Taxpayers 'helping to bankroll Chinese spy network' at Scottish universities

Academics and researchers claim ‘threats’ and surveillance are linked to scholarships

China is using a scholarship scheme bankrolled by Scottish taxpayers to monitor and intimidate critics of the communist government, it has been claimed.

Universities have been urged to put an end to partnerships that are alleged to be “absolutely intrinsic” to Chinese “propaganda and statecraft”.

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A Scottish Parliament event heard the example of St Andrews University, which was said to spend about £1.6million a year subsidising students on placements arranged as part of a deal with the Chinese Scholarship Council.

Students during a graduation ceremony. Joe Giddens/PA WireStudents during a graduation ceremony. Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Students during a graduation ceremony. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

It is claimed students from China who attend Scottish and UK universities under this scholarship scheme are required to report any criticism of the Chinese authorities by other students or staff – particularly those with links to China, Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong – or they face being sent home for “punishment”, or having their families “held to account”.

Scottish Conservative MSP Jeremy Balfour said: "The idea that a foreign power could be interfering in the lives of those living in Scotland is totally unacceptable. These claims are incredibly concerning and warrant thorough investigation.”

Robert Clark, a senior researcher at the Civitas think tank, produced a report in November showing UK universities received between £122m and £156m from Chinese sources between 2017 and 2022/23, with up to £30m of it coming from sources subjected to sanctions by the US.

Edinburgh University had the fifth highest proportion of Chinese funding linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), at 96 per cent.

Mr Clark told a panel discussion at the Scottish Parliament this week that the Chinese Scholarship Council was an “absolutely intrinsic part of of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) propaganda and statecraft”, and that it “directly threatens academic freedoms across British and Scottish campuses.

He also said the places, often for PhD students, were “heavily subsidised”, with China paying only for living costs, while universities, which are part funded by taxpayers, cover the fees and research costs.

Mr Clark said: “There are enormous stipulations placed on Chinese students. They do have to report all incidences of criticism of the CCP, of Chinese officials and Chinese foreign policy.

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"For example, there were instances where Chinese students on these scholarship councils weren’t reporting, and they were sent immediately back to China for sort of punishment by the regime.

"They hold their family to account as well. So if they come to the UK on scholarship councils, universities subsidise the fees – like I say St Andrews’ subsidise about £1.6m – now their family are held to account.

"So if that student sort of wades off track, off official CCP narrative, whilst they are at university, attending Hong Kong demonstrations or not speaking out against criticism of the CCP, their family are directly held to account back in China.

"It places those students at incredible sort of vulnerability, which is absolutely awful.”

One student at a Scottish university, originally from Hong Kong, told the panel he was “worried” about the use of Chinese-made surveillance cameras at the university.

Dr Sarah Liu, a senior lecturer in gender and politics at Edinburgh University, teaches a Chinese politics course.

She said: "Students have filed complaints against me. They have threatened to report me to the Chinese Embassy. So the threat is real.

"As an educator, I put myself on the line. I could choose to monitor or censor my own materials, but I choose not to.”

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Alyssa Fong, UK public affairs and advocacy manager for the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, is a former student and staff member at Edinburgh University.

She also raised concerns about the scholarship programme, saying: “You have to have regular check-ins with CCP members, usually at the consulate that you're a part of.

"These students are more or less placed in universities to benefit from the high class education that Scotland has. But at the same time, they're there to surveil dissenting voices such as Hong Kongers, Chinese people, as well as spread their own propaganda in places like the Confucius Institute.”

Ms Fong fled from Hong Kong in 2020, thinking Scotland would be a “safe haven”, but found “some of my struggles with the CCP just followed me abroad”.

She said: "As a Masters student studying neuroscience, so completely unrelated to politics, I was questioned on my political ideology, where my family lived, what my involvement was in the pro-democracy protest, as well as how I feel about the current government in China.

"And this was all done by peers on my course. And it made me feel like the CCP was watching me abroad."She became involved in peaceful rallies related to the situation in Hong Kong, and “met with countless physical and verbal attacks from mainland Chinese students”.

Ms Fong said it had been “heart-breaking” to read in Mr Clark’s report, as it suggested her research at Edinburgh may have been funded by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

"It was really difficult to know that the research I was doing at Edinburgh was potentially serving the purposes of the People’s Republic of China, which is where I had to flee,” she said.

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It is understood it is common for UK universities to waive fees for postgraduate research scholarships, not just those from China.

A spokesperson for umbrella body Universities Scotland said: “International students are a welcome addition to our student population in Scotland, benefiting universities educationally, culturally and economically.

"Internationalisation brings significant rewards to both our universities and Scotland, but it can also increase risk to institutions.

"Universities are acutely aware of the need to diversify their markets to reduce reliance on any single nation or region of the world as part of their continued risk management and financial sustainability.

"However, we need to be supported in our efforts to do this by immigration policies and a competitive student visa offer so that the UK is attractive to students from a diverse mix of nations.

“Students from China form a large part of our international student population, and they are very welcome in Scotland. Universities engage in all their international activities with open eyes and due diligence, including with management of international scholarship programmes, ensuring that actions are consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”



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