In the latest tit-for-tat round of what passes for international politics these days, the UK government has imposed “unilateral sanctions” on a number of local and national Chinese politicians for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has dismissed the accusations as “based on nothing but lies and disinformation” and retaliated by barring a selection of politicians, legal counsels and academics from entering China or carrying out business there.
All the members of the British contingent have been campaigning on behalf of the beleaguered Muslim Uyghurs in the west of China, and it is this that has aggravated the Chinese authorities. Many of the politicians, for example, are members of the recently formed Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, set up by Iain Duncan Smith in 2020. A scan of Hansard over the last 30 years confirms that he has only recently discovered China, having never mentioned the country until Huawei tried to access the UK’s 5G network in 2020. He still cannot pronounce Xinjiang and, like most people in the west, it’s a fair bet that he’d never heard of Uyghurs until a few years ago.
But this article is not about China’s discriminatory practices against minorities, but about the impact that the sanctions debate is having on educational standards and ambitions. For among the list of concerned politicians and human rights barristers who are now facing “firm opposition and strong condemnation” by the Chinese state is Newcastle University academic Joanne Nicola Smith Finley.
A leading light in pro-Uyghur research, Finley’s work has focused on what she calls the “Palestinization” of Xinjiang Province. She is clearly partisan, but has provided valuable insights into the plight of the Turkic Muslim minority population in western China. But as the issue has rapidly become politicised on the world stage, Finley has been caught up in the diplomatic wrangle. As far as some British commentators are concerned, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to effectively censor a British academic exemplifies all that has gone wrong with the laissez faire approach to China in education over the years.
Concern about China’s influence over western education has been steadily growing, generating contradictory responses. The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour has warned of “‘Alarming’ Chinese meddling at UK universities.” On the other hand, the UK government is content to import Shanghai’s maths lessons wholesale, to counter the UK’s declining performance in global PISA rankings.
A recent parliamentary report pointed to autocracies “seeking to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities.” With over 120,000 Chinese students in the UK (pre-pandemic), there is a delicate balance between standing up for British academic integrity and keeping quiet to milk the cash cow. In 2017, Cambridge University Press had to be reminded of its duty to academic free enquiry and was chastened into reposting articles that it had previously blocked online at the request of the Communist Party of China.
Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London has described how some China Studies academics have been intimidated by an “army” of Chinese state-sponsored social media hacktivists and attacked online until they withdrew legitimate comments. Another report details an incident in which the Chinese embassy contacted Durham University’s Debating Society, requesting that it cancel a speaker’s invitation. The non-independent Chinese Students and Scholars Association has been central to orchestrated campaigns: drowning out speakers that China doesn’t want heard.
All of this is shocking and should be investigated and rooted out. But hang on a minute. Shouting down speakers, no-platforming contentious opinions, social media pile-ons and cancel culture, academic self-censorship—where have I heard this before?
In these polarised times, criticising one side of an argument often throws up accusations of supporting the other side, of whataboutery, of unhelpful nuance. But on this subject it has become easier to look at external threats than to confront the problem closer to home. (Indeed, it is also easier to morally condemn China for its exploitation of the Uyghurs than to act on its ruthless destruction of formal democracy in Hong Kong). However, anyone looking honestly at the situation in the UK would recognise that to be concerned about the fact that Oxford University has renamed a professorial chair with a Chinese “Tencent” prefix, while busy decolonising the names of everything else, is capricious.
A governing state interfering in academic freedom? That’s completely unacceptable—unless, of course, it’s the UK’s Prevent strategy, an officially sanctioned infringement of academic freedom whereby the British state requires that all external speakers be vetted to prevent wrongthink. Or what about the case of Bath University academic David Miller, who is justifiably accused of reprehensible antisemitic views that have resulted in more than 100 parliamentarians from across both Houses of Parliament proposing that he be removed from his job?
The fact is, China doesn’t really claim to have a record of free and open academic enquiry. Critical thinking is encouraged and tolerated only until it rubs the party up the wrong way; and then censure is the policy of first resort. In 2019, for example, the Chinese Communist Party banned the Young Marxist student group in Beijing after its independent activism was deemed to present too much of a challenge to the party leadership.
Some educationalists sneer at the way in which China explicitly links its educational programmes to ambitious employability and R&D targets. How antithetical to western liberal pedagogy, they say. They laugh at Chinese rote learning and praise the liberating creative practices of the west. But meanwhile, schools and universities in the west have downplayed critical enquiry and academic excellence to such an extent that, as Graham Butt has written, the focus on results, inspections and targets has lead to the increasing deprofessionalisation of teachers and significant pressures to “teach to the test.” In his book Beyond McDonaldization, Professor Dennis Hayes speaks of the UK’s “industrialisation of higher education.”
