Universities in the UK have been urged to adopt a risk management strategy for any dealings with China amid concerns that academics are self-censoring because of fears about the consequences of offending the Chinese authorities.
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, said accusations of self-censorship regarding work on China had intensified in recent years as China had taken a more assertive stance in its global messaging.
Writing in a collection of essays exploring the complex and challenging relationship between UK universities and China, Brown said offending China had never been difficult, but it had become more problematic under the current leadership.
“In the era of current president and Communist party head Xi Jinping, it has become extremely easy, and the Chinese government has not been coy in expressing this for everyone who wants to hear it.
“The assumption that this sort of environment must necessarily impact on the way people write and deal with China in some way, usually problematic, has strengthened.”
Brown suggested that the problem was not just about direct Chinese influence, but about self-censorship that prevents academics or students speaking frankly about China because of fear of the consequences.
“What is clear is that in the last few years, the fear and anxiety of facing individual and institutional consequences for straying over the ever shifting red line that manages to offend China has risen dramatically.
“China is increasingly willing to call out those who criticise it. For universities, this can run the risk of impacting on the recruitment of Chinese students, or undertaking research collaborations with China.”
Brown suggested that universities should think through and adopt a risk management strategy that would spell out how to manage demands from Chinese partners and uphold free speech and expression. “They need to be ready to say no to demands or issues from China that they feel violate their own values, but ensure they do this in a neutral and respectful way.
“Once these measures are in place, while the issues of self-censorship might not be wholly put to rest, they are at least placed in a context where people feel more protected and more able to get on with doing their jobs: thinking, writing, and trying to understand.”
Brown was contributing to UK Universities and China, a collection of essays compiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which also highlights an increase in racism experienced by Chinese students in the UK.
UK universities have become increasingly global in recent years, with a significant increase in international students, particularly from China. Nearly 120,000 Chinese students currently study at British universities, and their tuition fees are a key source of income, but there are fears that enrolments may drop significantly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Writing in the same collection, Prof Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, said universities should work harder to make sure students from China feel welcome in reality and not just in words.
“But we must also do so in terms that make it clear there are some values central to our sector and our society – in particular, liberal values of open, transparent research and teaching, with the freedom to debate and to ask awkward questions of the powerful – that we will not compromise.”
Michael Natzler, HEPI’s policy officer and editor of the essay collection, said: “Universities must be as tenacious in condemning and acting against racism and stereotypes as they are assertive in reaffirming their values of free intellectual debate, two challenges which are deeply connected.”