Johnson’s brother: China-related self-censorship is the university’s biggest free speech problem

Jo Johnson, the former minister of state for universities, research and innovation, said during an online event that China (the Chinese Communist Party) poses a “real and present threat” to free speech in British universities.

In an online seminar hosted by the Times Higher Education website, the brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I think the most important free speech issue facing universities today, in my view, has to do with the self-censorship around China.” He added, “I think this is going to be, in my view, a very, very important long-term structural issue.” Joe Johnson said, “That’s why universities can be able to contract with China with complete confidence that they’re doing so using a common framework established by the department and supported by their own government and probably allied with other governments around the world.” This, he said, “would allow universities to truly have freedom of speech and freedom of research in all areas that might touch Chinese interests.”

Joe Johnson said, “To me, this is a real and present threat to freedom of speech, and I think if the (Freedom of Speech) Act might help with that as well, it would serve a very useful purpose.” During his speech, he spoke of instances in which Beijing has countered European scholars and research institutions over human rights issues in Xinjiang. In a report he led, released in March, Joe Johnson noted that joint research by British universities with Chinese partners and the rapid increase in the number of Chinese students studying in the U.K. have led to a “strategic dependence” on China by British universities, posing a number of risks.

The study urges the U.K. to “urgently” strengthen its monitoring of its academic ties with authoritarian regimes. The report says that more than a fifth of research in many high-impact science and technology disciplines at British universities involves collaboration with China. This latest statement by Joe Johnson comes as the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill is due to be introduced in the UK Parliament. Academics, students or visiting academics at UK universities will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer losses as a result of breaches of their freedom of expression obligations under the bill.

Speaking at an event on the UK-China research collaboration, Joe Johnson said, “We are now in a situation where the core values of academia are potentially at risk.” He added, “We have seen China put European researchers under sanctions in recent weeks for their research activities.” Among the list of British personnel subject to Chinese sanctions is Jo Smith Finley, a Joe Scholar at Newcastle University who researched Xinjiang.

In response, Jo Johnson said, “We need to recognize that this is an issue that is absolutely central to academic freedom, to freedom of expression and to all the values that are cherished in the academic field. And these threats come primarily from our research relationship with China and the risks posed by our reliance on Chinese funding flows.” He also criticized a recent report by the Association of Universities in the United Kingdom (UUK) on managing the security-related risks that can result from international collaborations that did not “mention China once.” Joe Johnson said he was “appalled” by the breadth and depth of the U.K.-China research relationship that has developed over the past decade, which “has not been examined from a public policy perspective.”

A spokesperson for the Association of British Universities responded, “The fact that individual countries are not mentioned in the guidance does not mean that we are blind to the risks in particular countries. For example, the Association of British Universities has issued a statement in response to the Chinese government’s sanctions against British academic Dr. Joe Smith-Finley.” The spokesperson said, “Universities UK regularly discusses this topic with the UK government and works to ensure that the UK university sector is fully informed and able to receive appropriate support in managing its activities.”