British MP: Chinese Communist Party threatens freedom of speech on campus

Johnson called for the defense of free speech in British academia. Pictured is the 500-year-old Trinity College, Cambridge.

Former British minister Jo Johnson, brother of Prime Minister Johnson, said the Chinese Communist Party threatens free speech on British campuses and that Beijing’s attempts to influence academic research in its interests are forcing Western academics to “self-censor. Johnson was promoted to the British House of Lords last year.

The Times reported on May 13 that Johnson, a former minister of state for universities, research and innovation, said during a webinar hosted by Times Higher Education that the Chinese Communist Party posed a “real and tangible threat” to free speech in British universities.

The former university minister said, “I think the most important free speech issue facing universities today is self-censorship on topics relating to China (the Chinese Communist Party). …… This is going to be a very important and long-standing structural issue (in education).”

“It’s very important that universities should have complete confidence in contracting with China to (operate) within the common rules established by the industry and supported by their own government and possibly also aligned with other countries.” “That would give them real freedom of speech and freedom of research in all areas that might touch on Chinese (Communist Party) interests.” Johnson said.

Johnson, a fellow at King’s College London and the Kennedy School at Harvard University, called on governments and universities that contract or collaborate with the Chinese Communist Party to establish frameworks and track research cooperation, “which to me is a real and tangible threat to freedom of expression, and I think the (Freedom of Expression) Act might help address that, and it would serve a very useful role.”

The Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill is part of the government’s platform announced by the Queen this week. It includes the possibility of academics, students or visiting speakers at UK universities seeking compensation through the courts if their freedom of expression is infringed. University student unions will be required to take steps to ensure the legitimate freedom of expression of their members and visitors.

In a March report, Johnson said that by relying on Chinese students for financial income and conducting joint research with the Chinese Communist Party, British universities are relying on a “new hegemony” that is a “weakness” for the U.K. and poses many risks. The report, led by Johnson and co-authored by King’s College London, the Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Scientific Information, also said that more than a fifth of research in many high-impact science and technology disciplines at British universities involves collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party.

Speaking at an event on Sino-British research collaboration, Johnson said, “The core values of our academic community may be under threat, and in recent weeks we have seen the Chinese Communist Party sanction European (academic) researchers.”