Public Information Campaign

The aim of this campaign is present evidence in order to raise awareness of the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to restrict free speech and academic freedom on university campuses in Britain and to pose more serious threats to the following groups in particular:

  • Students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
  • Academics from the PRC
  • Students and academics with family members in the PRC
  • All students and staff studying or researching the PRC

All of these groups have a legal right in the United Kingdom to freedom of speech and academic freedom, most recently enshrined in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. It is the responsibility of universities to take steps to safeguard these rights, including when threatened with interference from the CCP or any affiliated organisations. Members of these groups also have a legal right to safety from intimidation and harassment and those involved in such behaviour can face criminal charges.

This is not a marginal issue. Rather, it has the potential to affect tens of thousands of people. In the UK, there are estimated to be (round figures):

  • 150,000 students from the PRC with Chinese nationality (source)
  • 5,000 staff from the PRC with Chinese nationality (source)
  • 3,000 staff of British citizenship with Chinese origins (many of whom may have family members in the PRC – source)
  • 10,000 students of British citizenship with Chinese origins (many of whom may have family members in the PRC – source)
  • 150 Chinese studies staff (source)
  • 2,000 Chinese studies students (source)

There is clear evidence that the CCP has both the intent and the capacity to target those amongst these groups who ‘cross the red line’ by straying into forbidden territory in their work or in discussion of certain topics pertaining to the PRC that are considered ‘sensitive’ by the CCP. These topics include those of fundamental importance to understanding modern China, in as much as they relate to hundreds of millions of people, important economic and political phenomena and vast geographical areas. For example, the following topics are subject to CCP policing:

  • Democracy, free speech, and human rights in the PRC
  • Corruption in the CCP
  • Xi Jinping thought and political reforms
  • Ethnic policy and identities in Tibet, Xinjiang, and elsewhere
  • Religious freedom in the PRC, including the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners
  • Hong Kong’s democracy/independence movement
  • The political status and history of Taiwan
  • Transnational repression, CCP infiltration, and interference in other countries
  • All forms of state violence, including but not limited to arbitrary detention and ‘disappearances’
  • Civil society, protest, and labour relations

There is broad scholarly consensus that the CCP has both intent and capacity to use coercion, intimidation, and rewards to suppress and censor views on these issues and others that are considered hostile to its own interests or reputation, and to do so internationally. Scholars whose work attests to this include:

  • Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese, by Dr James Jiann Hua To
  • China and the Threat to Global Academic Freedom, by Professor Eva Pils
  • Rights protection: How the UK should respond to the PRC’s overseas influence, by Dr Andrew Chubb
  • The CCP’s Grand United Front Abroad, Dr Gerry Groot

The CCP’s capacity to interfere involves first and foremost being able to identify those expressing dissident views or those that dissent from CCP orthodoxy and having the means to intimidate or undermine them directly or indirectly. Below is a list of institutions and mechanisms over which the CCP exerts varying degrees of control and which it may instrumentalise in pursuit of its goals:

  • Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs): Research suggests that CSSA student societies (present at as many as 100 British universities) are branches of a central UK CSSA based at the Chinese embassy in London, and which acts an overseas office for an organisation controlled by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.
  • China Scholarship Council (CSC) funding: Research by UK-China Transparency shows that hundreds of recipients of this Chinese government scholarship are obliged to accept the “guidance and management” of 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.
  • Academic partnerships including Confucius Institutes: Research by UK-China Transparency shows that staff from China agree to follow CCP ‘discipline’ rules that would oblige them to inform on university members if requested.
  • Student fees: Many British universities are financially dependent upon fees from Chinese students and have, for this and other reasons, built a working relationship with Chinese diplomats in the UK.
  • CCP members: All CCP members take an admission oath, by which they vow to obey the CCP, uphold its ‘discipline’, guard CCP secrets, and so on. Members thus agree to act on the CCP’s behalf, and face special sanctions and punishments if they fail to do so, along with rewards for approved conduct.

The kinds of action that the CCP may take in order to intimidate or undermine those from the PRC include the following:

  • Explicit surveillance
  • Cyber attacks
  • Direct communication of threats and/or offers of rewards
  • Police interviews with or threats towards family members living in China
  • Physical or verbal harassment, including online

CCP interference with the academic community that studies China involves:

  • Directing funding to favoured academics, communication with university leaders about academics deemed problematic by the CCP, threats to withdraw funding or take action to lead to less income from international student fees
  • Cancelled or problematic travel and visa arrangements for academics deemed problematic by the CCP
  • Self-censorship, avoidance of teaching ‘sensitive’ topics, and lack of collegial support by academics, and career impediments to those who work on such topics
  • Sanctioning of academics by the Chinese government, as in the case of Dr Jo Smith Finley of Newcastle University.
  • Severe harassment and intimidation, as in the well-documented case of Professor Anne-Marie Brady from New Zealand. Brady is world-leading scholar of the CCP’s United Front. As a result of her work, Brady’s home and office were burglarised and her car was tampered with. Brady has received threats and repeated calls in the middle of the night.

