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Cambridge professor whose role was ‘funded by China’ cautioned against Uyghur debate

Exclusive: Academic tells students that discussing China’s human rights record may not be ‘helpful to advancing mutual understanding’

WhatsApp Image 2021-06-04 at 13.02.07.jpeg profile2.jpg Peter Geoghegan
Sam Dunning Martin Williams Peter Geoghegan Gabriel Pogrund
5 June 2021, 3.30pm
Jesus College Cambridge, where Peter Nolan is based, has financial ties with China
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Robert Evans / Alamy Stock Photo

A Cambridge professor, who took a role allegedly funded by the family of China’s former prime minister, has cautioned students against holding debates on Uyghur human rights abuses, openDemocracy can reveal.

Professor Peter Nolan said it would be "difficult to contain the sentiment" about the discussion, in which “both sides” would need to be represented. He explained that a contentious outcome would not be “helpful to advancing mutual understanding”.

In a transcript of a private meeting obtained by openDemocracy and shared with the Sunday Times, Nolan said: “It is not the case that there is a homogeneous, correct view of what is happening in Xinjiang.”

He suggested that questions surrounding the treatment of Uyghurs were “questions that affect all countries that have any kind of minority at all”.

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His comments have been described as “utterly wrong” by the former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who said Nolan seems to be a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party.

Jesus College, where Nolan is based, has deep financial ties with China – including a £200,000 grant from the Chinese government in 2018 to its Global Issues Dialogue Centre (GIDC). It has also accepted £155,000 of funding from Chinese technology company Huawei.

Last year, the company was accused of “reputation laundering” after it funded a study by Jesus College which presented the company in a favourable light.

Nolan himself has previously made headlines about his role as Chong Hua Chair at the university’s Centre of Development Studies. The role was funded by a £3.7m donation in 2012 from the Chong Hua Foundation, which was allegedly controlled by the daughter of China’s former prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Reports claim that Nolan had been her professor at Cambridge and the funding was secured after a series of secret meetings in Beijing between 2009 and 2011. His time in that role has now ended.

It is not the case that there is a homogeneous, correct view of what is happening in Xinjiang

Peter Nolan, Jesus College, Cambridge

But transcripts show that, as director of the college’s China Centre, Nolan appeared to caution students who wanted to hold public debates about human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

“You have to have both views represented,” he told the centre’s advisory committee in November. “Otherwise the college will be perceived as being a campaigning college for… freedom for the Weiwu’ers [Uyghurs].”

Nolan agreed that he could arrange an event, but said: “If you have both sides, it will be very difficult to contain the sentiment about such a meeting,” which would not be “helpful to advancing mutual understanding”.

He went on to say there was “no simple answer” to the situation with Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “It is not the case that there is a homogeneous, correct view of what is happening in Xinjiang. The predominant view… is that everybody knows what is happening. Everybody doesn’t know what is happening.”

The professor said that what he called the “World Uyghur Association” is "highly organised, is very active and extremely well-represented in the global media” and is indirectly funded by the US Congress, via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

“[The NED's] purpose is regime change in China and other parts of the world," he said. "So that what you regard in the media as self-evidently true is actually a much more complicated question.”

Nolan also told students that a public debate about Hong Kong "would be very difficult to contain".

“We have a lot of mainland students,” he said. “In this university, something organised about Hong Kong would be particularly highly contentious and very difficult to organise."

Speaking to the Sunday Times about openDemocracy's investigation, Iain Duncan Smith said: “[Nolan] seems to be a mouthpiece for the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] – and all its appalling behaviour. All of those comments come straight from the mouth of the Communist Party.”

He added: “He can hold his opinions but what he shouldn't do is stifle everyone else's – and that is doing the CCP's job for it. That is utterly wrong and shouldn't be condoned."

[Jesus College is] refusing to talk about these abuses of Uyghur Muslims for fear of causing offence

Tom Tugendhat MP

Speaking in Parliament earlier this year, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat also accused Jesus College of “refusing to talk about these abuses of Uyghur Muslims for fear of causing offence”.

The MP, who is chair of the foreign affairs select committee, said: “Is this the first time that Jesus himself has taken 30 pieces of silver? This is a deeply disappointing moment for all of us who believe in academic freedom in the UK.”

Responding to this report, Nolan and Jesus College both said that no topic is out of bounds for academic discussion. They added that the China Centre has since hosted events on the Uyghurs and Hong Kong with a wide range of speakers.

Charity links

Students at Jesus College have also raised questions about a charity linked to the China Centre, the Cambridge China Development Trust, of which Nolan is a trustee.

The trust runs training programmes for Chinese officials and has received millions of pounds from large multinationals with financial interests in Chinese markets.

Until 2019, it claimed the training was for the CEOs of Chinese state-owned companies, according to documents filed with the charity watchdog.

But the Foreign Office has now admitted that the programme has also been open to senior officials from “government departments in China”.

Photos from Chinese government websites appear to show participants have included aerospace executives, policy gurus and senior Communist Party officials.

Participants in 2017 also appear to have included an executive at China General Nuclear Power Group. The company is involved in several high-profile nuclear energy projects in the UK which continue to be subject to questioning from politicians, the media and security experts.

It would appear that there are a number of questions hanging over Jesus College and its links to the Chinese organisations in question

Martin Thorley, University of Exeter

According to academic references, the training programme is highly valued by an arm of the Chinese Communist Party and plays a “vital role in China's interaction with global business”.

“It would appear that there are a number of questions hanging over Jesus College and its links to the Chinese organisations in question,” says Martin Thorley, a research fellow at the University of Exeter who specialises in elite relations between China and the UK.

“[Jesus College] might begin by releasing information about the internal discussions around the formation of these relationships, as well as disclosing the individuals and channels involved in initial negotiations with Chinese entities themselves.”

Student campaign

Students are now campaigning to raise awareness of these issues and to pressure Jesus College “to ensure real academic freedom”.

Aurelio Petrucci, former head of the college’s student union, described Nolan’s comments about Uyghurs as “beyond the pale” and said Jesus College had “consistently behaved opaquely when asked for information or commitments to change”.

“They have refused meetings to allow open student discussion of the issue with the College leadership, instead insisting that all engagement goes through the controlled environment of the China Centre Advisory Committee,” he said.

Students are also calling for full financial transparency over the college’s ties to China and a commitment not to accept funding from the Chinese state or Huawei.

The campaign has received support from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a group bringing together nearly 200 legislators from 20 democracies around the world, including several dozen British MPs.

“Jesus College must come clean on its shadowy links to Chinese state-backed funders,” the alliance’s co-ordinator, Luke de Pulford, told openDemocracy. “Failure to do so will only cast further doubt on the college’s reputation. We cannot allow our world-leading universities to be bribed into silence on some of the most pressing debates of our time.”

'No subject is out of bounds'

Responding to this investigation, Nolan said: “I support Jesus College’s position that no topic is out of bounds for academic discussion. At a College meeting last November, a group of academics and students debated the challenges inherent in organising balanced events on contentious topics. Since then the China Centre has hosted events covering topics including human rights, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and potential war with China, with speakers representing a wide range of opinions."

In a statement, Jesus College said it was “strongly committed to the principles of freedom of speech and academic independence.”

It added: “We fully agree with Iain Duncan Smith that no opinion should be stifled. It is our position that no subject is out of bounds, as the range of recent events hosted by the College demonstrates. It is a bleak day if outside forces succeed in inhibiting academic debate.”

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