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The Strategic Dependence of UK Universities on China – and where should they turn next?

Robert Clark, November 2023

This study by Robert Clark investigates two overarching aspects of the dependence of UK universities on China. The first is the ability for UK higher education institutions, universities and academics, to financially de-risk from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in order to end the reliance on Chinese funding (in terms of international student fees, research grants and donations) made from Chinese entities which will often have the capacity to harm or compromise national security.

The second aspect of this research is concerned with highlighting how this over-reliance on the PRC negatively affects British campuses, including academic freedoms and high risk research collaborations with Chinese entities linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Whilst the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempts to extend its overseas intelligence gathering and foreign policy agenda on to UK campuses, it is the CCP’s ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ (MCF) strategy which further endangers national security, through attempts to rapidly expand its military modernisation programs, and ambitions for regional military hegemony across the Indo-Pacific – a critical region for UK foreign policy and national security.

Note: None of the academics, researchers, or other staff whose research at UK universities or centres is discussed in this report are accused of knowingly assisting the development of the Chinese military, of knowingly transferring information to that end, or of committing any breach of their university regulations. Nor are they accused of any other wrongdoing, or improperly accepting funds, or breach of national security, or any criminal offence.

In some cases, research may be used solely for non-military ends; the purpose of the examples mentioned in this report is not necessarily to demonstrate that they risk being used for military purposes, but in some cases that the research may simply help improve the business or academic position of a PRC military-linked conglomerate or institution; where research may be put to use by the military of the PRC or organisations which are linked to it, we assume that researchers in the UK will have carried out this research without intending this to happen.

None of the UK universities, institutes or funding bodies mentioned in this report are accused of knowingly contributing to the development of China’s military or its military industries, as we believe that these universities have developed the sponsorship and research relationships we describe in good faith and in the belief that their scientific outputs will have purely civil ends.

The purpose of this report is simply to draw attention to the risk that specific Chinese funding may pose to the university system – and that UK research may be exploited by the Chinese military in a way the researchers could never have envisaged. It is our belief that shedding light on this risk is unquestionably a matter of pressing and vital public interest. We have initially published this in online form only to provide more opportunity for possible corrections.

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