Revealed: the Cambridge-China Pact

Harry Goodwin, Samuel Rubinstein 13 February 2021
Image Credit: Creative Commons (UBC News)

Journalism makes nothing happen. The general lack-of-response within Cambridge to the TCS article ‘Stephen Toope: Blind to Tyranny’ would certainly warrant this conclusion. The piece, published in May 2020, revealed that on two separate occasions the Vice-Chancellor (who specialises in human-rights law) had used his position to promote the methods and objectives of the dictatorial Chinese government.

First, in a February 2019 Jesus College white paper funded by Huawei, Toope appeared to endorse China’s plans for a ‘new governance system’ worldwide; second, in a March 2019 speech at Peking University, Toope praised the faculty as ‘a formidable institution, which seeks an open world’. This encomium would be blandly unobjectionable were it not the case that, in the months before Toope’s speech, secret police abducted the Peking students Yue Xin, Zhang Shangye, and Qiu Zhanxuan for protesting about labour rights. After Peking’s Marxist club protested the abductions, the faculty shut it down. They are yet to emerge from custody.

The article was widely circulated on social media, and received the fleeting interest of reporters at two national newspapers as well as several University bigwigs. (‘Most amusing’, one commented.) Although TCS has seen correspondence showing that Toope’s office was aware of the article, the Vice-Chancellor did not issue a response either on his website or in his cheering weekly email. His office did not respond to a request for comment in January – though to judge by the cringing obeisance of Varsity interviewers and podcast hosts towards him, Toope has little to fear from journalistic scrutiny.

On two separate occasions the Vice-Chancellor (who specialises in human-rights law) used his position to promote the methods and objectives of the dictatorial Chinese government.

Leaving aside Beijing’s impossibly bad human-rights record, Toope’s apologia should invite suspicion about his commitment to academic freedom. All Chinese universities have Communist Party (CCP) secretaries on their faculty staff, and Peking is far from the only one to have assisted the Xi regime’s repression of its students’ civil liberties. If Toope is not prepared to criticise the CCP’s overt suffocation of academic freedom in China, he can hardly be relied upon to resist the oblique dangers it poses to academic freedom abroad – even, or especially, in Cambridge.

A germane case is that of the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Last August, CCP proxies in the UNSW student body pressured the faculty into censoring and censuring a law lecturer’s criticism of the notorious Hong Kong national-security law. They applied this pressure with a Beijing-directed programme of threats and trolling, including a pledge to boycott the university unless it sacked the lecturer in question. Such a boycott would have been financially crippling for UNSW. According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese students at UNSW fear that if they share their political opinions on campus, their relatives back home will face retribution from the government.

Should Cambridge-CCP links continue to tighten, a similar climate of fear is only too plausible: comparable instances of repression-by-proxy have been documented across the West. In truth, we are already close to such a situation. Nobody batted an eyelid when Trinity College embarked on a £200m joint venture with Tsinghua University at the same time as Tsinghua suspended a member of its academic staff, Prof. Xu Zhangrun, for writing an essay sharply criticising the Xi regime.

Should Cambridge-CCP links continue to tighten, a similar climate of fear is only too plausible: comparable instances of repression-by-proxy have been documented across the West.

Ma Hui, a minister at the Chinese embassy in London, attended and addressed the opening ceremony of Tuspark Cambridge, at which the then-Master of Trinity College was present, celebrating the ‘golden fruit’ of Trinity’s collaboration with Tsinghua. Ma is a dedicated exponent of CCP propaganda about Xinjiang; the same sort as some students at Trinity have readily imbibed. (Trinity students who have spoken out about human rights in Hong Kong have reported being called ‘British colonialists’, and others have been treated to apologetics about Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square massacre.) ‘Some anti-China forces in the West’, Ma has written, ‘have concocted and disseminated plenty of false information about China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion at all, but about combating violent terrorism and separatism’. Trinity’s collaboration with Tsinghua gives the likes of Ma, and the CCP more broadly, cause for celebration, all the while legitimating them in the eyes of its students.

