Britain’s universities are world-leading. We know it, foreign students know it – and Beijing knows it. It’s been well-documented for some time that Chinese parents take a strong interest in British education, sending more of their children to UK campuses than to any country other than the United States. The Chinese state also takes an interest.
Beijing’s “wolf warriors” have made little secret of their desire to rewrite the global order to defend their authoritarian regime, and safeguard their government against public discontent. Central to this ambition is technological superiority, and strengthening the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In turn, this appears to be increasingly reliant on British universities.
My latest Civitas report shows that up to one third of all Chinese research funding, grants and contributions made to UK universities come from entities explicitly linked to the PLA in various forms.
Examples of these funders include China’s largest hypersonic missile technology testing institute, its largest supplier of precision guided missiles, its largest military aviation company, a military aerospace research institute and its primary nuclear warheads research centre. These alone have contributed at least £7.3 million to British universities in recent years.
The most important single source of funding by far, however, is Huawei, a company the government insists must be removed from the UK’s 5G public networks, and labelled by the Trump White House a “Communist Chinese military company”. Despite these concerns, universities have banked at least £14 million in research funding since the 5G ban.
This is staggering, but it is by no means the cause for most concern. Up to 20 per cent of all Chinese funding comes from entities subject to US sanctions regimes, classified as military companies by the US federal government, with the effect of severely limiting virtually any US trade, collaborations or funding.
None of the British institutions receiving these funds would deliberately work to develop Chinese military capabilities, and indeed research may well be conducted for non-military ends. But improving the business or academic positions of Chinese military companies is not a desirable use of British talent.
Britain, meanwhile, obsesses over its “balancing act” between trade and security, leftover from the disastrous “Golden Era” overseen by David Cameron. Rishi Sunak’s government has deviated, but not by as much as might be desired, labelling Beijing an “epoch-defining challenge” as a substitute for an actual strategy. Nobody outside of the Foreign Office’s mandarin-pleasing department has the slightest clue as to what this means, and it shows. Just look at the muddle over the proposed ban on Confucius Institutes.
It’s time for the Government to actually take a stand. This country’s relationship with China is all too often characterised by one-way transactions that embolden Beijing and undermine our security.
The time has finally come to get tougher on China, particularly when our relationship is all too often characterised by one-way transactional relations which only harm our national security, and embolden a likely future adversary intent on re-writing the global order in its own malign and authoritarian image. We must end these damaging collaborations with China’s defence industrial base – that is a start, at least.