Scotland is over-exposed to authoritarian China's influence as it seeks to reshape the world – Stewart McDonald
When it comes to the Scottish Government’s China policy, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is and, like our European partners, start building a modern, comprehensive China strategy that reaches out across society and public life.
In a wide-ranging speech last month, the European Commission’s president was frank about the future of the European Union’s relationship with China. While it is and will continue to be a key partner in all sorts of international areas, from trade to the fight against climate change, Ursula von der Leyen said she expects to see Beijing applying more coercive economic pressure to European states – especially small ones – as it seeks to achieve its wider geostrategic goal of contesting the rules-based international order.
China’s geostrategic ambitions are no secret. In a recent visit to Moscow, days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping stood at the door of the Kremlin with his “dear friend” and shared an observation with him in front of the global media. “Right now there are changes the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” said President Xi. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.” The fruits of this authoritarian unity will not be immaterial to Scotland.
It was against this backdrop that von der Leyen gave her speech, calling for European governments to urgently address imbalances with China in critical economic areas like infrastructure development and renewable energy technology. While many Scottish businesses have a thriving trade relationship with China, which has a voracious appetite for our world-class food and drink exports, our trade balance does not currently pose any significant concern: China accounts for just two per cent of Scotland’s exports compared to nine per cent across the EU.
But the briefest of glances to our Nordic neighbours makes it clear we should not be satisfied with that. Finland’s whole-of-society approach to national security – widely lauded around the world – involves constantly appraising all sectors of the economy for potential weaknesses and attempting to correct them as soon as they are discovered. It does not take long to see where Scotland is most exposed.
Our education sector is exposed to risk from China at far higher levels than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. At Glasgow University alone, Chinese students provide the university with a staggering 42 per cent of its income – a proportion that no institution which is serious about its economic future in the coming decades should thole.
It should go without saying that every person who wants to come to this country to live and learn is welcome in Scotland. Migrants – whether they are here for six months or a lifetime – culturally enrich our country and make Scotland a more prosperous and productive place. But, as Chinese students themselves bemoaned in an interview with the BBC last year, recruiting international students en masse from one country and housing them in expensive private accommodation does nothing to help international students integrate into local communities and immerse themselves in the local culture.
Scottish universities say that they are forced to take international students, who pay tuition fees of around £25,000 per year, to cover funding gaps. I will not pretend that there are not issues there. While the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted last month that Scottish Government education funding sits at around £8,800 per pupil per year – around 25 per cent higher than students south of the Border – the settlement for home students at Scottish universities is somewhat lower.
But universities must recognise the risk that they are exposing themselves to, and the fact that they are threatening the future of their institutions by a continued overreliance on finance from a country that has been declared a strategic competitor and national security threat by governments across the West.
Chinese money is not a viable answer to the problems that universities face. And while the Chinese state has been more than forthcoming with direct funding in the form of Confucius Institutes, these should be treated with a high degree of suspicion and a realistic appraisal of the restrictions on intellectual and academic freedom that this money comes with.
Unlike Germany’s Goethe-Institut or Spain’s Institutos Cervantes, also educational and cultural institutions funded by a foreign government, Confucius Institutes across the western world have been credibly and repeatedly found to have links to Chinese Communist Party espionage and information operations.
Because of this, our Nordic neighbours in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway have closed every single one of their Confucius Institutes. And because of this, the UK Government’s security minister announced last year that he will deliver on a pledge made by the Prime Minister during his election campaign to shut down every Confucius Institute in the United Kingdom.
The First Minister must ask himself whether he is willing to allow such an obvious and self-defeating own goal, or if he will follow our Nordic neighbours in correcting this obvious problem. It may be that the answer doesn’t lie in closing these institutions down, but we certainly need to deal with the risks they represent. We have ignored this issue for far too long.
Scotland is a European nation with close affinities to our Nordic neighbours. But these ties do not only come from our shared history or even shared values, but from our shared interest in protecting and strengthening the liberal, rules-based international order which guarantees our freedom and prosperity. As Beijing seeks to use its economic might to contest and undermine the pillars upon which our free and open societies are built, Scotland must follow Brussels, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki and move to de-risk our relationship with China.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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