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Are the Chinese the new ‘suspect community’?

  • 21 November 2022
  • By Chi Zhang

HEPI is running a series of blogs on the changing faces of academia in collaboration with the British Academy. This post was kindly contributed by Chi Zhang, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.

Kill the Chinese’ is a piece of racist graffiti found on a flagpole outside the University of Glasgow in September 2022. This chilling exclamation encapsulates the growing atmosphere of fear in which many Chinese students in the UK find themselves. 

The concerns about Chinese influence have long existed but they have been exacerbated in the context of deteriorating relations with China. In August 2020, the UK Government and Parliament rejected a petition that called for Confucius Institutes to be closed as they were considered the ‘Trojan propaganda organs’ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite the rejection, such sentiments continue to simmer, leading politicians to declare China ‘the greatest threat’ in 2022, and Rishi Sunak looking to close some 30 Confucius Institutes across the UK. Unwilling to appear ‘too soft’ on China, politicians have conflated issues of national security and academic freedom, leading to reduced policy options for engagement and opportunities for educational exchanges, especially in STEM disciplines. 

The UK has been witnessing a steady growth in the number of Chinese students, which in 2021 exceeded the number of EU students. However, policies at government and university level have yet to catch up with this surging number in the context of the deterioration of relations with China. Gaps exist between expectations and reality. Universities, the Government and Parliament are concerned that overreliance on Chinese student fees – constituting a third of overseas funding – would undermine academic freedom in the UK. Chinese students complained about being ‘treated like cash cows’ as their studies were interrupted by recurring strikes, the burden of which was unfairly born by the students. 

As most Chinese students are in the UK for a short period of time – as short as less than a year for a master’s degree – they spend little time integrating into British society as the pressure to graduate is already high. Their perceived unwillingness and inability to integrate deepen the distrust and marginalisation across the higher education sector. 

From conversations with my Chinese colleges, the very few who were able to stay in higher education as early career researchers are often otherised. They were often confused with Chinese students, given extra workload based on the model minority stereotype, and expected to display their disapproval of China to ‘prove’ they are not part of the Chinese propaganda apparatus.

The atmosphere of fear affects not only Chinese students and researchers, but the wider China Studies community as well. Many find themselves quickly labelled either ‘panda-hugger’ or ‘China-basher’. The panda-hugger/ China-basher dualism is dangerous as it makes the public impatient of nuance. Chinese students/ researchers may not agree with the ways in which MPs and the BBC portray the problems of China, but this does not mean they uncritically accept and reproduce the official narratives fed to them by the Chinese state-owned media. Too often, the conclusion about one’s ‘allegiance’ is drawn based on the similarity of their arguments with the Chinese official line rather than factual evidence. Arguments are less likely to be tolerated when they deviate from the hawkish views on China that are increasingly becoming mainstream. 

In the report, ‘Rights Protection: How the UK should respond to the PRC’s overseas influence’, Andrew Chubb calls on policymakers to recognise the difference between issues of national security, human rights and academic freedom. Designating China a ‘threat’ drew public attention to the political influence of the Chinese communities as a whole and sidelined the UK Government’s responsibility for protecting Chinese critics and exiled diaspora within it. 

A better China strategy must recognise the diversity within Chinese communities. The support of Chinese people who are working in higher education is essential in striking the right balance between national security and academic freedom. Their connections in China should not be considered merely as the regime’s mechanism to silence criticism abroad. Dismissing their voices altogether deprives us of the opportunity to resort to unofficial means for engagement. 

In the US, recent spying charges brought by the Justice Department against Chinese-America scientists sparked fears among the Chinese community. This is exactly the kind of thing that the UK’s China Strategy should avoid. Alienating Chinese academics will only exacerbate ‘decoupling’ on all fronts and make ‘the second Cold War’ a self-fulfilling prophecy.

See HEPI’s recent output on China:

Our series on the lives of early-career researchers so far:

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1 comment

  1. John Brennan says:

    Yes, China is important. But not only in a negative way. I have been working with many Chinese postgraduate students, who are either studying in UK universities or are planning to. I always say that they are ‘clever, hard-working and friendly’. And many reveal a criticality about their home nation as well. When, in their large numbers, they return to China, will they make a difference there?

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