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How China bought Britain’s universities Our cash-strapped campuses are turning to Beijing — but at what cost to national security?

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

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.


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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Britain’s universities are not ‘cash-strapped’. Like the monasteries before Henry VIII took them on, they overflow with the wealth earned from the modern equivalent of pardons and fake pieces of the ‘true cross’ etc. I refer, of course, to so-called degrees handed out to the weak (and woke) of mind.

As such, there was no reason for them to grovel to the Chinese. But grovel they will because their greed is unbounded and their morality non-existent.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Significantly Henry VIII was going to do a money raid on Oxford and Cambridge once he had plundered the religious wealth, but changed his mind. How might intellectual history have been changed if he had grabbed all the academic riches?

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

Yes indeed, but he “bottled it”, as did his successor Edward VI, why?

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Chantries an easier target.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

Agreed, but were the Colleges included in the Valor Ecclesiasticus?
I think Winchester and Eton were but am uncertain about the Oxbridge ones.

I seem to recall that Oxbridge managed to ‘lobby’ its way out of the earlier ‘First Fruits’, so perhaps it also escaped the Valor?

George Lake
GL
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

In fact that plethora of so called Universities established under the perfectly lovely (Edwina Currie) but utterly useless John Major should be abolished forthwith.

To plagiarise the equally hopeless John Reid “they are not fit for purpose”.

stephen f.
SF
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

As are American universities-the interest alone on Harvard’s endowment could pay for the tuition of all of it’s students forever, yet they persist in greed and woke-speak.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

seize their money…

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Wonderful, isn’t it? In this country woke students and their terrified faculties trawl through the history of their universities, sniffing out benefactors with links to the slave trade and noisily signalling their virtuousness when doing so, whilst quite happily suckling on largesse coming from China where slavery is a norm and just one among a whole litany of human rights abuses. I am not expecting the latter to see the nation’s campuses ablaze with protest any time soon, but it would be nice.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The OLD Universities with massive invested endowments may be ‘rich’ but they, just like the newer Universities, are often ‘cash-poor’, and a lot of those investments are producing much less income at the moment anyway. Many have come to rely on Chinese money, something those of us within could see going bad many years ago, too many eggs in one basket.

However the US will become more suitable now Biden has started dismantling Trump’s ‘security’ apparatus that was chasing down rogue academics selling themselves and information to China, this goes much further than the Confucius Institute’s money and influence, industrial and military espionage is a huge problem too long ignored or even supported by Western Academics.

In the UK Chinese students arrive and in each academic year there will be CCP embedded party ‘enforcers’ amongst them, similarly there are long-term CCP officials in many Universities, often as part of the Confucius Institute or in ‘interesting’ research groups with significant I.P. or potential military application use. Those ‘enforcers’ are quite willing to use threats against family back in China to get their way when dealing with non-party members.

Paul Blakemore
PB
Paul Blakemore
3 years ago

Britain’s universities grovel to China while condemning Israel and imposing boycotts: the hypocrisy and double-standards couldn’t be more striking.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

Chnese students come to the UK to study science and engineering.
UK students go to univresity to do media studies.

One economy is growing, another is stagnating.

Milos Bingles
MB
Milos Bingles
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Our creative industries are worth £111.7 billion to the UK in 2018, equivalent to £306 million every day.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

But the problem is that this is fashion. Next year it could all move to Latvia or Estonia… or China.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Glad to see you are on the road to recovery!

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Still sulking.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

No way can you outsource our cultural clout to those countries.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Say no more..

lindahughes1
lindahughes1
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Art colleges are also full of students from China. In 2012 Christopher Frayling (ex- Rector of the RCA and Head of the Arts Council) said the Royal College of Art was in danger of becoming ‘a finishing school for Chinese students’. In 2020, according to data on Edinburgh University’s own website, only 9% of Scottish students applying for Design were offered a place, compared with a 33% offer rate for overseas students. The UK has had a vibrant cultural sector, but I wonder for how much longer.

Neil John
NJ
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  lindahughes1

One art school I have a professional connection to has had to employ Chinese interpreters, no matter the legal minimum English qualification requirement, and it’s not the only one. Money talks, especially when it’s backed-up with massive financial input via the Confucius Institute scheme to the very top levels of the University.

