Irish-Chinese university collaborations

Sir, – In his letter "Trinity and Chinese universities" (March 29th), Prof Nathan Hill writes that "the increasing marginalisation and oppression of minorities constitutes an imperative to pursue collaborations with the Central University for Nationalities [Minzu University of China (MUC)] and other nationality universities rather than a reason to hesitate in our engagement with Chinese university partners."

This suggests that any kind of continued engagement with Chinese universities will help to improve the human rights situation in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in general, and that of minority nationalities in particular.

In recent years, particularly since Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his constitutional amendment in 2018, this generalist belief in “change through exchange” has to be seriously doubted in case of the PRC. Rather, engagement with Chinese universities requires a cautious and informed approach, which evaluates the risks and benefits of exchange on a case-by-case basis. In our open letter to the UCC interim president, which preceded the cancellation of UCC’s proposed joint college with MUC, over 90 members of UCC’s community asked for transparency around some crucial issues.

We raised concerns about former MUC professor Ilham Tohti, an expert in economics, advocate of peaceful multiethnic coexistence within the PRC and winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

In 2014, Prof Tohti was arrested on foot of views expressed to students in a MUC classroom. He received a life sentence, and seven of his students were sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.

In view of these events, our open letter asked how UCC was planning to protect the integrity of its academic principles and to ensure that any students and staff of a future UCC-MUC joint college would have the freedom in teaching and research to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.

Finally, a misinterpretation of the historical context needs to be clarified. Prof Hill’s letter implies that by teaching indigenous students from China and collaborating with indigenous scholars, we could “help to promote and sustain the multiethnic conception of the PRC that its founders envisioned” in 1949. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never envisioned the PRC as “a land of multiethnic and multilingual flourishing”.

The CCP’s commitments to non-Han Chinese peoples’ inclusiveness and autonomy have always existed on paper only. Universities like MUC were founded “to serve the educational and research needs of the country’s non-Chinese peoples”, as Prof Hill rightly states. However, these needs have always been defined by the CCP. Since the foundation of the PRC, non-Han Chinese people have been characterised by the CCP as backward and uncivilised (“feudalistic” in CCP parlance).

Minority education and research policies have always served an agenda of assimilation; the universities of nationalities have been part of the CCP’s discriminatory minority nationalities policy from the start. The fact that some of these universities produce great research is another matter and does not justify this policy.

There is no easy way to cooperate with universities governed by an authoritarian regime like that of the PRC. Planning to intensify Irish-Chinese university cooperation without offering sufficient transparency and guarantees of academic freedom is certainly not the right way. – Yours, etc,




of German, UCC;


Department of

Asian Studies, UCC;



Adult Continuing

Education, UCC;


Adult Continuing

Education, UCC;



Centre for Global

Development, UCC;

Dr PAUL CORCORAN, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, UCC;

Dr LAURENCE DAVIS, Department of Government and Politics, UCC;

Dr DAVID FITZGERALD, School of History, UCC;

MIKE FITZGIBBON, Cork University Business School, UCC;

Dr ANGELA FLYNN, School of Nursing & Midwifery, UCC;

Dr ROSARII GRIFFIN, Office of the Vice President for Learning and Teaching, UCC;

Dr SIMON HARRISON, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UCC;

Dr GERT HOFMANN, Department of German, UCC;

Dr DEIRDRE HORGAN, School of Applied Social Studies, UCC;

Prof LEE M JENKINS, School of English and Digital Humanities, UCC ;

Dr JAMES KAPALO, Study of Religions Department, UCC;

Dr KIERAN KEOHANE, Department of Sociology & Criminology, UCC;

Dr JOAN MCCARTHY, School of Nursing and Midwifery, UCC;

Dr PIARAS McEINRI, Department of Geography, UCC;

Prof WILLIAM O’BRIEN, Department of Archaeology, UCC;

Prof CATHAL O’CONNELL, School of Applied Social Studies, UCC;

Dr MAUREEN O’CONNOR, Department of English, UCC;

Dr JACQUI O’RIORDAN, Lecturer, School of Applied Social Studies, UCC;

Dr SIOBHAN O’SULLIVAN, School of Applied Social Studies, UCC;

Prof Emeritus WILLIAM REVILLE, Biochemistry Department, UCC;

Dr SEÁNA RYAN, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, UCC;

Dr BARBARA SILLER, Department of German, UCC;

Dr SARAH THELEN, Office of the Vice President for Teaching and Learning, UCC;

Dr TILL WEINGÄRTNER, Department of Asian Studies, UCC;

Dr RACHEL WOODLOCK, Department of the Study of Religions, UCC.