by Georgia Gilholy
Monday, 7
June 2021
Campus Wars
16:26

Why Jesus College doesn’t want to talk about Uyghurs

An academic has put the spotlight on Cambridge's China connections
by Georgia Gilholy
Peter Nolan, a fellow of Jesus College, with Xiao Yaqing, chairman of SASAC (The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council)

On Saturday The Times revealed comments by Professor Peter Nolan CBE, Director of Jesus College Cambridge’s China Centre, in which he deemed the topic of Uyghur Muslims as unsuitable for debate on campus as “all countries” with ethnic minorities face similar issues.

Since 2017, it is estimated that around one million Uyghur Muslims have been forced into “counter-extremism centres” by the Chinese regime, where they are subjected to “re-education”, slave labour, forced sterilisation, and systemic rape. These are not the problems faced by ethnic minorities in “all countries”. What is happening to Uyghur Muslims is a crime against humanity.

Professor Nolan made the comments in a meeting last November of the advisory committee of the Jesus College China Centre, in which academics and staff discussed a forthcoming series of events. Nolan, the director of the China Centre, said that debating the plight of the Uyghur Muslims, would not help “mutual understanding”.  Any balanced debate on the Uyghurs would lead to a “very, very contentious outcome”, Nolan claimed, which would be “unhelpful”.

Comments like these look especially bad when you dig into Jesus College’s funding. Last August it was reported that Jesus College accepted £155,000 from the Chinese tech giant Huawei as well as £200,000 from an agency associated with the Chinese government. In 2012 the University of Cambridge itself accepted a donation of £3.7 million from the charitable foundation Chong Hua, which is run by members of the family of the country’s former prime minister, Wen Jiabao. The newly created Chong Hua Chair at the university’s Centre of Development Studies was filled by none other than: Professor Peter Nolan.

This is the proper context of the comments reported by the Times over the weekend.

It’s not just the CCP that attempts to “buy” influence in the heart of British higher education. Leading universities have taken hefty endowments from regimes and businesses accused of links to terrorism and human rights violations. Still, it’s jarring to read Jesus College’s April 2020 blurb for the China Centre’s website, which looks more like a corporate press release than a statement from a rigorous academic institution:

Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China …[China] has experienced an extraordinary transformation… China’s national rejuvenation is returning the country to the position within the global political economy that it occupied before the 19th century
- China Centre, Jesus College

This is an ode to a party-government responsible for all manner of impediments on liberty — impediments that Professor Nolan would likely not enjoy living under. This gloss has since been removed from the China Centre’s website. This is less a signal that the College intends to distance itself from the CCP, and more a sign that it does not enjoy press attention regarding its connections with the party.

The attention of the press, and the public at large — and the embarrassment Jesus College can still clearly feel —  is the only antidote to episodes like this one.

Join the discussion


  • Although this is small fry compared to the monstrous hypocrisy of anti-Western states in the Middle East who are turning a blind eye to this.

  • It is part of a long tradition. They were not much minded to demonstrate against the Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia either

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