Tuesday 14 September 2021 6:00 am

Britain must be alive to the threat of Chinese influence in our universities

Johnny Patterson is the Policy Director of Hong Kong Watch

Last year, Downing Street U-turned on a decision to grant Chinese state-backed telecomms giant Huawei even “non-core” access to Britain’s 5G famework. The threat of influence or privacy invasion was deemed to be too high a price to pay.

Not so for Cambridge University it seems. Yesterday, it was revealed that three out of the four directors of the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management have ties with Huawei. The university research unit’s “chief representative” is a former senior Huawei vice-president who has been on the Chinese government payroll.

Huawei’s ties with the Chinese government are no secret. The firm received as much as $75 billion in government support in the form of tax breaks, financing and cheap resources in its heady ascent to the top of global telecomms. China exerted a huge amount of diplomatic capital in an effort to ensure Huawei was granted access to 5G systems around the world.

When the UK decided to pull out of hosting Huawei technology, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson menacingly branded the decision “disappointing” and “disheartening, warning that “any decisions and actions must come at a cost”. In relatiation for Canadian authorities arresting Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, after she was accused of bank fraud, the Chinese government took two Canadian NGO workers hostage and accused them of spying. They are still imprisoned and could face life imprisonment if the Canadians do not back down and release Meng. Huawei’s success is so paramount to China’s strategic goals that it has been the single cause of the swiftest deterioration of Canada-China relations in a generation.

Huawei’s executives know that their bread is buttered by the Communist Party. The moral ramifications of this are clear when considering their activities in the Uyghur region in China, Xinjiang. According to the Australian think tank ASPI, Huawei works closely with the Chinese government’s public security bureau in the region. The firm has built dystopian police surveillance systems in Karamay, Kashgar and elsewhere; it has developed the cloud computing software used by the police force to keep track of every individual in the region; and worked with Megvii in 2018 to develop an AI camera system which includes a “Uyghur alarm” that detects if a person is Uyghur.

The depth of Huawei’s influence in a research institute at one of the UK’s finest universities is therefore concerning. But the issues which arise here have ramifications far beyond Huawei. The ties between British higher education institutions and China are a cause of growing concern. The stronger they get, the more soft power and influence China has in Britain. The deeper those roots grow, the harder it becomes to make decisions such as the Huawei one.

When making the Huawei decision, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab bemoaned the lack of alternatives and vowed to ensure the UK has a thriving telecomms sector. Efforts to improve that situation have been scant. Similarly, there have been increasingly questions of Chinese funding for Sizewell C, the nuclear power plant being built in Suffolk. Often we forget that when we are dealing with China, we are not dealing with just another Western economy. They do not function in the same way as, say, France does. So we cannot treat them like we treat France. In order to make strong independent decisions, we need strong independence of thinking. Academia is the centre of this battle. China knows this – it’s about time we realise it as well.

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