Chris Mbosi
Chris Mbosi
3 years ago

The British Council and Cambridge Examinations have taken 100s of millions of pounds through the IELTS exam, which is the English language exam that is the passport to getting Chinese students into universities. As for transnational education, it’s a vast money game. A lot of earnest-sounding people in the industry will tell you how it benefits international relations, friendly co-operation, blah blah. It’s a racket that lines the pockets of a few, while ““ it turns out ““ putting national security at risk. There’s a lot of useful (and wealthy) idiots who are complicit in all this on the UK side.

Steve Byrd
Steve Byrd
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mbosi

Agree. As a (now out of work) EFL teacher that was very much the sense I got. To paraphrase you, there are a lot of useful well-meaning idiots out there. Made ironic by the right-on high minded ‘material’ we were enjoined to use. But the liberals won’t see what a racket it is.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mbosi

And quite a number of Chinese students don’t sit the IELTS exam, they pay others to take it for them…

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

China’s biological warfare programme has killed more than 100,000 Britons and destroyed 20% of the economy in the last year and the British state hasn’t been able to muster even the slightest whimper of protest. The British university system has created an elite that is incapable of governing a society. Shut them down.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

I regularly walk my dog through the beautiful grounds of Nottingham university’s burgeoning jubilee campus and I swear if only half the Chinese students were to leave the entire site would be mothballed (i.e. bankrupt) in no time at all. All eggs. One basket Nottingham.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago

Much the same in many Universities.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

As the article notes, the US has a similar issue though this piece barely scratched the surface of it. We also have two members of Congress, Diane Feinstein and Eric Swalwell, as having employed what turned out to be Chinese spies, Swalwell taking the extra step of apparently sleeping with the one in his camp. Both remain members in good standing within the Dem Party.

Brian OFlynn
Brian OFlynn
3 years ago

And who else are the Universities prostituting to besides China….to support their grandee life style ? Big Tech , Big Pharma… Government….they simply reply “How high” when their clients say “Jump”

Phil Bolton
Phil Bolton
3 years ago

At some point the Chinese Govt. will whack the UK for its support of Hong Kong democracy. It might be to hit the universities or some other means … but it’s coming.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

The UK is slowly waking up to the new kid on the block and is not to sure what to make of this new, rather big and powerful kid who, basically, could buy up the UK several times over with the loose change it’s back pocket, and then spit out the bits it doesnt want. Life is going to be very ‘interesting’ over the next few years and I’m sure that China is going to start stretching its wings and using its power.

Andrew Harvey
AH
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

Have you looked at Chinese demographics lately? The number of births has declined by 10% in the past year alone, continuing the trend of one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world. Slave labourers just aren’t that good at parenting. Good luck keeping up growth in that context.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

this is the same govt that previously had a one-child-only policy. Is it so far fetched that the CCP flips the script and begins mandating multiple children per couple?

robert scheetz
RS
robert scheetz
3 years ago

Not to quote Gordon Gecko, but, greed is the God of Capitalism, in their perfervid devotion to whom they will eagerly run into martyrdom. “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Lenin paraphrasing Marx.

Peter KE
PK
Peter KE
3 years ago

HMRC needs to get on and issue enforcement notices against the academics, U.K. state funding of these universities needs to stop.

Lawrence Moore
Lawrence Moore
3 years ago

The Chinese invasion has been going on for decades. As a film producer I remember that when filming corporate movies, there was almost always a Chinese contingent in the factories and offices diligently noting down all our manufacturing and administrative practices. So one fifth of our university income is from China? Have our governments been sleepwalking to a future disaster?

Shyam Bhatia
Shyam Bhatia
3 years ago

Its a great piece. Wish he had referred to questionable links with the regimes/ individuals. Remember LSE and Qadhafy’s son ? I personally remember the Vice Chancellor of Oxford getting annoyed when I queried his willingness to accept a generous donation from India’s Hindu right wing BJP government back in the 1990s. What Mark has also missed is the Chinese interest in Business Studies as well. One of my friends at Warwick says that judging from the queues outside business studies lectures and seminars, any outsider could be forgiven for thinking they were in mainland China.

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

It’s just another money making industry now. Too many universities, ramming in students, ching ching, churning out mediocre morons, indoctrinated into Marxist militancy. Most of them should probably close or go back to being local polytechnics, universities are meant to be elitist, for the creme de la creme of academic excellence, not a box ticking exercise or a trojan horse for foreign invasion.

