A Red Flag for Free Speech on Campus? Understanding the Role of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in the UK

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A Red Flag for Free Speech on Campus? Understanding the Role of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in the UK

20th November 2023 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Universities and student unions in the UK are operating under the fiction that Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) are normal student societies. However, every CSSA is overseen and funded by Chinese diplomats. Individual branches are subsidiaries of a central organisation, CSSA-UK, that is itself part of the United Front Work system of China, the propaganda unit dedicated to building and maintaining support for the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad. The UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee said this July that CSSAs are “assessed to be used by the Chinese state to monitor Chinese students overseas and to exert influence over their behaviour”.

A new report from the Henry Jackson Society, “Studying abroad to serve China”,  details the systematic nature of the threat posed by CSSAs and their close ties to the Chinese embassy. Under cover of student activism, CSSAs have tried to shut down critics of the Chinese regime. They claim to be apolitical, but appear to be increasingly used to advance the agenda of the Chinese state. This includes involvement in talent recruitment programmes of a kind that has been flagged as a security concern.

There are active CSSAs at 96 British higher education institutes, but the risk posed by CSSAs has not received the same high-profile scrutiny as Confucius Institutes. There are fears that universities have been unwilling to act given their growing dependence on Chinese students’ fees.

The Henry Jackson Society
is pleased to gather a panel of experts to launch its latest report and discuss how to tackle the threat posed to free speech at British universities.



Sam Dunning is an expert on CCP influence in foreign countries and serves as director of UK-China Transparency. His work on the united front, academia, transnational repression and lobbying has featured in a range of publications in the UK and overseas.




Marc Sidwell is Director of Research at The Henry Jackson Society. He has worked as a senior editor for the Telegraph and City A.M. and as publisher for the New Statesman. Marc has also written regularly for publications including Telegraph, The Critic, National Review and City A.M. He is a Senior Fellow at the New Culture Forum, and a graduate of Oxford and Warwick.


This photo is a property of https://ianwilliamsauthor.net/


Ian Williams is an author and award-winning journalist who has reported from across the world. He covered business and technology for the Sunday Times before moving to television. He was a foreign correspondent first for Channel 4 News in Moscow (1992–1995) and Asia (1995–2006), and then for NBC News (2006–2015), based in Bangkok and Beijing.

Ian has travelled and reported from across China. He has also covered conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Ukraine. He won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his discovery and reporting on the Serb detention camps during the war in Bosnia. More recently he has studied cyber issues at Royal Holloway and at the War Studies Department at King’s College, London.



Luke de Pulford is the founder and Executive Director of Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. He previously co-founded the anti-slavery charity Arise, which he ran from its inception until 2022.


This photo is a property of https://members.parliament.uk/member/152/portrait


The Rt Hon Sir Iain Duncan Smith is a British Conservative Party politician. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010 to 2016, he was previously the Leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition from 2001 to 2003. He has led calls for a re-think on the UK’s relationship towards China in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and co-chairs the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

Iain was elected Member of Parliament for Chingford in 1992, and he was re-elected in 1997 as Member of Parliament for the re-drawn constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green. Iain was promoted to William Hague’s Shadow Cabinet in 1997. As Shadow Secretary of State for Social Security, Iain exposed Labour’s hypocrisy and failure on welfare reform. When he was promoted to Shadow Defence Secretary, he exposed the Government’s failure to give British forces sufficient funding and equipment.

In 2001, Iain was elected Leader of the Conservative Party. After stepping down in 2003, he set up the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), an independent think tank committed to tackling poverty and social breakdown. Iain served as Chairman of the CSJ until the 2010 General Election, when he was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He served in this position until March 2016 before taking up the position of Chairman once again at the CSJ.





The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host an event with Mark Sidwell, Luke De Pulford, Ian Williams, and Sam Dunning, chaired by The Rt. Hon. Sir Ian Duncan Smith. The panel was gathered to discuss a report authored by Anson Kwong on Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs). Sir Ian started by contextualising the discussion around the premise that China sees UK universities as the soft underbelly of a key alliance with the United States. Mark Sidwell then spoke of the structure of CSSAs, how they exist as a network and as a subsidiary of a central CSSAUK, which is overseen by Chinese diplomats in the UK. He also made clear that the reticence exhibited by universities in reprimanding CSSAs when they violate freedom of speech policies is linked to the dependence such universities have on fees from China.


Sam Dunning then spoke of several ways to remedy the issue, including the prospective Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act. Luke de Pulford highlighted how intelligence services are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention shown to the problem of Chinese intrusion into British institutions. Ian Williams offered several anecdotes to illustrate the culture of fear created on university campuses amongst Chinese students, who refrained from commenting on sensitive topics for fear of being reported by colleagues in the CSSAs.




20th November 2023
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Committee Room 5, House of Commons
London, SW1A 0AA United Kingdom
+ Google Map


Marc Sidwell, Ian Williams, Luke De Pulford


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