China influencing leading British universities, documentary claims | Higher education

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Leading British universities have been influenced by Chinese agents, with diplomatic and unofficial pressure resulting in censorship on campus, according to a Channel 4 documentary.

The Dispatches documentary, Secrets and Power: China in the UK, alleges that the University of Nottingham closed its School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in 2016 in response to pressure from Beijing.

The former head of the institute, Prof Steve Tsang, has openly criticised the Chinese Communist party (CCP) on several occasions, but said that university management asked him not to speak to the media during Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK in 2015.

The saga at the University of Nottingham, which denies that the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies was closed for political reasons, is one of many examples of alleged Chinese influence in the UK made in the new episode of Dispatches, which will air on Channel 4 at 10pm on Wednesday.

The programme also looks at Imperial College London, where it claims a leading computer science professor collaborated with researchers at a Chinese university to publish papers on the use of artificial intelligence weaponry that could be used to benefit the Chinese military.

It reports that Guo Yike, the founder of Imperial College’s Data Science Institute, has written eight papers with collaborators from Shanghai University on developing ways to use AI to control fleets of drone ships. In 2019, Guo signed a research deal with JARI, a Chinese research institute with links to the Chinese military. The research deal was terminated in 2021 and Imperial College said that it returned the funding associated with the partnership.

Guo said his papers were “basic” and “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.”

The documentary also claimed to have uncovered a suspected Chinese spying attempt targeted at Hong Kong activists in the UK.

Finn Lau, a UK-based activist from Hong Kong who is subject to a HK$1m bounty (about £100,000) from the Hong Kong police, says he was approached by a man by the name of Richard Vong, who claimed to be a journalist for the Toronto Guardian. On a video call, a clip of which was exclusively shared with the Guardian, Vong questioned Lau about his work with a campaign group, Global Detwin with China, which encourages UK cities to sever “twin cities” arrangements with Chinese cities because of human rights concerns.

UK-based activist from Hong Kong speaks to ‘Richard Vong’ in Channel 4 documentary – video

The editor of the Toronto Guardian told Dispatches that nobody called Richard Vong had ever worked there. On the call with Lau, “Vong” declined to say how he spelled his surname, describing it as a “very personal” matter.

The Dispatches team used facial recognition software to track down the supposed journalist, and assert he is actually an American man who had worked as an English teacher in Shanghai.

The Chinese embassy in London said claims about suspected spying attempt were “sheer disinformation”. It also denied that it had ever attempted to interfere with British universities.

Martijn Rasser, a former senior intelligence officer at the CIA interviewed by Dispatches, said: “Beijing is acting with impunity in the United Kingdom and is rubbing the UK’s face into it”.

Secrets and Power: China in the UK – Dispatches TX 10pm, Wednesday 29 November on Channel 4 and All 4

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