Stephen Toope: Blind to Tyranny

Harry Goodwin 28 May 2020
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One would hope that such a regime would not have defenders in Cambridge. But it does.

This week, police in Hong Kong violently suppressed mass protests against a new security law which criminalises subversive or secessionist activity in the city. The law, which will end the city’s already limited autonomy, comes as the latest reminder of the unpleasant character of the current Chinese government. Where to begin? There are the huge gulags in Xinjiang, where about one million members of the Uighur minority have been imprisoned for no other reason than their Muslim faith; there is the nationwide algorithmic surveillance system which constantly monitors citizens’ movements and communications, assigning them a ‘social credit’ score depending on how independent-minded they are. Good luck exercising basic civil liberties to anyone who scores lowly. Add to the mix the intimidation and abduction of countless human-rights activists and journalists, the repression of religious minorities, the liberal use of torture and show trials – and you have a state which meets even the cloudiest definition of tyranny.[i]

One would hope that such a regime would not have defenders in Cambridge. But it does, and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope is one of them. To judge by the good-natured emails which Toope has kept sending Cambridge students throughout the current lockdown (not to mention the Camfess fandom they have earned him) a more inoffensive character could not exist. In fact, Toope’s writings and speeches from the past two years show him to be one of British academia’s most dedicated apologists for Xi Jingping’s regime. It is a very Cambridge story.[ii]


Part One: Huawei

Most big-name faculties – Oxford, Stanford, MIT – have made a point of rejecting all Huawei money on ethical grounds. Not so Cambridge.

Let’s start with the introduction Toope wrote in February for a Jesus College white paper on ‘Multilateral Solutions for Global Governance of the Information and Communications Technology Industry’. Seeing as it was Jesus’ UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre which issued the paper, readers might have expected to see some commentary on how Beijing has press-ganged tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent into helping it violate Chinese citizens’ privacy around the clock. But that would have been to radically misunderstand the sort of place the Centre is.

A subtle odour of fellow-travelling percolates through the white paper, which Huawei funded. The massive tech firm has long been dogged by suspicions that it is using its international 5G network to help the Chinese government spy on foreigners, including in Britain. Less well known is its provision of tech support for the Xinjiang gulags. It is, as British MPs have drily noted, the sort of company which might benefit from ‘reputational laundering’ in western universities. Most big-name faculties – Oxford, Stanford, MIT – have made a point of rejecting all Huawei money on ethical grounds. Not so Cambridge. Needless to say, the paper does not discuss anything to do with spying, theft or gulags.[iii]

So this was the provenance of the white paper Toope introduced. He didn’t have to do it, given the squeamishness about all things Huawei in most universities – in fact, his introduction seems something of a labour of love. Consider this lively paragraph:

‘It is currently unfashionable in a world of increasing bi-lateral tensions to focus on the potential of multilateral governance solutions. I believe, however, that it is only with discussion and implementation of creative, multilateral solutions that we can hope to properly address these major governance gaps. I also believe the need is becoming urgent, because our governance arrangements and tools are lagging behind advances in technology and its impacts. The process of forging a new governance system can no longer only be centred on the United States and Europe because the fourth industrial revolution is progressing at equal, if not greater, pace and impact in emerging countries as well as the developed world. Among these China will play a prominent role, given the size of her digital economy, technological capabilities, and the rapid pace at which new, digital technologies are transforming both the Chinese economy and society.’

Got that? As is customary with academic defences of far-off tyrannies, a cascade of jargon obscures the murky sentiments at play. For ‘bi-lateral tensions’, read western outrage at Xi’s worst inhumanities; for ‘our governance arrangements’, read liberal democracy. Translated word-for-word into plain English, Toope’s argument runs like this (decide for yourself whether this is a fair representation):[iv]

Lots of people think that West should not help China project its power internationally (‘multilateral governance solutions’). I believe it should, because of current international problems (‘major governance gaps’). Western liberal democracy is failing to deal with technological upheaval: an alternative (‘new governance system’) is needed. Since the US and Europe exist on the periphery of the tech revolution they should not control the global political response to it. China will take the lead, because it already enjoys lots of tech capability.

Perhaps Toope means nothing of the sort; perhaps he is a stout democrat who abhors Chinese human-rights abuses and hopes the West will contain Chinese expansionism. (If so, it’s hard to explain why he would put his name to a white paper funded by Huawei and rubber-stamped by a research unit notable for regurgitating the Beijing party line.) But what then does he mean? And why the deluge of argument-blurring abstractions? It would be a very generous reader who saw this as anything other than a might-is-right endorsement of China’s irredentist global ambitions – never mind the Uighurs, or Hong Kong, or the absolute surveillance state.

