Irish universities and China: walking an ethical tightrope

Government policy encourages colleges to collaborate with China - but an unpublished risk review poses vexing questions

Irish universities have been forging closer links with China over recent years as they try to boost their private income against a backdrop of declining Government funding.

In doing so, they are performing a delicate balancing act: trying to boost their bottom line while not compromising their principles over issues such as academic freedom and civil rights.

An unpublished "ethical and reputational risk review" commissioned by University College Cork (UCC) about a proposed "joint college" with Minzu University of China, provides insights into the kind of vexing questions facing Irish colleges.

The review, by Edinburgh-based education consultants, J&P Brady, was commissioned after 50 academics at UCC expressed concern about the proposal in the context of the Chinese government's campaigns in Tibet and against the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Minzu University is the foremost among thirteen universities in China that specialise in ethnic studies and the education of students from minority groups.

These universities are overseen by a Chinese Communist Party unit called the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which reports to the party's Central Committee.

This department is charged with gathering intelligence on, and influencing, non-party individuals and organisations, inside and outside China, according to US government bodies and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“There is disquiet throughout Western governments about the intentions and methods of the UFWD,” the review said.

However any joint college set up with UCC, would come under the governance of the Chinese Ministry of Education, the consultants added.

UCC commissioned the December 2020 review while considering whether to go ahead with the Minzu project.

The joint college was to have seen degrees being awarded in the areas of science, food science, engineering, and law. UCC already has a joint programme in environmental science with MUC and is in the process of starting a second joint programme.

However, earlier this month, a spokesman for UCC told The Irish Times that university management had decided not to proceed with the joint college project. He declined to comment further.

A copy of the J&P review is among a number of documents released by the National University of Ireland (NUI) in response to a Freedom of Information request.

The review acknowledges that Ireland walks “a tightrope between its commercial ambitions and political views on China.”

It also warned that if it was the case that UCC withdrew from the project, the Chinese authorities would be “very surprised”. There would be “repercussions” if it was thought the project was being cancelled for ethical reasons.

The review said any assessment of the project should not be viewed from a position of “ethnocentrism”, with this being defined as using one’s own culture to judge other cultures, rather than “using the standards of the particular culture involved.”

China does not deny the existence of camps in Xinjiang where more than one million mostly-Muslim, Turkic people have been incarcerated.

However it has said the camps are part of a campaign against “extremism” and provide vocational training to disadvantaged minorities.

... Chinese scholars are often "quite comfortable" with being neither distinctly separate from the state, nor completely under its control

The J&P review was not focused on whether human rights abuses were being committed in China, but rather whether MUC had any specific link with oppression in Xinjiang or Tibet. It reported no such links.

The Irish government actively encourages third level institutions to work in China “as a way of increasing funding from external sources,” the review said.

If an argument for withdrawing from the Minzu University project was not based on something unique about Minzu, then the same argument would be valid for other partnerships in China, it said.

All universities in China are managed under a “dual governance system” with an administration, chaired by a president, and a Chinese Communist Party committee, chaired by a party secretary.

The latter structure “ensures that the institution operates in line with the principles and policies of the party,” according to the review.

“Unlike their western counterparts,” Chinese scholars are often “quite comfortable” with being neither distinctly separate from the state, nor completely under its control.

“The fact that Chinese scholars can work comfortably under some state control is consistent with the Confucian values of Chinese culture.”

The review said that the official policy on minorities in China is one of assimilation and “affirmative action”. However it was illegal for ethnic minorities to campaign for independence.

"There is a similar law in Spain, " the review said. "This led to the jailing of elected members of the Catalan government for holding an independence referendum."

The ASPI has developed a database of Chinese universities that conduct research for the military

An economics professor at Minzu, Ilham Tothi, who is considered a Uighur moderate, was jailed for life in 2014 for his writings on Xinjiang.

In 2019, when accepting an award from the European Union on behalf of her father, Jewher Ilham said she had not heard from him in two years, and did not know if he is still alive.

The J&P review referred to the Australian Strategic Policies Institute (ASPI), which has been highly critical of Chinese activity outside China.

"For many, the ASPI is considered to have been set up to specifically target Chinese influence in Australia and has been at the forefront of accusations against Confucius Institutes in Australia," the review said.

Three Irish universities have Confucius Institutes (see panel).

The ASPI has developed a database of Chinese universities that conduct research for the military and claims that having links with such universities can involve collaboration with Chinese military surveillance and human rights abuses, according to J&P.

“Minzu University of China is not on the list though all three universities that UCD have Joint College applications approved [FOR]are on the list,” the review said.

All the constituent universities in the NUI – UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, and Maynooth – have "significant engagement" in China, the review said.

In January the Chancellor of the NUI, Dr Maurice Manning, wrote to Prof O'Halloran, saying he had reviewed the UCC proposal and formed the view that UCC was operating "very firmly" within the NUI human rights guidelines.

The documents submitted to Dr Manning by UCC included one showing that UCD had joint colleges in Xi'an, Beijing, and Guangzhou, and that Maynooth had one in Fuzhou.

The J&P review said that, when choosing to work with universities in China, the choice of discipline was important.

“However a UCC education, in any discipline, develops creative, investigative, and questioning students” and gives students the necessary tools for questioning the State, be it Chinese or Irish.

“The very act of delivering UCC’s education in Minzu University of China will assist in supporting reforms in human rights and academic freedoms,” the review said.

China connection: Irish universities

Several Irish universities have been increasing their presence in China over the past decade or more.

An “ethical review” of the involvement of NUI constituent colleges with China – commissioned by UCC – show the links so far.

These links range from encouraging students from China to study in Ireland and also to provide opportunities for students in China to study in “joint colleges” set up between Irish and Chinese educational institutes.

UCD: It runs "joint college" programmes with Chang'an University in Xi'an (transport and planning), the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, and the Beijing University of Technology (ICT), with the Beijing institution, set up in 2012, now having more than 1,300 students on its roll. It has had a Confucius Institute on its Dublin campus since 2005.

UCC: it has an environmental science programme that it runs in partnership with Minzu University of China, in Beijing.

It has run a joint programme since 2006 with the Beijing Technology and Business University. (The J&P review said this could be "put at risk" if UCC decided not to go ahead with the Minzu joint college project for ethical reasons.) It has had a Confucius Institute on its campus since 2007.

NUI Galway: It has a Confucius Institute Chinese Medicine on campus since 2019 that involves a partnership with Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine.

Maynooth University: It has a joint partnership with Fuzhou University where approximately 300 students enrol each year to study electronic engineering, computer science, robotics, and web development.