Amanda Kay
Amanda Kay
3 years ago

Several universities have satellites in China, including Wuhan. Until the pandemic hit, academics would regularly visit these satellites, presumably to check that standards were being maintained, amongst other reasons. Yet it must be impossible to monitor activities and verify that integrity is being upheld at such distances at other times.

[As an aside, amongst those who were repatriated to the UK from Wuhan and quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital, Wirral, a year ago were two lecturers from Birmingham City University.]

This practice of having offshore university campuses is the other side of the picture shown here and also needs investigating and reporting on.

It must be remembered that funding for universities was drastically cut by 90 per cent in 2011 so they have been forced to find income from elsewhere. Couple this with the governmental dalliance with China in an effort to counter China’s activities in Africa and to curry trading favour with them, and you can see why China has become the focus of attention for academia.

Maybe the same will happen with local councils, who have also been starved of money for the past decade.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  Amanda Kay

Yes the satellite campuses in China are a major contractual tie-in to Chinese influence and funding and not without other problems. One University I know of sent several of their Health and Safety team to the Chinese satellite campus and their report was horrifying. With students locked into residential tower blocks with large ‘U’ locks round the door handles at night, no fire alarms, electrical fittings left broken and hanging from walls still live, and this was considered entirely normal and acceptable.

Allan Edward Tierney
Allan Edward Tierney
3 years ago

China has the most successful economy on the planet and the last several decades have seen the Chinese using their newfound wealth to travel the world. In the Nineties many Chinese left to study in the West and many of them never returned as they found their prospects better abroad. Now they travel to study in much increased numbers and in vast majority return to their homeland as prospects for them are brighter there. The current trend on UnHerd to spread fear about China is deeply irresponsible and wrong. Commentators (I won’t call them journalists) are setting themselves up as experts on China when they are clearly merely convenient mouthpieces for a western elite desperate to maintain its waning power. UnHerd should not be sponsoring such propaganda campaigns that seek to demonise nations chosen as targets of western elites attempting to shore up their sagging power to manipulate our world.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

I would like to ask a question.
For the last couple of weeks everybody has been going on about the EU and the political nightmare there. Probably, the EU will try to get back at the UK for a few years to demonstrate to its members that leaving would be bad news.
In the past three or four days we have discussed the evil Chinese, how they are not to be trusted, how we shouldn’t deal with them.
The Russians don’t even get a mention.
Presumably, being a small, isolated country, we need to form alliances with somebody? Only the USA is left. Who wants to becomes the 51st state? Who wants chlorinated chickens? Who wants Monsanto to control our farms just like it does in the third world? Who wants more films with Tom Cruise?
If we stand alone, we have all said that our government is useless. The alternative is the Left which we know is even worse than useless. Today we have dismissed the Greens.

Removing the negatives, my question is – What are the positives?

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You’ve been reading the guardian too much.

Monsanto is now a German company.

If chlorinated chicken is so bad, then why is chlorinated lettuce ok?

Tom Cruise? Ok, well, that’s valid.

A sense of perspective is in order.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Which doesn’t answer the question – in fact, piles on more negatives.

Andrew Harvey
AH
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

My answer is that a sense of perspective is in order. The UK is already in an alliance (several of them, in fact) with the USA without becoming the 51st state. The UK can be broadly aligned with the US to achieve a better outcome in the world without becoming completely subjected to America.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Now you are talking. Now we start a dialogue. But I would have a bet with you that if an article was to appear on UnHerd next week, suggesting what you just said, you would have just a list of negatives come back.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

We have been a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States since at least 1916, when on the cusp of bankruptcy we had to send Arthur Balfour, cap in hand, to sort it out.

As an Imperial master, I would far rather the US to China, or any other power you may care to name.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Obviously, you are right about the past – I’m sure that the Ancient Greeks gave us a loan once. But today is today. You have not taken the question seriously.
Of course, this is your prerogative but you are sustaining the negativity of the posts.
The one answer tells me that I must be a Guardian reader which kind of shows his inability to answer a simple question.

George Lake
GL
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The brutal answer to your question is the United States Navy has 14 Ohio class Nuclear Ballistic Submarines, each carrying 24 Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles. Each has a range of about 7,000 nautical miles, thus putting all of the CCP within range, even in the unlikely event of being launched off say, Skegness.

As someone once said of the Emperor Hadrian “you don’t argue with a man who has 30 Legions at his back”.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Very good.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Every grocery store in even our rural area(in the US) has organically raised chickens , meats, and myriads of other organic foods-but as to Tom Cruise-I give you that, brother…he struts.