to deliver the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “Reunification of the Ancestor-land” make Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra seem gentle by comparison. The emotion this inspires can move people to respond aggressively to perceived slights upon China’s character. Such displays of nationalism may be sincere, or they may be a means of improving one’s own reputation, fishing for a reward or promotion, or going viral on CCP-controlled social media. Universities should back academics in the face of pressure from these nationalists.

The problem, however, is more complicated than a bunch of young chauvinists making noise on UK campuses. As the charity I run, UK-China Transparency, has shown, the CCP has institutionalised its presence at British universities. Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) are present on roughly 100 British campuses. Most are formally registered as student societies under the authority of university student unions and typically describe themselves as “branches” of a central UK CSSA based at the Chinese embassy in London. This acts as an overseas office for an organisation controlled by the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which conducts influence operations abroad and was name-checked by MI5 in 2022. Most CSSAs publicly admit — though sometimes only in official documents published in Mandarin — that they are under the “guidance”, “control” or “leadership” of the embassy, which runs training programmes and networking events for CSSA leaders.

We also have Confucius Institutes on 30 campuses. These centres are typically organised as partnerships between one Chinese university, one British university and the Chinese government. Although nominally for language teaching, they have in fact been involved in a whole range of activities, from events in Parliament to teaching undergraduate courses. One teaches Chinese traditional medicine and offers massages to the general public, for a fee. UK-China Transparency has shown how staff from China teaching in British Institutes have to follow CCP “discipline” rules that would oblige them to inform on university members if requested. Rishi Sunak promised to ban them but, as former foreign secretary James Cleverly admitted in an interview, the decision was reversed because of fears about CCP retaliation.

“Rishi Sunak promised to ban the Confucius Institutes — but the decision was reversed because of fears about CCP retaliation.”

And if that’s not “surreal” enough, consider the China Scholarship Council’s footprint in Britain. This Chinese government body gives stipends to hundreds of PhD scholars in the UK, selecting them on the basis of their political leanings as well as their academic merit. British universities then pay these scholars’ fees. Like CSSAs, scholarship recipients are formally obliged to accept “guidance and management” from Chinese diplomats in the UK — with penalties imposed on them and their families if they fail to do so or otherwise negatively impact China’s national security. As with Confucius Institutes and CSSAs, all these expectations are spelled out in official documents — in Mandarin.

Meanwhile, the CCP has active eyes and ears on British campuses in the form of party members, which includes, for example, many visiting academics. All CCP members have taken an admission oath, by which they vow to obey the CCP, uphold its “discipline” and guard CCP secrets. They agree to act on the CCP’s behalf, and face special sanctions and punishments if they fail to do so, along with rewards for good behaviour.

Although the subject receives periodic attention from politicians, this scandal has essentially been ignored for a decade or more. Britain is only now beginning to come to terms with the CCP’s presence on our campuses. Likened by one scholar to a “python in the chandelier”, the Party is always looming — even if it strikes only occasionally. And it is those students and academics with family in China who feel most keenly the CCP’s presence. Most simply self-censor, knowing that their university is not a “safe space” for free discussion. Better to keep schtum than say something about Tibet or democracy in China which is reported back, because the consequences can be dire.

A minority ignore the warning signs, and courageously persist past the first clear indication that they are being watched. Most often, these brave individuals are called by family members in China, who explain that they have been visited by the police forces. Family members pass on a clear message from the authorities: stop now and come home. If you don’t, then you will never see your family again and they too will be affected, in their careers, in their access to government support, in their community. These are the consequences for Chinese students and academics in our country if they defy the CCP and stand by it.

“Family members pass on a clear message from the authorities: stop now, come home, and if you don’t, then you will never see your family again.”

It is worth underlining how much speech the CCP forbids and how ridiculously broad its definition of “national security” is. In China, forbidden speech is treated as terrorism — and includes any discussion of Tibet, Taiwan, the Uyghurs, human rights, politics, corruption and religion that transgresses the party’s red lines. So restrictive is the speech environment in China that, during the anti-lockdown protests of 2023, people took to holding up blank pieces of paper as a sign of protest. Hundreds at least were arrested. Displaying “White Paper” remains a sign of protest. Given these sensitivities and the university sector’s dependence on Chinese money, one can see how difficult it might be to have a meaningful discussion about China’s history, politics, society or economy.

British academics beginning their careers know that if they put a foot wrong in this regard, they will find it difficult to go to China, let alone gain access to any interesting material or interesting sources. Last year, for instance, I and others working on a Channel 4 documentary about China exposed how Professor Steve Tsang, a leading British China expert, was censored by Nottingham University, which closed down his China studies centre because of CCP pressure. Elsewhere, Dr Jo Smith Finley of Newcastle University was sanctioned directly by the Chinese government for her work. One academic in New Zealand had her home and office broken into because of her research into CCP influence abroad. Even those who are not China specialists, such as Shipworth, may find that their teaching leads to “problems”. They need and deserve their universities’ support.

The strategic aim here isn’t hard to glean: over time, such interference has the potential to distort our knowledge of China itself, which is, of course, exactly what the CCP wants. This is also reflected in new restrictions on foreign access to corporate data, academic journals, and national statistics. Some sinologists tell me that this process started decades ago and that the well has already been poisoned. Only the courage of Shipworth, Tsang and whistleblowers like them can stop the creeping extension of CCP authority into our universities. Our academic freedom depends on it.


If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, contact UK-China Transparency at [email protected]

Sam Dunning is a writer and researcher who serves as director of UK-China Transparency, a volunteer-run charity that promotes education about ties between the UK and China.