Universities and students’ unions are operating under the fiction that CSSAs, the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations [中国学生学者联谊会] in the UK, are normal student societies, independent in their operation and function and solely beneficial to, and representative of, all ethnic Chinese students at a given institution or in a given area. But the reality is that CSSAs are branches of a central CSSAUK [全英中国学生学者联谊会], which is overseen by Chinese diplomats in the UK, and part of the United Front Work system of China.
There are more than 90 CSSAs in the UK, widely spread across the country. Most but not all are affiliated to a university. They claim to be non-political, and many of their activities are cultural and concerned with helping Chinese students adjust to life in a foreign country. However, they are also closely tied to the Chinese Government, which helps to fund them.
In 2018, the United States’ Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that while CSSAs varied in their degree of political involvement, overall, they “are active in carrying out overseas Chinese work consistent with the United Front strategy, and some have been shown to coordinate directly with the Chinese government, to be involved in the harassment of activists, and to have cooperated directly with Chinese security personnel”.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch proposed that all institutions of higher education should monitor CSSAs and require them to report the funding they receive from Chinese diplomatic missions. This year, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) report on China stated that: “CSSAs are – along with Confucius Institutes – assessed to be used by the Chinese state to monitor Chinese students overseas and to exert influence over their behaviour.”
Based on these assessments, the author believes that CSSAs should be understood as a network actively engaged in serving the interests of the Chinese state and their activities in the UK should be taken more seriously, by Government, students’ unions and universities.
CSSAs appear to be committed to delivering on Xi Jinping’s call: “studying abroad to serve the country”. This report presents evidence that CSSAs in the UK have been propagandising for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and suppressing students who hold dissenting views against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), especially students from Hong Kong and East Turkistan. CSSAUK and local CSSAs are also involved in recruitment drives, seeking to bring to China UK-based Chinese intellectual talents in risky research fields such as AI, biotechnology materials engineering and physical science, which have been identified as a concern by the ISC.
This report suggests that it is critical for universities and students’ unions to recognise that CSSAs are not independent from one another, or from CSSAUK and Chinese diplomats – they are part of a system. As such, they must look beyond evidence from their particular CSSA to the wider phenomenon when evaluating the systematic threat that CSSAs pose to freedom of speech and national security in the UK.
University regulators which have responsibilities and investigative power in this regard, including the Office for Students (OfS), must also address this issue.
It should be noted that, based on the assessment of the ISC that CSSAs serve to monitor and influence Chinese students abroad, individual overseas Chinese students who take part in CSSA initiatives, or even in the running of local CSSAs, should not necessarily be seen as willing participants. The former British diplomat Charles Parton has said that:
Chinese mainland students are themselves victims because they don’t have a great deal of choice. If they don’t mobilise, people within the student community are informing the security authorities and other embassies and it will go down on their file and get back to China.
Also, while CSSAUK and local CSSAs’ ‘talent programmes’ are done openly and are not in any way illegal, such programmes are considered to be a tool used by the Chinese state to try to transfer data and IP to Chinese research groups and government agencies – and in some cases even to steal it. Universities should be more conscious of the risks of participating in such schemes, and the Government should follow the US in tackling the threat. Researchers should be required to disclose foreign funding when applying for government grants or working in sensitive areas.
This report also recommends that the Government should issue guidance on whether CSSAs fall under the requirement for registration under the newly created Foreign Influence Registration Scheme.