Moreover, until April of this year, the website of the Jesus China Centre, a separate centre at Jesus College, advanced a rather unusual view of the communist regime (The Spectator’s Charles Moore lifted the text just in time):[v]

‘Under the leadership of the Communist party of China since 1978, [China] has experienced an extraordinary transformation… China’s national rejuvenation is returning the country to the position within the global political economy that it occupied before the 19th century.’

This is the language of propaganda, not scholarship. The Communist party has ‘led’ China since 1949, not 1978; the latter date was just the year when it established diplomatic ties with the West and stopped killing millions of its citizens. ‘[E]xtraordinary transformation’ and ‘national rejuvenation’ are phrases which can mean whatever you want them to, if anything; the narrative of a well-deserved return to global primacy comes straight out of Xi Jingping Thought, not serious historiography. In short, Beijing spin-doctors would have done well to come up with such a text.[vi]

The spiel has disappeared from the China Centre’s website, which no longer mentions anything to do with the Communist party. Nowadays, it says it aims ‘to deepen mutual understanding between China and the West’ and to promote ‘harmonious global governance’. Praiseworthy stuff. The Centre thinks that ‘Global challenges confronting the whole human species include health pandemics, species extinction, global warming, inequality of income and wealth, concentration of global business power, and instability of the global financial system’. Perhaps one health pandemic in particular gave it second thoughts about the earlier talk of ‘national rejuvenation’.[vii]


Part Two: Needham

It is odd that Stephen Toope should be proud of such a man.

Toope shows his hand when, in the following sentence, he writes that ‘The University of Cambridge has had a long and proud tradition of engaging with China going back to the pioneering work of Joseph Needham and beyond.’ Joseph Needham, a biochemist, was Master of Gonville and Caius in the late Sixties. He certainly did pioneer academic engagement with China, of a kind. Needham, a communist, was a personal friend of Chairman Mao’s deputy Zhou Enlai; in 1952, Zhou recruited him to a Chinese-led international commission charged with investigating American biological warfare in Korea. Chinese spies tricked Needham into accusing America of dropping cattle-cakes laced with anthrax across the southern Chinese countryside in the late 1940s. In fact, the cattle-cakes were fakes mocked up by Zhou’s operatives. His biographer puts it bluntly: ‘Needham was intellectually in love with communism and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him.'[viii]

Needham failed to learn his lesson from the cattle-cake shambles, perhaps because it had precisely no impact on his ascent through Cambridge academia. In 1965, just after his elevation to the Caius mastership, Needham founded the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), membership of which was for many years the only way Britons could get a Chinese visa. When the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper went on a SACU trip to China in the same year, he discovered that the organisation was being funded by the Chinese Communist Party. Needham kicked him out of SACU.[ix]

Needham had visited China again in 1964, where he restored his acquaintance with Zhou Enlai. This was three years after the official end of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which the leading western historian of modern China reckonsaround forty-five million people starved to death. Liu Shaoqi, one of Mao’s deputies, thought that the government’s collectivist policies bore 70% of responsibility for the famine; its inclination to drown in human faeces people suspected of ‘Rightist’ conspiracies like hoarding potatoes certainly did not help. It is inconceivable that an academic as well-informed and well-connected as Needham should never have encountered evidence of the famine’s aftermath on his visit. In any case, he was in 1965 happy to tell Varsity that ‘China has a better government now than for centuries’. He went on to become an apologist for the Cultural Revolution, in which mobs of young Red Guards killedaround two million more people suspected of insufficient loyalty to Mao, including countless academics.[x]

It is odd that Stephen Toope should be proud of such a man.



Part Three: Peking

These included the Peking students Yue Xin and Zhang Shangye, both of whom are still missing – likely either dead or in secret detention.

In acknowledging its financial debt to Huawei, the Jesus white paper Toope introduced notes that ‘[t]his grant was accepted under an agreement between the parties to uphold the principle of academic freedom, and act to encourage and support open and free inquiry and dialogue in research collaborations’. A noble sentiment. But a speech Toope gave to Peking University – most famous as the birthplace of the Cultural Revolution – on 24th March 2019 makes clear his willingness to overlook the complicity of Chinese universities in specific human-rights abuses against their students.[xi]

The bulk of the speech is given over listing various regrettable aspects of today’s ‘age of anxiety’ (a phrase borrowed from WH Auden, who would have found the text appalling). These include ‘political extremism’ and ‘intolerance’ (though presumably not in Xinjiang); climate change, hunger and migration. Particularly resonant is Toope’s observation that ‘The threats posed by microbial resistance do not stop at international borders’. Too true, residents of Wuhan might reflect.