The Chinese state interferes in course content, plain and simple. They have long refused to give students access to an open-minded history of Taiwan, for example. It’s shocking, but what do you expect from a one-party state? Meanwhile, Universities UK demands that higher education “decolonise” and “diversify” university curricula and practices and remove white authors from reading lists, because their presence tells the wrong narrative. Black Lives Matter activists have demanded staff be removed for saying the unsayable. Even without pressure from below, university authorities have voluntarily cancelled events. Edinburgh University revoked a speaker’s invitation to the David Hume memorial lecture because it was in the process of stripping Hume’s name from its building stock. Unlike in China, censorious policies are not directly mandated by government, but still form part of the UK’s higher education strategy. Rather than the outright authoritarianism of Xi Jinping, British academia has unaccountable cultural revolutionaries.
The UK has singled out China as a symbol of illiberalism, which allows us to condemn China’s authoritarian values and statist education system without undermining our own pretence of academic openness. The UK Foreign Office already blocks Chinese students from studying cyber-security and aircraft technology and a number of British academics are under threat of prosecution for scientific research liaisons with suspect Chinese institutions. Tom Tugendhat MP, for instance, has described Chinese students as “political operatives,” in an attempt to portray our universities as infiltrated by a phalanx of CCP apparatchiks disguised as students. Pointing the finger at a dictatorial regime is a simple way to infer that the UK’s ethical standards are superior. But it’s a pretty low bar.
One hundred and twenty years ago, some of the best and brightest Chinese university students were given full scholarships to study in the US and UK in lieu of reparations for the allied military intervention in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The US saw this as an opportunity to gain influence over the imperial machine. The proposition was that Chinese students would be admitted to western universities, learn to love the canon, critical thinking and western democratic ideals and take them back to China to change it from within. One of those students, the great architectural historian Liang Sicheng, radically influenced Chinese development before returning to America in 1947 to help design the United Nations Headquarters in New York and receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.
Nowadays, loss of confidence in the western project means that educationalists are paranoid that an ever larger influx of students from a stridently global China might undermine the last remaining principles of western free enquiry. China might change the west rather than the other way around. Chinese students are therefore tolerated, rather than welcomed to a common educational enterprise. This is not helped by panic among western universities at the potential withdrawal of the huge sums of Chinese money that they rely on for their lavish existence.
But China is learning from the west. It is learning the language of the victim. China’s victim status—given more legitimacy by the UK government’s criticism of Chinese citizens—is being honed in the battle to undermine and destabilise such criticism. China is attempting to use western accusations against the accuser. All this has been learned from studying contemporary activism in the west. Many organised Chinese and Asian groups are buying into their “minority ethnic” status and are protesting loudly about their mistreatment at the hands of the university system. China has rote-learned the language of a “hidden minority.” Since the United Nations has decried what it calls “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia” against Asians in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the Chinese authorities are able to blame the excesses of free speech for the attacks on their lived experience. In this febrile climate, why shouldn’t Chinese citizens and students demand a ban on UK speakers who offend them if it has become common policy for others to do likewise?
There are several issues that might act as a brake on this confrontational and divisive approach towards—and from—China. The first is that, in the post-pandemic era, China is increasingly holding onto its students and discovering that it need not rely on western university attendance as much as it has for the last ten years. Some have discovered that UK and US universities aren’t all they are cracked up to be, others find it cheaper to attend English language universities in other parts of the world. Yet others are tapping into the growth of elite universities in China or online learning. Either way, China is threatening to stay away and that will have real economic repercussions for western universities. Undoubtedly, the heightened rhetoric of Chinese spies in disguise, blame for the pandemic and accusations of genocide against the Uyghurs comprise a heavy burden for ordinary 18-year-old undergraduates to bear and will surely lead to more (justifiable) fears of attack and make young Chinese students less willing to travel to the west. Those western universities that do win new Chinese cohorts may find themselves even more desperate and willing to compromise with Chinese demands and restraints.
But, of course, the Chinese state is also very concerned about the possibility of Chinese students bringing subversive BLM militancy and independent-minded criticism back to China. Since Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy, 5 million Chinese students have completed their studies abroad, and 4.25 million (80%) have returned to China after graduating. There has long been a fear of westernised activists destabilising the so-called harmonious Chinese state. As western campus militancy becomes more violent, China is getting increasingly nervous. However, the Chinese government would be even more nervous—justifiably so—if students were coming back with tales of liberty, free speech and a love of democratic engagement, instead of militant censoriousness.
Unfortunately, such is the current level of anti-Chinese vitriol in the west that it seems to be pushing many back into the nationalist fold. Many Chinese scholars and intellectual activists find that they have to defend China, not because they are enamoured by the one-party state, but because they are being forced into a corner. Tensions are mounting. Knowledge and experience that should be universal risk being forced into silos. The promise of education is increasingly becoming a dangerous geopolitical football.