British Documentary Alleges China Influences Universities, Spies on Hong Kongers in UK

A BBC Channel 4 documentary, “Secrets and Power: China in the UK,” claims the Chinese government is interfering with academic freedom and spying on Hong Kong activists in the United Kingdom.

The 49-minute film released Wednesday alleges that the University of Nottingham used a Beijing-approved curriculum in classes taught on a satellite campus in Ningbo and closed its School of Contemporary Chinese Studies under pressure from Beijing. 

The program also claims a professor at the Imperial College London collaborated with researchers at a Chinese university on the use of artificial intelligence weaponry that could be used to benefit the Chinese military. Both institutions deny the allegations. 

The film also alleges that Chinese government agents pretending to be journalists used fake profiles and avatars to target Hong Kong activists now living in the U.K. 

VOA Mandarin sent an email to the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom seeking comments on the claims in the documentary but has not received a response.  

Nations track China’s influence

The documentary comes as other nations, including the U.S., are monitoring China’s influence on campuses (( https://www.voanews.com/a/us-officials-warn-of-chinese-influence-in-american-higher-education/4600204.html )) and its so-called “overseas police centers,” purportedly intended to help Chinese diaspora and tourists with everyday problems. 

VOA has previously quoted human rights groups saying the outposts are in fact part of a complex global surveillance and control web that gives Beijing reach far beyond China’s borders. 

The University of Nottingham was approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education to open a campus in Ningbo, China, in 2004. On the China campus, all courses are taught in English and students are awarded the same degrees as on the U.K. campus.  

Professor Stephen Morgan, the former vice provost for planning at the Ningbo campus, said in the documentary that books and articles on campus are censored by local Communist Party officials.  

According to Morgan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also encouraged students to spy on their teachers. He said he was forced to resign from his management position after writing a blog criticizing constitutional changes that enabled President Xi Jinping to serve a third term. The CCP secretary at the Ningbo campus deemed the blog “totally unacceptable,” he said. 

Steve Tsang is director of the China Institute at SOAS London and a former director of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, which closed in 2016. 

Tsang, an outspoken critic of the CCP, said in the documentary that University of Nottingham administrators told him not to speak with media when Xi visited the U.K. in 2015. Tsang also said the university did not allow him to host a senior Taiwanese politician who planned to deliver a speech in 2014.  

School denies taking political action

The University of Nottingham has denied that the closure of its Institute of Contemporary China was for political reasons and denied Channel 4’s allegations about Nottingham’s Ningbo campus. 

“We do not recognize the description of the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus. Any U.K. organization operating overseas … must comply with the laws and customs of the host country.”  

The documentary alleges that Imperial College London’s collaboration with researchers from Shanghai University included the publication of several papers on the military applications of artificial intelligence. The work was overseen by Guo Yike, director of Imperial College’s Institute of Data Science. 

According to a report in the English newspaper The Telegraph, Imperial College said staff have a “clear code of research” and insisted that due diligence and regular reviews of partners have been done. 

The Chinese Embassy in London also denied to The Telegraph in the same article that it had interfered in the running of British universities, saying the allegation was “aimed at discrediting and smearing China.”  

Film alleges China targets activists

A study prepared by the British think tank Civitas and released this month in parliament found that a number of British universities have received significant funding from organizations linked to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the past five years. 

The documentary alleges Hong Kong activists who have taken refuge in Britain appear to be the targets of sophisticated Chinese government espionage. 

It follows the case of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Finn Lau, who said he had been repeatedly approached by fake journalists and feared being followed. In July, Hong Kong offered a bounty equal to $128,000 for Lau’s arrest. Seven others were also targeted.

According to the documentary, an American man who taught English in Shanghai pretended to be a journalist working for a Canadian media outlet and used a false avatar and profile to ask Lau for information about pro-democracy activities. When the American was asked by a Channel 4 reporter for his real name and those of his superiors, he hung up the video call.  


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