"Beware the threat of China"?

Press, students and academics argue over £3.7m professorship set up by unknown Chinese foundation

A private gift of £3.7m from the mysterious Chong Hua Foundation has sparked debate about the anonymity of the University's donations and its relationship with the People's Republic of China. The funds will be used to create a new chair of Chinese Development at the Centre of Development Studies in the new Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS).

The University's ethical guidelines on the acceptance of benefactions prevent it from accepting donations that have arisen from or may encourage or require violation of human rights conventions, limitation of freedom of inquiry, or the suppression or falsification of academic research. However, the lack of information freely available about the Chong Hua Foundation has led to a considerable amount of scepticism.

Critics have made comparisons between the Chong Hua donation and one of £1.5m to the London School of Economics by a foundation run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – the subject of the recent Woolf report. Former senior lecturer at POLIS Tarak Barkawi described Cambridge University's behaviour as "reckless and simply not good enough".

Of particular concern have been the links between Professor Peter Nolan, who will occupy the newly created post, and the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Nolan has co-authored several papers and a book with Wen's son-in-law, Liu Chunhang, after teaching him as a postgraduate and in his position at the Judge Business School. Nolan also allegedly tutored Wen Ruchun, the premier's daughter.

A University spokesperson has asserted that, "Professor Nolan a highly respected scholar of Chinese Development" and is not under the influence of the Chinese government.

They also stressed the independence of the Chong Hua Foundation, describing it as "a private charitable foundation set up by wealthy individuals to benefit education", whose wish to remain anonymous was "common practice", adding that the origins of the donations had been fully examined by the Executive Committee of the University Council.

These claims did not convince Barkawi. "In a dictatorship," he argued, "there is no such thing as an independent educational foundation."

A POLIS student, who wishes to remain anonymous, acknowledged the "propagandistic" nature of some donations from the People's Republic, but did not agree with the "decidedly negative tone" taken in media coverage of this and other benefactions from China. She pointed to a "knee-jerk reaction" in the British press, which cautions us to "beware the threat of China".

The student alluded to wider fears about the implications of China's success for the West, noting that much of the doubt surrounding Prof Nolan's academic integrity and independence has rested on his "positive view of China's recent developments" that accepts a "remarkable level of competence" in the managing of the nation's economy. She rejected these assumptions, concluding: "You don't have to be an apologist for the ruling regime in order to hold these views on China".

Alice Moore - Deputy News Editor

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