The Chinese Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Wang Zhigang, is welcomed to Imperial College in 2019 Photography by Fergus Burnett

Are UK dons hopelessly naive on China?

Beijing’s growing influence means hard choices are going to get harder for the Government

Artillery Row

A new report suggests a large number of British universities doing research in collaboration with Chinese companies could be inadvertently aiding Chinese military research. This includes 15 of the 24 Russell Group universities as well as many other British academic institutions.

Some of the findings of the report, produced by the Civitas think tank, are jaw-dropping. To take one example, China’s main nuclear inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) conglomerate was given a  centre at Manchester University where some research was subsidised by the UK taxpayer.  And at the same university, a Chinese researcher looked at ceramic coatings for hypersonic vehicles with a major defence-funded laboratory at China’s Central South University. Manchester University even acknowledged that this had possible defence uses. If defence is the mot juste, which is obviously something we could discover soon enough. Possibly very quickly if ground-breaking British ceramic coating works.

The researchers, Radomir Tylecote and Robert Clark, have made it clear that they are not accusing any of the universities of breaking UK law (or their own internal rules) and they gave the institutions a right-of-reply which they have published alongside their report.  However, most of the rebuttals given by the universities – and included in the report – do not seem to address the central point. For example, Imperial College London, which has at least four research centres sponsored by major Chinese weapons suppliers, used their reply to point out that their “research outputs” are in the public domain. But should they be? They go on to say: “Science is a global endeavour, and we are proud to work with our peers in academia and industry all over the world”.  Being proud of working with scientists “all over the world” is a pious comeback but it doesn’t hold much weight when the people some of them are working with are also busy constructing “a radar-absorbing stealth material”.

One of the problems identified was the tiny proportion of funding the UK devotes to military research

Just this week it was revealed that HM Revenue and Customs are investigating up to 200 British academics for potential breaches of export control rules by sharing highly sensitive information that could help China develop weapons of mass destruction. Is this just widespread naivete on the part of British academics or something else? Obviously it’s potentially enormous state failure, by not properly invigilating such technology transfer. Last year the Mail revealed that the UK has more Chinese students than any other country, accounting for £1.7 billion in tuition fees every year. Of that, nine Russell Group Universities rely on Chinese students for 20% their income, prominent amongst the benefits of Chinese largesse being Manchester and Imperial. What do we – or they – know about how China determines which of its student cohort is entitled to study abroad? Who exactly is coming here and on what basis is their home country allowing them to go? It seems childish at best to imagine that China shares our indifferent, laissez-faire approach to such matters. Do British academics really believe that the Chinese students they teach are all there because of individual choice, freely exercised?

The Civitas paper suggests that the British Government conduct a public audit of university sponsorship and funding relationships, and says they should follow the example of the US by writing a list of foreign institutions that UK bodies should not work with. But perhaps some of the reliance on China is just a symptom? One of the problems identified by the researchers was the tiny proportion of funding the UK devotes to military research. They included a fascinating anecdote: Volkswagen alone spends more on R&D than the entire UK defence sector. It’s an obvious starting point for the Government to increase this figure to prevent UK universities from having to rely so heavily on Chinese investment. Dominic Cummings promised much in this regard, but as yet nothing has happened. But even finally launching an agency to lead R&D won’t be much use if the Treasury doesn’t put real money behind it, and ensure that it makes sense for British private sector companies to do the same.

British conservatives find it very easy to sneer at Berlin for posing as a champion of human rights while racing to cut energy deals with Moscow, but hard choices loom and are only going to get harder. Will any of the “MPs for JCB”, for example, wish to see limits put on what British companies can export to China? Obviously the shift is being helped to a great extent by the changing attitudes of the UK’s allies. No.10 dragged its feet before eventually banning Chinese firm Huawei from the UK’s 5G network under huge pressure from the US. And Canberra is currently more alarmed at Chinese foreign policy than London after recently feeling the sharp end of huge tariffs from Beijing – which appear to have swapped the largest export market of Australian wine from China to the UK.

As the UK has been reluctant to act in the past, perhaps the only way for sino-sceptics to persuade Whitehall and Westminster of the need to act would indeed be to link a demand for much higher defence research with the long-promised Industrial Strategy – the pet project of No.10 expected to emerge after Covid subsides. Clearly American rivalry with, and fear of, China means key UK’s allies like Australia are liable to join Washington in calling for greater resolve when dealing with Beijing. Equally plainly, a German-dominated EU seems no more likely to confront China than it is to ever truly sanction Russia.

Lots of choices face London, but will they be her own or those of other countries? Academic research might be helpful, but you do tend to get what you pay for.

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