The solution, as ever, is China. Toope literally recites the tenets of Xi Jingping Thought: ‘the five pillars of China’s new development philosophy are: open, innovative, coordinated, shared and green development’. He praises China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a ‘vastly ambitious’ instance of ‘collaboration on a global scale’. The collaborative nature of the initiative may surprise the myriad emerging economies enfeebled by China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Its merits as a solution to refugee crises and climate change are also questionable, given its role in propping up Syria’s Assad regime and the construction of huge coal mines and coal-fired power stations by its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.[xii]

But this is all nit-picking: ‘Collaboration is not optional’. It is just as well, then, that British and Chinese universities have a shared commitment to ‘connection, communication, and collaboration’. (Toope has a flair for alliteration.) Peking University is particularly admirable:

‘At a time when many minds appear to be closing all around the world, it is reassuring to find here a formidable institution, which seeks an open world – open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people – a world in which no people great or small, will live in angry isolation.’

This is a falsehood. Peking University, like all Chinese universities, has Communist party secretaries on its faculty staff. So much for upholding academic freedom. More to the point, months before Toope’s speech, the university, far from being ‘open to ideas’, assisted the Chinese state’s repression of its students’ freedom of thought, speech and protest. Toope probably knows this.

These are the facts. In the summer of 2018, the Chinese secret police abducted over fifty students across China who had joined Shenzhen factory workers protesting about labour rights. These included the Peking students Yue Xin and Zhang Shangye, both of whom are still missing – likely either dead or in secret detention. After Peking University’s Marxist club protested against the abductions, the faculty shut it down. Four months before Toope praised Peking for upholding academic freedom, police arrested Qiu Zhanxuan, the club’s chairman. He is yet to emerge from custody. Whatever else Peking University is, it is not ‘open to ideas’.[xiii]

All these outrages were widely reported in mainstream western media. Either Toope was somehow unaware of Peking University’s recent suppression of its students’ civil liberties, in which case he had no business opining on its openness to ideas; or he knew full well what kind of institution he was dealing with, and still chose to praise it for upholding academic freedom.[xiv]

There is no greater act of intellectual cowardice than defending a tyranny while living in a free country. The Jesus white paper and the Peking speech both go well beyond the point of simple failure to ‘speak out’ about China’s legion human-rights abuses – if that was their worst fault, then it would be disingenuous to single Toope out for criticism. Most British cultural and academic institutions with interests in China would, after all, prefer not to talk about its despotic government. But Vice-Chancellor Toope is in a different league. His introduction to the Huawei-funded white paper actively, if vaguely, endorses China’s global ambitions, and references as a source of inspiration one of the most shameless apologists for tyranny in Cambridge’s history; his Peking speech characterises a faculty which helped deprive its students of their most basic civil liberties as a bastion of academic freedom.

Stephen Toope should explain himself.


1. An earlier version of this article stated that the China Centre was the “parent organisation” of UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre. This is not correct. They are different centres with different aims and run by different academics. They are both at Jesus College, Cambridge, but one is not the parent of the other.

2. An earlier version of this article included the sentence “the white paper cites Huawei as a model of corporate governance, claiming that it does a better job at sharing intellectual property relating to 5G than European firms.” The white paper does not explicitly cite Huawei as “a model of corporate governance”. The relevant section of the white paper states the following:                                                

“Contributors proposed that one way to solve these issues may be to create a competitive ecosystem among the existing vendors. For example, to stimulate competitors all intellectual property associated with 5G has been made freely available by the CEO of Huawei, making this a fruitful time to be a European technology company working on these issues.” (p. 20)

Huawei’s approach to intellectual property has been widely criticised in the West, by both US and UK government officials and by the press. One would not realise this from the second sentence of this passage , which presents a highly controversial view as if it were commonly accepted fact. No dissenting opinions are included in the paper. 




[iv] UK Dialogue Centre white paper.pdf

[v] UK Dialogue Centre white paper.pdf;;;
[xi] UK Dialogue Centre white paper.pdf;