'Alarming' Chinese meddling at UK universities exposed in report

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Universities are not adequately responding to the growing risk of China and other “autocracies” influencing academic freedom in the UK, the foreign affairs select committee said on Tuesday.

The report, rushed out before parliament is suspended pending the election, found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on UK campuses, adding some of the activity seeking to restrict academic freedom appeared to be coordinated by the Chinese embassy in London.

Related: Rights under threat: how China is bringing Hong Kong to heel

The report said: “There is clear evidence that autocracies are seeking to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities, as well as limit the activities of researchers on university campuses. Not enough is being done to protect academic freedom from financial, political and diplomatic pressure.”

The committee highlighted the role of China-funded Confucius Institutes officials in confiscating papers which mentioned Taiwan at an academic conference, the use of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association as an instrument of political interference and evidence that dissidents active while studying in the UK, such as Ayeshagul Nur Ibrahim, an Uighur Muslim, were being monitoring and her family in China being harassed.

The committee accuses some academic organisations, such as Million Plus representing 20 modern universities, of complacency.

Bill Rammell, the chair of Million Plus, told the committee he had “not heard one piece of evidence” that substantiated claims of foreign influence in universities.

The committee said the government’s current focus was on protecting universities from intellectual property theft and risks arising from joint research projects. “This is not enough to protect academic freedom from other types of interference such as financial, political or diplomatic pressure,” the MPs said.

The Foreign Office’s evidence to the committee highlighted the lack of government advice to universities, the report said, adding ministers had not coordinated approaches to the issue, either within Whitehall or with foreign governments such as Australia and the US.

The report points out that a 2019 international education strategy white paper mentions China more than 20 times in the context of boosting education expertise to the Chinese market, but with no mention of security or interference.

The committee concluded: “The battle for university students or trade deals should not outweigh the international standards which have brought freedom and prosperity to the UK and the wider world. The government should provide any strategic advice to universities and not used its key sanction tools such as ‘Magnitsky powers’ to curb interference on human rights grounds.”

Ministers can curb interference through the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act passed 17 months ago, the report said.

However, ministers previously told the committee they could not use the so-called Magnitsky amendment, contained in the act, until the UK had left the EU. In June the FCO finally admitted this interpretation was legally incorrect, and the powers could be used independently of the EU while still an EU member.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, says academic freedoms are under threat in the UK. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The FCO has still to lay the necessary statutory instrument to introduce the power, 17 months after the act became law. The foreign affairs select committee pointed out that the power, touted by the foreign secretary Dominic Raab in pre-Conservative party conference interviews, will now be delayed still further by the general election.

The committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, also asked the FCO to explain its failure to use sanctions in response to ongoing repression by state authorities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

On the question of Hong Kong, where violent protests continue and local elections are due to be held later this month, the committee is urging the government to assess the reputational damage to the UK of British judges continuing to sit on the Hong Kong court of final appeal. The committee warns there is a danger of the UK appearing to be complicit in supporting and participating in a system that is undermining the rule of law.

In a bid to support the protesters, the UK should grant residency to Hong Kong citizens who are British national (overseas) passport holders, the report said.

Tugendhat said hard-won freedoms were under threat in the UK. The FCO had been “found wanting in three policy areas: autocracies’ influence on academic freedom; the use of sanctions against autocratic states and their supporters, and the UK’s cooperation with other democracies in responding to autocracies”.