Academics must not censor themselves over fears that Beijing may try to punish UK universities that address sensitive issues such as Hong Kong, a leading expert on China has said.
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, said that “offending China was never difficult”. In the era of President Xi it had become “extremely easy”.
The need for “a neutral space” for debate had never been greater, the professor said, and academics should make sure they were not pulling their punches on delicate matters, such as Taiwan or human rights.
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“The assumption that this sort of environment must necessarily impact on the way people write and deal with China in some way, usually problematic, has strengthened,” he said.
UK universities rely heavily on funding from China, from both the tuition fees of students and research partnerships which pay for expensive science and other projects.
His warning came in a series of essays on the issue of UK universities and their relationship with China, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Professor Brown said that doctoral students and younger researchers were particularly at risk, “very aware of the consequences if they stray into the many areas of sensitivity”.
“Some of these may originally come from China, and have to protect friends, family and networks there,” he said.
“Others are involved in field research in sensitive ethnic minority areas, or around potentially contentious social policy issues like land ownership reform or migrant labourer rights. For these, the worst that can happen is that they are detained.” Even those not from China risk running into visa difficulties, threatening their field research projects and ability to produce work that will help to further their academic careers.
“These are serious consequences, which universities outside China need to be aware of, and demonstrate an understanding of,” he said.
Universities UK, the representative group for vice-chancellors, is putting the finishing touches to its first guidance on how institutions can protect academic freedom and their values amid fears of Chinese influence on campuses.
Other essays published focused more directly on the risks of relying too much on Chinese money.
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Chinese students are expected to defer places at UK universities this year until the coronavirus pandemic has abated. That, however, is not the main problem, according to Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney. Sooner or later, Beijing will pull the plug on the number of students it allows to travel overseas for degrees, he said.
“There are three strong reasons to suspect the Chinese government will use the Covid-19 crisis to reduce permanently the number of Chinese students going abroad for degrees,” he said. “First, due to the demographic decline, China’s universities need the students. Second, since 2016, China has increasingly limited its citizens’ access to foreign exchange and, third, China is actively using its purported success in fighting Covid-19 for propaganda purposes.”
Reducing students’ freedom to travel will indicate “displeasure” at Australia’s demand for an inquiry into China’s handling of Covid-19 and President Trump’s constant reminder that the pandemic started in China, he said.