Major UN Report Documents China’s Serious Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang. Will UK Universities Respond?

Union Jack displayed between two Chinese national flags
UK higher education may be feeling squeezed between the benefits Chinese students bring to its academics and bottom line, and the desire to condemn documented human rights abuses. (Photo: No10Gov/Flickr)

Today saw the release of a major and long-awaited report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Titled OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China, this report lays out extensive evidence for the atrocities inflicted by the Communist Party of China (CCP) on Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority communities in Xijiang.

Consider, for example, the following:

‘Several women interviewed by OHCHR raised allegations of forced birth control, in particular forced IUD placements and possible forced sterilisations with respect to Uyghur and ethnic Kazakh women. Some women spoke of the risk of harsh punishments including “internment” or “imprisonment” for violations of the family planning policy. Among these, OHCHR interviewed some women who said they were forced to have abortions or forced to have IUDs inserted, after having reached the permitted number of children under the family planning policy. […] These first-hand accounts, although limited in number, are considered credible.’ (p.35)

‘Over the past few years, credible information has been received about members of the Uyghur community living abroad in several countries, having been forcibly returned, or being placed at risk of forcible return to China, in breach of the prohibition under international law of refoulement. The UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as well as the Special Procedures, have expressed concerns about reports of forcible return of Uyghurs to China, and have recalled the human rights and refugee law obligations of both China and third countries in such circumstances. […] In this context, OHCHR is also aware of dozens of Uyghurs living in third countries whose passports have expired and who have experienced difficulties in renewing their documents, including due to fear of reprisals, or fear of being forcibly returned to China.’ (p.42)

These two short extracts from the much longer report on their own already say a lot about the CCP’s violent, lawless persecution of Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minority people with ties to Xinjiang. While cautiously written, the remainder of the report arrives very much at the same conclusion as the numerous other accounts of the CCP’s brutal campaign within China’s borders and beyond.

While it remains to be seen what the general political fallout of the report will be, another important question is how universities outside China will respond to it, if at all. The position of universities in the United Kingdom is a case in point. Against the backdrop of a domestic policy situation that has been inimical to higher education for many years, UK universities have become increasingly reliant on student fees from overseas sources. In this context, fees from Chinese overseas students are calculated to fall somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of universities’ revenue (see evidence 1, 2, 3, 4). These figures point to a pattern of heavy financial dependence. At the same time, many UK universities have built close ties with Chinese counterparts, signing cooperation and exchange agreements with Chinese universities and collaborating in research-related matters.

It might be argued that neither British universities’ source of major parts of their income in China, nor their close collaboration with Chinese universities, is directly related to the human rights abuses of the Chinese party-state. If so, the China-UK gravy train of student fees could keep rolling, and administrators and academics could continue their China business undisturbed by concerns about its ethical and political implications. In fact, this is a claim that I have heard all too often from university administrators and academics who regularly engage with China from the UK. Even the field of China studies, comprising scholars who know a great lot indeed about China, these days seems permeated by wilful indifference to the political and human rights situation in the country.

It would of course be untrue to claim that critical scholarship and commentary is altogether absent from Chinese studies and British universities. However, from regular conversations with colleagues what seems to dominate is careful positioning to avoid offending the CCP and, in doing so, lose the opportunity to do business and conduct research in China and with China-based collaborators. The extent to which the CCP goes to suppress dissent outside China means that attendant self-censorship has become a major problem at the international level (1, 2). Along these lines recent report on the topic concludes: ‘Forty percent of academics specializing in China report self-censoring when teaching students from that nation, according to a survey looking at attitudes within universities on whether academic freedom is at risk from internationalization.’ This finding does speak for itself. Add to this financial and career pressures, and it becomes obvious that there is substantial pressure on UK academics to keep silent about the CCP.

The fundamental problem with such silence is that it can hardly be justified anymore. The CCP’s abuses have now been documented beyond any reasonable doubt.

At the same time, Chinese universities do not stand apart from the country’s ruling party in any meaningful sense. It would be obviously false to equate, say, the governance structures and personnel of any one British university with the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, or any other political organisation. The opposite is true for Chinese academia. Universities in China have, since 1949, been directly incorporated into the structures of the CCP’s party-state. Chinese public universities have a dual organisation, in which academic governance structures are paralleled at each and every level by Party structures. Every university thus has a president and a Party secretary, with the latter wielding at least as much power as the former, every department has a head and a party secretary, and students are organised into cohorts that fulfil both academic and Party functions. This makes it possible for rigid ideological controls, censorship, and surveillance to permeate academic life, and for the CCP’s mandates to be easily and directly incorporated into academic life. Thus, about one-third of the curriculum of any one undergraduate programme consists of classes geared towards students’ indoctrination with the CCP’s ideology. Likewise, the CCP’s human rights violations take place as much on campus as beyond, from cameras and microphones in the classroom to the suspension and detention of academics who dissent even mildly with the Party’s views. Much of this has been so since 1949, with the situation worsening markedly in recent years.

The bottom line is this: UK-China academic collaboration directly involves the CCP and its representatives at the university level. Against the backdrop of the Party’s human rights abuses, such collaboration seems increasingly hard to justify – unless, of course, one is interested exclusively in the economic side of the argument. Likewise, excessive reliance on income from Chinese sources risks compromising the capacity for UK universities to respond to the CCP’s crimes against humanity. These conclusions to me seem increasingly unavoidable. However, one question remains: Does anyone care?

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