Self-censorship on China ‘biggest freedom of speech issue’ facing universities

Jo Johnson takes seat in Lords
Jo Johnson takes seat in Lords (PA Archive)
12:09pm, Wed 12 May 2021
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Self-censorship on issues relating to China is “the most important freedom of speech issue” facing British universities, a former minister has warned.

Lord (Jo) Johnson, former universities minister, has suggested that China’s influence on academic research, which cover its own interests, is a “genuine and real threat to freedom of speech”.

He highlighted that the Chinese Government had recently sanctioned academics in Europe for undertaking their research.

The former minister’s comments came as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will be introduced in Parliament.

Academics, students or visiting speakers to English universities will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties under the Bill.

That to me is a genuine and real threat to freedom of speech and I think if the bill can perhaps help address that issue too it will serve a very useful purpose

For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers.

Speaking at a webinar run by Times Higher Education (THE), Lord Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother and a fellow at King’s College and the Harvard Kennedy School, said: “I think, to my mind, the most important freedom of speech issue facing universities today relates to self-censorship around China.

“I think, to my mind, that is going to be a very, very important long-running structural question.

“And that’s why it’s so important that universities can contract with China in full confidence that they are doing so using a common framework that’s established by the sector and supported by their own government and possibly also in alliance with other governments around the world.

“That will enable them to genuinely have freedom of speech and freedom of research in all areas that might touch on China’s interests.

“That to me is a genuine and real threat to freedom of speech and I think if the (free speech) bill can perhaps help address that issue too it will serve a very useful purpose.”

Lord Johnson was universities and science minister until September 2019 when he resigned from his brother’s administration citing an “unresolvable tension” between his family loyalty and the national interest.

In March, a report co-authored by Lord Johnson said the UK’s dependence on a “neo-totalitarian” power for the financial health and research output of its universities represented a “point of vulnerability”.

The paper, produced by King’s College London, the Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Scientific Information, said higher education (HE) exports to China now represent the UK’s single largest service sector exports to any country while research collaboration had increased from fewer than 100 co-authored papers before 1990 to 16,267 in 2019.

Speaking at the event on UK-China research collaboration, Lord Johnson said: “We’re in a situation where the core values of the academy are potentially at risk.

“We’ve seen China in recent weeks put researchers in Europe under sanction for undertaking their research activities.”

Earlier this year, Newcastle academic Joanne Nicola Smith Finley was among nine UK citizens who were hit with sanctions by the Chinese government after highlighting Beijing’s human rights abuses.

At the time, Dr Smith Finley said she had been sanctioned “for ongoing research speaking the truth about human rights violations” against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

On sanctions, Lord Johnson added: “We need to recognise this as an absolutely central issue that touches on academic freedom, freedom of speech, and all of the values which the sector holds dear.

“And these threats are predominantly coming from the risks that arise from our research relationship with China and our dependence on Chinese financial flows.”

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