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Opinion

China's soft power push attracts scrutiny in UK

University ties and 'dual-use' technology at issue

| Europe
Bilateral relations have soured rapidly.   © Getty Images

Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times. He is author of "The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times."

On the edge of the City of London financial district stands the original site of the Royal Mint, whose origins go back to 886 AD, when Alfred the Great recaptured London from the Danelaw and started minting silver pennies bearing his portrait.

The Chinese government has chosen this historic location for its new embassy headquarters which will include an ambassador's residence, staff accommodation and a cultural center. The compound will span approximately 65,000 sq. meters, making it one of the largest embassies in the world.

The scale and cost of the venture -- running into several hundred million pounds -- is a reminder that the Chinese authorities operate on different time horizons to most of their Western counterparts. Whatever the current fractious state of Sino-U.K. relations, the embassy project is a big bet on the future, a foundation for the further projection of Chinese soft power in the U.K. and, by implication, Europe.

Back in May 2018, at a handover ceremony at the Royal Mint complex near the River Thames, then Ambassador Liu Xiaoming spoke of "a new era calling for new premises consistent with China's current role and influence in the world." That new era, he declared, was also "a golden era" for U.K.-China relations.

Three years on, bilateral relations have soured rapidly on issues ranging from civil liberties in Hong Kong to human rights violations in Xinjiang and the British ban on Huawei Technologies, the Chinese supplier of fifth-generation (5G) broadband technology. In the latest spat, Beijing has banned BBC World TV News in China -- in apparent retaliation for British regulators revoking the license of China Global Television Network on the grounds that CCTV, its major shareholder, is under control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The action against CGTN highlights a more aggressive U.K. approach to China's exercise of soft power on its home turf. Of particular interest is the Chinese state's sponsorship of research on university campuses, not just in the area of international relations but also "dual-use" technology for civilian and military purposes.

A recent report by Civitas, a right-of-center U.K. think tank, found that at least 15 U.K. universities have "productive" research relationships with Chinese military-linked manufacturers and universities. Much of this research is also sponsored by the U.K. taxpayer through research councils Innovate U.K. and the Royal Society -- a matter now being investigated by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the customs and revenue agency.

Civitas is critical of the lack of transparency surrounding the relationship between U.K. universities and Chinese state-sponsored bodies. In fairness, Civitas' own funding sources remain somewhat opaque, though it describes itself as "libertarian" and above party politics. Still, the report's assertion that universities may be "inadvertently arming China" has struck a nerve.

According to the report's authors, Radomir Tylecote and Robert Clark: "This trend should be seen in the context of China's stated aim to equal the U.S. military by 2027 and to use advanced military technology to leapfrog the U.S. by 2049, the centenary of the People's Republic of China."

In 2015, President Xi Jinping's state visit to the U.K. notably included a visit to the National Graphene Institute at The University of Manchester, the world's leading research facility into graphene -- a material 200 times stronger than steel and more conductive than copper. It has revolutionized how science and industry approach materials science.

Xi Jinping, second from right, tours the National Graphene Institute at The University of Manchester in October 2015.   © Reuters

On the same day, Huawei announced a partnership with NGI to research graphene and related 2D materials. The NGI points out on its website that collaborative relations extend far beyond China, to more than 45 industrial partners worldwide who work with academics to accelerate the commercialization of the lightweight graphene in transports, medicine, energy, electronics and defense.

Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and recently ennobled Conservative peer, has long been a lone voice warning against Chinese soft power on university campuses, notably at Cambridge and Oxford, the U.K.'s most prestigious universities.

He has singled out Jesus College, Cambridge, over its China Centre and its separate U.K.-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre, which has received extensive Chinese state financial support in the form of a one-off research grant in 2016 from an arm of China's National Development and Reform Commission. Most recently, he pointed to the Wykeham professor of physics at New College, Oxford, acquired by Tencent Holdings, the Chinese tech giant, for 700,000 pounds.

Moore wrote in The Spectator: "It is not that proper academic contacts should be banned: real learning takes place in both countries. It is that there is no basis of trust. Our universities need to understand that China spies on its own students abroad, steals secrets, by professional espionage and informal means, from research here, and skews British university work to cast the CCP in a favorable light..."

These charges -- denied by Beijing -- reflect broader concerns echoed from Australia to the U.S. over Chinese soft power on campus. There are, however, countervailing pressures such as a reliance on the growing number of Chinese students who wish to study overseas and pay far higher fees.

The number of Chinese students, for example, is growing rapidly in the U.K. -- up more than 34% to more than 120,000 in the past five years. They, in turn, provide vital income for financially strapped universities that embarked on rapid expansion before the pandemic struck -- another sign that the web of relationships runs deep.

The new Chinese embassy -- to be designed by the master British architect, David Chipperfield -- shows China is in for the long haul. Just like the Thames, which has flowed for centuries past the fabled Tower of London site.

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