Students tell Exeter to cut ties with Chinese university

“The problem is that the partnership was all very much behind closed doors. There wasn’t an independent review process, there wasn’t any scope for the wider university community to input, there wasn’t any transparency about it until it was a fait accompli.”

Charlie Parker, Ben Ellery

Exeter University is being urged to cut institutional ties with a Chinese university over its employment of academics considered the “ideological architects” of the oppression of Uighurs.

Students say Exeter may be “complicit in cultural genocide” over its decade-long relationship with Tsinghua University, President Xi’s alma mater.

Senior academics at Tsinghua, considered the “Oxbridge of China”, are said to have laid the ideological foundations of forced assimilation policies.

It has drawn criticism for facilitating the work of Hu Angang, an influential political economist, and Hu Lianhe, a counterterrorism researcher who became a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official.

Hu Angang, director of the university’s Institute for Contemporary China Studies, has argued for the creation of a “unified race” in China and is understood to have significant influence among CCP politburos.

The two academics have written about the failure of multi-ethnic states in other countries and proposed government intervention to eradicate ethnic differences, making them “blend together” into a single “state-race”.

The CCP has adopted at least seven important policy reforms proposed by Hu Angang, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank, suggesting that his ideas on ethnic policy reform are likely to have received “a serious hearing”.

A Freedom of Information request from students in Exeter revealed that one academic from its College of Humanities met Hu Angang in 2016 when giving a talk at Tsinghua.

Tsinghua has partnerships with other leading western universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Harvard and Yale. It was crowned the best university in Asia this year in the World University Rankings.

It is understood to have provided resources to Exeter worth tens of thousands of pounds.

Mark Goodwin, a deputy vice-chancellor at Exeter, and Richard Foord, the university’s acting head and lead on global partnerships, debated the issue with members of the university at a panel hearing last night.

Rahima Mahmut, a Uighur who fled China and is now the UK project director of the World Uighur Congress and an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said all UK universities should review their relationships with Tsinghua, adding that the partnerships “make my blood boil”.

Exeter students associated with the Students For Uighurs campaign began to scrutinise the relationship their university had with Tsinghua this year after the two institutions announced a new joint chair post.

The Freedom of Information request revealed that the universities had signed and repeatedly renewed a memorandum of understanding in 2011 “to facilitate deeper research engagement across a large number of academic disciplines”.

As part of the agreement the universities collaborated in fields including leadership, engineering, data science and artificial intelligence.

Flo Marks, a politics student at Exeter, has led a student protest against the agreement which has won support across the campus as well as from hundreds online.

She is calling for more informal links between the two universities so that collaboration on important subjects could continue between specific scholars and departments while maintaining ethical standards.

One Exeter academic told The Times: “The problem is that the partnership was all very much behind closed doors. There wasn’t an independent review process, there wasn’t any scope for the wider university community to input, there wasn’t any transparency about it until it was a fait accompli.

“There is a reasonable argument that working with an institution that employs Hu Angang is just a red line. If push comes to shove I would probably agree with that.”

Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe took inspiration from the American “melting pot” model, claiming that creating a shared identity helps to maintain “national unity, development vitality and social order”. They described the “fusion” of ethnicities as a matter of national security.

After their paper was published they were met with strong opposition from other Chinese scholars of ethnic policy who argued the government should focus on reining in the heavy-handed policing and discrimination they believed was fuelling divisions.

However, violent incidents in the years that followed intensified calls for the adoption of more extreme measures. Xi became vocal in the debate after terrorist attacks in Beijing and in the southwest city of Kunming in 2014 that Chinese authorities said were carried out by Uighur separatists from Xinjiang.

The government in Xinjiang has since built “unity villages” where Han and minorities live side by side. It has also been increasing efforts to support marriages between Han and Uighurs.

In a written response to questions about the policies, Hu Angang told The Wall Street Journal that compared with other countries “China’s policies towards ethnic minorities and ethnic regions have all been the most successful”.

Charles Parton, a former British diplomat with two decades of experience working on issues in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, said Hu Angang’s work may have given the CCP “direction” when making policies for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

“The specifics of implementation are nothing to do with Hu Angang — he might provide ideological justifications and suggestions,” he said. “He’s well known as an ideologue whom one wouldn’t want to shake hands with too closely.”

However, Parton called for caution over cutting all ties with Tsinghua. “We want relations with China, so there needs to be balance there. Keep Hu Angang at arm’s length to the extent that you can, don’t invite him to Exeter, but if he turns up to a meeting [in Tsinghua] then tolerate him.

“You may not agree with these people but it’s better to talk to them and understand where they’re coming from so that you are in a better place to argue against it.”

An Exeter University spokeswoman said: “No one at the university has collaborated with Hu Angang or Hu Lianhe. University researchers have not worked with Tsinghua researchers on questions of ethnicity, be that ethnicity in Xinjiang, in China or elsewhere.

“Before entering into any new collaboration, the University of Exeter employs robust due diligence processes and ensures that it is following the most up-to-date regulations and guidance from the UK government and Universities UK.

“To date, that advice has been that we should continue our connections with China, as a part of the UK’s extensive education and cultural links with the country. The University of Exeter is implementing recommendations set out in recent Universities UK guidance to all universities on ‘Managing risks in internationalisation: security related issues’.

“In common with other UK universities, the University of Exeter works with wide range of partner universities across the world — including Tsinghua University — on global challenges such as climate science and public health.”

Tsinghua, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe did not respond to requests for comment.