The consequences of the CCP’s effort to influence the study of China might include:

  • The reduction of high-quality engagement with topics deemed sensitive to the CCP (see above)
  • The fostering of an environment which drives scholars interested in these issues to leave academia
  • The promotion of academic propaganda about China and the CCP
  • The decline of critical intellectual engagement with China’s history, politics and society.

These effects may undermine or distort understandings of China and the CCP, potentially leading to future economic, social and political consequences for the UK and its people.

The capacity and intent of the CCP (and pro-CCP parties acting on its behalf) to suppress university members is evidenced, above all, by a growing number of incidents. Some known incidents to date include those listed below.

  • Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is one of the UK’s foremost experts on the CCP. Whilst serving as head of the School of Chinese Studies at Nottingham University in 2014, Professor Tsang was asked by a university pro-vice chancellor to cancel the invitation of a Taiwanese politician to speak at an academic event. The pro-vice chancellor stated that he had been “summoned” to the Chinese embassy and reprimanded because of the invitation. The next year, Professor Tsang was told by Nottingham University administrators not to make public comments during the visit to the UK of Xi Jinping. The next year, the university announced the closure of Tsang’s School of Chinese Studies. Tsang was not consulted. University administrators who spoke to Channel 4’s Dispatches stated that the closure was a response to Tsang’s work.*
  • In 2019, pro-CCP students at Sheffield University intimidated, photographed and threw bottles at students gathered in support of the Hong Kong democracy movement. The incident was reported by the BBC and led to one arrest. In the months following, Sheffield Student Union’s International Students’ officer urged “every patriotic Chinese person” at the university to work with her to pressure the university into remove references to Taiwan and Hong Kong from the university’s documentation. The officer was accused by Hongkonger students of encouraging PRC students to report on them and one another.
  • In 2019, comparable incidents involving violence, intimidation, inappropriate behaviour, or threats to report students to Chinese authorities took place at Leeds University, Exeter University, Reading University, Aston University, and elsewhere. Such incidents were widespread and attested in media from across the political spectrum.
  • UK-China Transparency is monitoring a number of ongoing cases and will post updates at the bottom of this page in due course if appropriate.

It is important to note that most incidents go undocumented, largely because academics face consequences for their careers and livelihoods, while PRC nationals face yet more serious life-changing consequences. Most victims whose cases UKCT is aware of have opted not to publicise their experience: this includes Chinese-born individuals whose family in China have been directly intimidated by police, British-born academics, and a British-born student.

In light of this situation, UK-China Transparency is launching a public information campaign to raise awareness about the CCP’s interference on campus. As well disseminating evidence to university administrations, faculties, academics, and student unions, UKCT will be gathering a network of like-minded university members to promote awareness of these issues.

UKCT’s Director, Sam Dunning, and Lyndon Lee, who has direct experience of this issue, will be touring UK universities over the course of 2024-2025 in order to raise awareness, gather information, and talk to university and student union leaders.

Lyndon is a freelance journalist with a background in law, having earned his degree from the University of York. He also serves as an outreach coordinator for the US-based organisation, Human Rights in China. Due to his involvement in human rights campaigns across China, Hong Kong and Singapore, Lee has been granted asylum in the UK. Lee will volunteer with UKCT on this public information campaign in his personal capacity.

UKCT will also be submitting notifications to the Office for Students, England’s universities regulator, and seeking to share information with other national regulators, relevant institutions, policy-makers and legislators.

If you would like us to come and discuss this issue with your student union, your faculty, your administration, please get in touch by emailing [email protected]

Campus visits:

Cambridge: 5th of March (passed)

Edinburgh: 16th-19th of April – get in touch if you would like to engage

York: (pending)

Sheffield: (pending)

Oxford: (pending)

Birmingham: (pending)

UCL: (pending)

Updates:

27/03/2024: “UKCT informs new university guidance“: re. the Office for Students & the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act

What are universities doing now to deal with this issue? (pending)

Page first published 01/03/2024