Former head of Chinese studies at Nottingham University ‘censored by Chinese Communist Party’

Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute, during his intervention at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on China and Britain at Guildhall
Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute, during his intervention at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on China and Britain at Guildhall - SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

British academics have been censored by Chinese Communist Party officials in a bid to increase the regime’s influence in the west, it has been claimed.

Among those the Chinese are accused of trying to muzzle was the former head of Chinese studies at Nottingham University and the work of the university’s campus in China.

The claims, which the Chinese government has denied, raise disturbing questions about the influence exerted by Beijing on British education institutions.

‘University management asked not to speak to media’

Professor Steve Tsang, former head of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, has claimed that university management asked him not to speak to the media during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK in 2015, for fear his comments would cause embarrassment to the institution.

The academic, known as a critic of the Chinese Communist Party, said that the previous year he had invited a senior Taiwanese politician to speak on campus, but was “ordered” by a senior University manager to hold the speech elsewhere.

Professor Tsang told Channel 4’s Dispatches, broadcast on Wednesday: “He [the university manager] said he was summoned - the word summoned was used by him. He was summoned by the Chinese embassy in London. And he was told in no uncertain terms that that speaker cannot speak on campus.”

In a separate incident Stephen Morgan, former associate provost for planning at the University’s campus in Ningbo, China, claims that books and articles at the campus were censored by local Chinese officials and students were encouraged by the party to spy on their teachers.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Professor Morgan, who says he was forced to step down from his position after he wrote a blog critical of Xi Jinping’s constitutional changes, said: “It was seen by the party secretary as completely unacceptable. He more or less barged into the provost’s office quite angry and said, ‘You are condoning illegal actions’.

“What was illegal? Being critical? That’s what Western academics are about.”

There are also claims that an academic at Imperial College in London wrote a series of papers with researchers at Shanghai University on the use of AI to control drone ships.

Experts told Dispatches that the papers, written by Professor Yike Guo, an expert on artificial intelligence and big data who founded Imperial’s Data Science Institute, could be used by Beijing to increase its influence around the globe.

Charles Parton, a former Foreign Office diplomat and China specialist, told Dispatches: “It’s quite extraordinary… academics like that can contribute to military advancement of a power that is already hostile to us. Imperial College is part of the UK fabric. It’s part funded by the UK government. You have to have some sense of responsibility.”

He added: “Given that JARI produces an awful lot of military equipment, and boasts so in its publicity, I find it desperately concerning.”

No suggestion Professor Guo has broken the law

There is no suggestion that Professor Guo or Imperial College have broken the law.

The University of Nottingham said: “We do not recognise the descriptions of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China campus. Any UK institution operating overseas… must observe the laws and customs of the host country. The University of Nottingham is committed to supporting and promoting academic freedom and ensures open research and freedom of speech.”

It added that “...the closure of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies was based on this school no longer being financially sustainable”.

Professor Guo said his papers were “basic”, “open”, “peer reviewed” research which were “written to help expand our existing base of scientific or technological knowledge rather than immediately solve specific real-world problems.”

He added: “The papers include viewpoints that can benefit societies worldwide.”

Imperial College said that staff have “clear research codes”, adding: “We regularly review our policies in line with evolving Government guidance and legislation, working closely with the appropriate Government departments, and in line with our commitments to UK national security.

“Partnerships and collaborations at Imperial are subject to due diligence and are regularly reviewed.”

The Chinese Embassy in London rejected the claims as “aimed at discrediting and smearing China”, adding: “The Chinese government has never interfered and will never interfere in the running of British universities, and the claim that the Communist Party of China is posing a threat to the financial future of British universities is totally unfounded.”