When Stephen Toope announced recently that he would be stepping down from his role as vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, there was largely muted response. His tenure was a controversial and not always successful one: many criticised what they saw as poorly thought-out policies on everything from sexual assault reporting to defining micro-aggressions, reparations for slavery to limiting free speech policies, anathema to a liberal and democratic academic institution. These policies met with condemnation in the national press and caused a minor insurrection from academics within the university itself – but perhaps one of the most important aspects of the departing vice-chancellor’s tenure was his friendliness with the Chinese Communist Party and the influential foreign policy organs of the Chinese state, which began to see Toope’s Cambridge as a gateway for the furthering of their own strategic goals and agenda in Western academia.
With the international geopolitical stage in a period of realignment after the signing of the AUKUS agreement this month, it seems strange to think back to the premiership of David Cameron when a ‘golden era’ of relations with China was heralded. Toope was a loyalist to this idea long after it withered and died elsewhere, and his policies for Cambridge seem full of that optimism towards the PRC that emerged in the early 2010s: they were democratising, they were content to play by international rules. Look at the Olympics, rather than Tibet. In short, despite the fact they had the odd red flag on display, there was a feeling that they were fundamentally neoliberal and capitalist under the bonnet.
This view, what now seems like a naïve picture, has all but collapsed. Chinese police teargassing protesters in what was a democratic Hong Kong and widespread reporting on the PRC’s genocide against the Uighur Muslim minority in their regional periphery has been splashed across the Western press and strongly condemned by the governments of democratic states. Two innocent Canadians resident in China have only just been released after retaliatory judicial action following the Canadian government’s arrest of ‘the Princess of Huawei’, Meng Wanzhou, in 2018. The rosy dream of Cameroonian cooperation has almost entirely collapsed.
The last survival of appeasement towards China is on the campuses and administrations of British universities. When Mark Wallinger’s The World Turned Upside Down sculpture was installed outside the LSE in 2019, depicting a large overturned globe, it attracted criticism from the many mainland Chinese students at the university for depicting Taiwan as an independent political entity, and then support from Taiwanese students. The fact that this political wrangle could occur on the campus of a British university is nothing particularly new. But, the wavering from the LSE and the later decision that the sculpture would be amended to pander to the intense touchiness of the PRC, represented an alarming bending of the will of a supposedly liberal, Western institution committed to academic integrity, to what is, even sympathetically, a highly illiberal state, and unsympathetically an aggressive dictatorship perpetuating a genocide of a minority in plain sight. That the President of Taiwan and the British House of Common’s All-Parliamentary Group on Taiwan both felt the need to comment to disdain the LSE’s action – in typical vacillating fashion, soon reversed – demonstrated how what seem like petulant campus battles underline much wider, and more serious, geopolitical and diplomatic tensions.
Stephen Toope was an acolyte of this academic appeasement. In 2017 he spoke to Chinese state media, promising: ‘more opportunities to engage actively with China, a country with an extraordinarily growing influence which a university like Cambridge must pay attention to.’ Under Toope, Cambridge saw its Department of Engineering receive generous donations from Tencent, a technology company but also a tool of Chinese state oppression. He even visited Nanjing in China as late as 2019, praising their academic potential and giving material to the Chinese state’s propaganda machine. Jesus College in Cambridge went a step further, establishing a ‘China Centre’ and generally avoiding any criticism of the unpleasant aspects of dealing with the PRC, like abetting their human rights record.
This sweeping under the rug of China’s domestic abuses and international strategic aggression on the part of British universities now seems oddly out of step with the hardening line that Western-nations are taking towards the PRC. David Cameron’s ‘golden era’ of relations with China seems like a bad joke, and his lavish reception for the Chinese politburo at Buckingham Palace now seems even more like a grotesque aberration than it did at the time. Within the PRC, Xi Jinping now increasingly looks back to Chairman Mao as a role model, and the CCP has recently restated its commitment to a socialist model of organisation and a controlling influence on the lives of its citizens: looking to move back to a totalitarian state, banning effeminate depictions of men and limited the screen time of Chinese children to better build them in the earnest and hard-working communist model.
When the British frigate HMS Richmond transited the strategically crucial Taiwan Strait en route to Vietnam last week, the Chinese government released a statement claiming the act demonstrated the UK ‘harboured evil intentions’. The transiting of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group through China’s near abroad this year and the obvious military targeting of the AUKUS deal would have been unthinkable during the Cameron ministry, but now seems like a run-of-the-mill strategic response in West’s new cold war with China. Of interest in the next year will be whether British universities have the courage and strength of character to decouple from their lucrative arrangements with the Chinese state, in order to protect their academic freedoms and their status as some of the leading liberal sources of knowledge and education in the world. With Toope’s departure, it remains unclear whether Cambridge will rise to this challenge.