Back in August an interesting little curio popped up in my feed concerning student societies across the UK, and the alleged influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Five different UK based pro-democracy groups – one each from Durham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and a national version – released a joint statement alleging that the CCP was “infiltrating” British Hong Kong student societies via a mentoring programme.
The Hong Kong branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), part of the CCP’s United Front Work Department outreach and influence program, had been recruiting Hong Kong students in the UK to sign up for a program that had advertised itself as containing “no political propaganda”.
At the time, Radio Free Asia reported that the program was to pair young Hong Kong students with industry leaders in various sectors – for free.
Students in the U.K. can participate… We will match them up with a mentor based on their wishes, and they can communicate with others in a group. We don’t charge students money for this, but it has been postponed until October now.”
Adverts like this one on the Facebook page of the University of Bath’s Hong Kong Society looked innocuous enough – a decent bit of student driven employability and leadership development work – but the joint statement was more suspicious.
“The claim [that there would be no political propaganda] is contradictory as this organisation is directly under the influence of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Soon after this event was exposed as a CCP-affiliated event, KCL Chinese Society retracted the promotional poster on social media. We, the undersigned, strongly oppose this programme due to our deep concern over its covert political objective. We urge the participating student societies to withdraw from this programme and disassociate from this organisation.”
Reds (and subs) under the bed
Should universities, or their students’ unions, be worried? For as long as I can remember (and I have been involved in supporting SUs for the best part of 30 years), there has been concern at “outside influences” on student societies.
Sometimes that’s been as straightforward as a local nightclub sponsoring a student sports team. There have almost always been political groups on campus – sometimes attached to a particular party, sometimes not – who get accused of poisoning young minds. There have been repeated flare-ups over the influence of often well-funded organised religious groups.
The nineties saw widespread moral panic over the influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir on a series of what looked like front groups on campus organising curiously similar events. And the CCP has long been suspected of using Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) – almost every university has one – to both push propaganda and “spy” on students.
Even the research we did on “no platforming” that was quoted everywhere for a while included one event (that an SU stepped in to cancel) involving the committee of a ethnic group society that had been persuaded to run an event for a pyramid scheme fraudster.
Every time there’s a mixture of allegations that invariably involve well-funded national organisations, external training and mentoring events, speaker tours and allegations of student groups operating separate bank accounts – almost always suggesting that innocuous activity has a more “sinister” purpose.
Charity case law has long supported the idea that students can and should join political clubs – in Attorney General v Ross  Mr Justice Scott explained:
I can see nothing the matter with an educational charity, in the furtherance of its educational purposes, encouraging students to develop their political awareness or to acquire knowledge of, and to debate, and to form views on political issues…
If the form of encouragement [of students to develop their political awareness or to acquire knowledge of, and to debate, and to form views on, political issues] includes provision of facilities for a students Labour club or Conservative club, or any other political club, I can see nothing in that which is necessarily inconsistent with the furtherance of educational purposes.
Union funds can be used to support a wide range of clubs and societies in the university or college. These can include political clubs and societies so long as these are dealt with in an even-handed way”
But that case (and others like it) concerned the distribution of funding and support from SUs (and universities) and as educational charities to student groups. They weren’t really concerned with “outside influence”.
Controlling the narrative
In this “occasional paper” for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), Charles Parton argues that a key aim of the CCP is exercise control over the narrative about China:
Such action, on UK soil, affects UK students and undermines UK values, particularly those of freedom of speech and association.
One instrument of this interference is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which is supported and partly financed by the Chinese government.
Its open aim is to look after Chinese students, but it also reports on them to the embassy and authorities, tries to stop discussion of topics sensitive to China (Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen), and takes more direct action under guidance of the embassy. When it is attacked for the latter actions, it highlights its student welfare activities, a deliberate ambiguity.
It is quoted in this 2019 Foreign Affairs Committee report on autocracies’ influence in academia, in which a professor from the LSE is also noted as reporting Chinese students in London engaged in activities that undermine Hong Kong protestors, and Chinese Confucius Institute officials confiscating papers which mention Taiwan at an academic conference.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch called for closer monitoring of CSSAs around the world in response to threats to academic freedom – including calling for a ban on Confucius Institutes. And last year it published an extensive report on what it said was China’s “long reach of repression” undermining academic freedom at Australia’s universities.
And lots of universities and SUs will remember a string of incidents back in 2019 concerning clashes between student groups over Hong Kong. In the background of those incidents – many of which saw motions submitted to SU democratic events and “surprise” protests – were muttered allegations of “organising” by student groups of one sort of another, some of which assumed outside influence. The assumption is usually that students are not able to make up their own mind – their agency to support an issue or cause is rarely in the narrative.
Drawing the line
Whether you regard students organising in groups with support and resources from outside the university as legitimate or not, the usual solution on foreign influence to call for funding transparency. Indeed that’s the plan in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will ask the Office for Students (OfS) to monitor overseas funding of either universities or their SUs via declarations of external funding over £75,000.
That may well flush out the odd institute – but it won’t work for this kind of concern over the “influence” of externals and student groups. Not all student groups are a part of the university or SU; those that are will hide external bank accounts as they always have; and few will be getting £75,000 in cash when you can exert “influence” via mentoring schemes, model debate materials, external training and residential events, and speaker tours.
Then whether we should regard the CCP’s support as something “sinister” – or whether having a predilection to do so is a form of Sinophobia – is one thing. The extent to which universities or their SUs can or should regard these sorts of things as an actual “risk” to students – in the way that “Prevent” tries to frame radicalisation as a “safeguarding” issue – is another. Even if you do, the extent to which it is one that universities or their SUs can meaningfully influence or control is a third issue.
And the direct clash with the “within the law” push on freedom of speech within the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which will, once law, act directly to warn universities or their SUs off from intervening in matters of student group activity risk when it comes to speech or views – will be an interesting and perhaps unintended consequence for a government so concerned about China’s influence.