[This is an excerpt from an interview appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Charles Moore, journalist, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, and of The Spectator, and authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher, on the growing influence of China and its consequences is interviewed by Martin Mulligan, a member of the journal’s editorial board. Lord Moore offers his views on a range of issues, starting with the challenges that are posed by the expanding array of China-sponsored activities in British universities – a topic on which Lord Moore has commented extensively in recent months.]
Martin Mulligan (MM):
We are exploring questions about China’s influence on British universities at a special moment. There’s a tough new security law in Hong Kong. There’s an escalation of the economic war between the US and China. And in this economic war and the trade war 5 G and Huawei are centre stage, with America putting forward what it calls a clean network policy to protect America’s telecoms infrastructure. You have written that 17 British universities are reported still to have Huawei deals. The sums of Chinese money involved are huge. The universities crave the money, the access, the students, the power, and all these things have turned their heads. I’m wondering, then, what do you see as the risks of China’s engagement with British universities?
Charles Moore (CM):
Well, I think the fundamental issue, in respect of universities specifically, is standards of academic freedom and probity and these are not applied in the way they deal with China in many cases. And they also don’t apply in China. So if you’re, say, an Oxford college and you make a deal with Tsinghua University, it’s not like for like, because every Chinese University is controlled by the Communist Party. Some of those universities actually say on their websites that they have a Communist Party apparatus of control there, and therefore, there is no academic freedom in China, though there are obviously many distinguished intellectuals and scientists. It’s not a level playing field and it’s not appropriate for distinguished British universities – or any British university – to give endorsements to these places as if they are like ours.
And not only did they give these endorsements, they’re extremely uncritical in many cases about the relationship which they establish with these universities, so that some of the enterprises that have been set up don’t look like proper academic enterprises. I’m not talking here, of course, about something like teaching Chinese, which is a very important subject, or the study of Chinese history or something like that. I’m talking about, for example, the China Centre at Jesus College, Cambridge: the more you look into it, the more you can’t really find out what it’s doing. And it doesn’t seem to have any pupils exactly. It seems to be a sort of vehicle by which Chinese institutions related to the Communist Party get a sort of Oxbridge validation, and Cambridge gets money and that seems to me to be wrong.
What would you say are the Chinese Communist Party’s objectives where British universities are concerned. Do you think they have a worked-out policy?
I think there is a strategy, yes. Before I say more, however, I should say, in fairness to the Chinese regime that I think there’s quite a high level of respect, genuine respect, for academic quality in the West and the Chinese search for entering into that world is not only a power play, it’s also a desire to learn more, but it is a power play nonetheless. And I think that’s what largely drives the regime. And what’s going on I think, is that China wants to use soft power in coordination with hard power. And it particularly wants to use money power. And it has discovered that Western universities are extremely vulnerable to money power, because they’re always scrambling around for money. And they’re not very scrupulous about who they receive it from, and they don’t do enough due diligence. So I think China has found it alarmingly easy to get into all sorts of Western institutions in this way, without many questions being asked, and the reason China would like to do this is reputational. It’s a way of influencing elites and therefore influencing political decisions. It’s also technical, because if you can sponsor all sorts of research that Huawei wants, for example, that will assist the aims of Chinese power and Chinese infiltration of secrets. But even if it weren’t a matter of secrets, which it is in the case of Huawei, it would still be a major aim of Chinese power.
There’s an intense debate going on at the moment about ‘no platforming’ within universities generally, and it’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s influence might well result in no platforming.
Yes, we do have examples. I think there was one at Nottingham of pressure being put on for some speakers not to be allowed to speak on campus if their remarks were hostile to the Chinese regime on issues like Tibet or freedom in Hong Kong. An important dimension of all this, which I haven’t mentioned, is Chinese students. And of course, one of the reasons that British universities are susceptible to all of this is that they want Chinese students as they’re very significant contributors of money to universities. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in itself with having Chinese students. We would want British universities to be open to good students from all over the world. But what happens is that via the Chinese Embassy in London, control is exercised over Chinese students in British universities. And those students who are loyal to the regime monitor those students who are critical of the regime and therefore, there is an oppressive feeling for Chinese students. In British universities they feel spied on – and they are spied on – and that has the effect of silencing them. And this becomes positively dangerous as well as obviously wrong.
In the context of the Hong Kong security law, which you mentioned earlier, because the scope of application of the law is claimed to be universal, it is possible, though I don’t think it would happen, for a Chinese student in this country to be extradited under that law and punished. The British government are of course taking steps to make sure that that doesn’t happen, but it just illustrates the attempt by China to exercise control beyond its borders. So the system of oppression which has now been applied to Hong Kong in controverting the Anglo Hong Kong agreement is now spreading to British universities. And as far as I can see, and I’ve asked British universities about this – I’ve asked the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Toope about this – but I’ve had no satisfactory reply.
Did you get a reply to your query but it was unsatisfactory, or did you have no reply?
Originally, I think I’m right in saying, I had no reply. But after a bit of persistence I had what I would call a ‘fobbing off’ reply. I think it’s important to understand that Professor Toope in person and Cambridge University in general have invested heavily in these ideas about links with China. They sell them intellectually and ideologically as being part of the importance of global knowledge and how we all get on better with one another if we understand one another better. And, of course, that’s a very noble aim. But one of the things you need to understand, if you’re understanding China better, is that it’s run by the Communist Party. So it’s not a matter of getting on well with the people of China, which we would want. It’s a matter of dealing with an extremely power-hungry and oppressive regime, which is also in aggressive mode as it spreads around the world through the Belt and Road initiative and many other things.