UK expert: UK universities’ ‘strategic dependence’ on China is a double-edged sword

Just as relations between Britain and China are strained by Beijing‘s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, academic ties between the two countries are also turning on warning lights. According to a study conducted by former British government officials and academics, more than a fifth of all significant research at British universities involves cooperation with China. Experts say the “strategic dependence” of British universities on China is cause for alarm and call on the British government to step up monitoring.

The report was led by former Secretary of State for Universities, Research and Innovation Jo Johnson, who is the brother of Prime Minister Johnson. The report points out that the increasing academic cooperation and exchanges between the UK and China in recent years and the UK’s emergence as one of the top countries for Chinese students have led to a “strategic dependence” of UK universities on China, a dependence that both benefits the UK economically and academically and threatens the UK through intellectual property theft and espionage.

According to the report, the first comprehensive assessment of UK-China research collaboration, the number of academic papers co-authored by UK and Chinese researchers has increased from 750 per year in 2000 (1 percent of the UK total) to 16,267 in 2019 (11 percent of the total). According to current trends, China is gradually replacing the US as the UK’s main partner in research and development.

Speaking at a seminar on the report, Joe Johnson, now a professor at King’s College London and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said, “As a minister for research under three prime ministers, I was frankly shocked and extremely surprised by the report’s findings. In particular, the scale of the relationship in terms of research and the fact that such a high proportion of our research in key areas relies on collaboration and partnership with China. I should have known, I really should have known. In key areas like telecommunications, materials science, those very important areas, over 30 percent of our output comes out of partnerships with China. That’s basically dependence on China. I take full responsibility for my failure as a minister, as I did, to know these things that we should know, and all officials should be aware of that.”

One of the report’s authors, John Gerson, a former diplomat and now visiting professor at the Institute for Policy Studies at King’s College London, said the increasingly close relationship has given China an opportunity to exploit espionage and intellectual property theft in Britain.

Chinese intelligence and the military see foreign universities as repositories of information, but theft is their responsibility,” he said. There are also people they may wish to recruit as covert agents who use cyber attacks and academic exchanges to further their schemes. This is well hidden. But there is open evidence in the U.S. and Europe , and even Russia, which is friendly with China, recently arrested a Russian scientist who was recruited as a spy by China’s Ministry of State Security, using his status as a visiting scholar at Dalian Maritime University as a cover.”

He said that not only at the government level, but also private companies and Chinese universities were using their partnership with Britain for various espionage activities.

He said, “Then there is very large-scale amateur spying. Chinese universities and other organizations are also stealing intellectual property through their employees overseas or by inviting academics from abroad for their special benefit. This practice is less covert. And there is a lot of overt evidence, especially from the United States.”

Last month, the Institute for Civil Society Studies (Civitas), a British think tank, warned about the growing ties between Britain’s leading research universities and institutions and the Chinese military. The British government warned that this posed a “significant threat” to British national security, saying it would extend security checks to researchers overseas.

But on the other hand, this academic and research interaction has also had a positive effect on the UK. For example, the continued progress of Chinese academic research in recent years has also contributed to the improvement of academic research in the United Kingdom.

Jonathan Adams, visiting professor at the Institute for Policy Studies at King’s College London and chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information, is also a contributor to the report. He said, “In terms of academic quality, we saw a few years ago that China was considered to be publishing a lot of very mediocre research. Now, China is increasingly producing high-quality research, and joint UK-China publications are cited in the subsequent literature in about twice the number of independent UK studies. Such collaborations therefore have significant benefits in terms of access to intellectual property and can be very beneficial to the quality of research.”

Another expert, Janet Illiva, founder of Education Insight, said that there are more than one million Chinese students in the UK, accounting for 24 percent of all students staying in the UK. In her eyes, these Chinese students are very motivated and highly accomplished. These young students are educated in the U.K. and are spreading British Culture back to China, which, Elyva said, enhances the impact of British soft power on China.

In terms of soft power, the UK is seen by young Chinese as the second most trusted country in the world, with 81 percent saying that trust in the UK is rising in China against a backdrop of increased geopolitical turmoil,” she said. I think that’s a significant change. It’s something we should cherish.”

She also mentioned that these Chinese students studying in the UK bring benefits to the UK economy and academics.

She said, “The U.K. is a costly country, so more than half of the education expenses I mentioned are basically student expenses, the cost of living. Half or less than half is actually tuition fees. So it’s not just the higher education sector or the education sector as a whole that benefits from the spending of Chinese students. The economy benefits at a much broader level as a result.”

For the UK, says Joe Johnson, China is a negotiating partner with which the UK needs to find a balance of interests, an economic partner seeking technological leadership, and a systemic competitor, sometimes with significant responsibility for human rights abuses.

“Now, the British government needs a flexible and pragmatic holistic approach that can defend our interests and values in principle and manage the relationship in the British higher education system, which will require a carefully calibrated policy mix that allows our higher education system to continue to benefit from the opportunities and cooperation that exist.” Johnson said.