Sometimes turning a blind eye verges on outright complicity. A case in point is the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), which in the past two years has presided over the suppression of pro-democracy protests in the city. Cambridge’s criminology department currently runs a Masters scheme with the force, through which fourteen officers a year receive training in crowd control and other such skills. For its part, the University Careers Service (UCS) has actively tried to recruit finalists from Hong Kong to the HKPF’s grad scheme. After some of those finalists circulated an open letter protesting these efforts, the UCS privately told a Hong Kong student that ‘for the Service to have taken a unilateral decision to censor the opportunity would be problematic in itself’. To judge by this mealy-mouthed equivocation, Hong Kong students are right to fear that the University will not stand up for their freedom of protest either at home or in Cambridge.

Links with mainland China are hardly less suspect: Cambridge has been taking Huawei money since 2010, and since 2017 the firm – which provides IT support for the Xinjiang gulags – has funded a £25m research group at the university. (For a sense of proportion, Cambridge’s overall losses from the pandemic have been around £60m.) Toope met Huawei’s CEO at the group’s launch event and, with characteristic cheerfulness, gave it a glowing endorsement. Setting aside the ethical squalor inherent to dealings with Huawei, the firm has long been dogged by accusations that it is spying on foreigners on the CCP’s behalf. It is no friend of the open society.

Hong Kong students are right to fear that the University will not stand up for their freedom of protest either at home or in Cambridge.

Nor is it only corporate proxies of the Chinese state which seek reputational laundering in Cambridge. In 2012, Cambridge accepted a £3.7m donation from the Chong Hua foundation before going on to institute a Chong Hua professorship in Chinese Development Studies. (Chinese censors removed all references to the donation in domestic media.) The foundation, whose trustees are anonymous, is registered in Bermuda and has no internet presence anywhere. However, between 2009 and 2012 Cambridge officials held several secret meetings in Beijing with Wen Ruchun, a Chong Hua fixer who also happens to be the daughter of Wen Jiabao, who was at that date the Chinese premier. As the Pentagon cliché goes, the business of Chinese relations is business.

Certain aspects of the Cambridge-China pact require a strong stomach. In 2017, Cambridge University Press (CUP) complied with a CCP request to delete three hundred ‘politically sensitive’ articles from its Chinese website. The topics? Any and all references to the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Cultural Revolution (death toll: two million) and unlovely goings-on in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. It was, to call a spade a spade, censorship of academic enquiry. After an international outcry, the CUP reinstated the articles.

Other instances of collaboration simply defy belief. A recent Civitas report has revealed that Cambridge researchers have co-operated on gyroscope research with China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT). The gyroscope laboratory at NUDT is a listed military facility, and is currently under Japanese sanctions because of its crucial role in China’s missile development programme. The Chinese education ministry has commented that the collaboration between Cambridge and NUDT will ‘greatly raise the nation’s power in the fields of national defence, communications and anti-jamming for imaging and high-precision navigation’. Such brutal statements of self-interest make for an instructive contrast with Toope’s panegyrics.

The Chinese education ministry has commented that the collaboration between Cambridge and NUDT will ‘greatly raise the nation’s power in the fields of national defence, communications and anti-jamming for imaging and high-precision navigation’.

Although most Cambridge students agree that the Chinese government is not very nice, few concern themselves overmuch with its influence inside Cambridge. Those students who are exercised by Cambridge-China links face an uncongenial environment. Several Hong Kong students told TCS of their fears that the University’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is monitoring their social-media and real-world activities on the Chinese government’s behalf. La Cina è vicina, runs the Italian adage: China is near.

During the summer, TCS can reveal, a group of Hong Kong students at Cambridge planned a public panel discussion about all this and more. Communicating over an encrypted messaging system, the would-be participants agreed that the panel should actually be a film, and then that it should not take place at all. The reason: the students felt that if they spoke to a Cambridge audience about human rights in China, they would be risking their personal security. Could there be a starker indictment of the Cambridge-China pact?

Correction:

In an earlier version of this article, it was claimed that Stephen Toope endorsed “Xi Jinping’s plans for a ‘new governance system’ worldwide” in the introduction to the Jesus College white paper. There is no explicit reference to Xi in Mr. Toope’s introduction. His references are exclusively to China.