The Other Epidemic: Chinese Spies and Academic Espionage 

November 11, 2021 Updated: November 12, 2021


There is a genuine fear that Chinese spies are monitoring a number of British universities’ online seminars.

These spies are monitoring lectures and debates, according to Mark McLaughlin, a contributor to The Times UK. Any individuals who dare to discuss “censored political content” find themselves the target of Beijing-approved operatives.

Many Chinese students, unable to travel to Britain because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, are left with little option but to log into lectures “using virtual private networks (VPNs) run by Alibaba,” wrote McLaughlin. Alibaba has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Considering China is engaged in a new cold war with the United States, Beijing’s desire to monitor conversations, especially those of highly sensitive, geopolitical nature, makes sense. With a genocidal campaign occurring in Xinjiang and citizens of Tibet being terrorized, one cannot discuss politics and human rights without discussing China.

But such discussions, especially for Chinese citizens, come with significant costs. The CCP monitors every one of its citizens very closely, whether they happen to be at home or abroad. Worryingly, Britain appears to be particularly vulnerable to Chinese interference. British universities, including Cambridge, one of the most prestigious educational institutes in the world, appear to be particularly vulnerable.

As Spectator UK’s Ian Williams recently warned, Huawei, yet another company with close ties to the CCP, exerts a nefarious influence over the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management. Three out of four directors of the center, we’re told, “have ties to the telecoms giant,” which means they have ties to the CCP. The center’s chief representative, as Williams noted, “is a former vice-president of the company who has been paid by the Chinese government.” Furthermore, an honorary fellow of the center is the author of a book that praises “Huawei’s ability to transform the intellectual elite into a band of soldiers with the same set of values and resolve.” To call Cambridge compromised is to utter an understatement of epic proportions.

Epoch Times Photo
The logo of Chinese company Huawei is seen at its main UK offices in London on Jan. 28, 2020. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2018, Cambridge University signed a £200 million (about $267 million) joint venture to develop a science park with TusPark, or Tsinghua University Science Park. Again, the CCP and Tsinghua are intimately linked—when officials at Cambridge agreed to the deal, they effectively signed a deal with the CCP.

The science park, according to its website, has transformed Cambridge “from a market town with a world-class university to one of the leading technology hotspots in the world.” The 152-acre site is home to more than 130 different businesses, including “spin-outs from the University of Cambridge to multinational companies seeking access to the brightest graduates and entrepreneurs from Cambridge’s diverse talent pool.” Many of the diversely talented “are working on potentially life changing technologies from personalised medicines and non-invasive cancer diagnostics to artificial intelligence, IoT, defense and connectivity—to name just a few.”

In other words, they are working on vital technology that will serve the CCP.

Of course, British universities aren’t the only ones at risk. In the United States, fears of academic espionage are very much warranted.

In the first week of September, more than 170 professors at Stanford University from 40 different departments signed an open letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. In the widely-circulated letter, the academics requested Garland to terminate the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, initially introduced by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The objective of the initiative, launched in 2018, was simple: to combat academic espionage, intellectual property theft, and other serious threats associated with Beijing. Although the professors’ calls are somewhat understandable (after all, if someone is indeed innocent and finds themselves accused of spying on behalf of Beijing, their career is effectively over, even if their name is eventually cleared), the China Initiative is still necessary.

According to The Cipher Brief, Beijing still relies on scholars and researchers to act as spies. When it comes to espionage, universities—so consumed by the idea of equity, inclusion, and race awareness—are easy prey. The authors at The Cipher Brief warned that the CCP still identifies “universities and institutions of higher learning as vulnerable entry points to gaining access to sensitive data.”

In the aforementioned letter, the professors argued “that the China Initiative has deviated significantly from its claimed mission: it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.” So concerned by the idea of “xenophobia,” they believe that the China Initiative should be scrapped. “Replace it with an appropriate response that avoids the flaws of this initiative,” they suggested.

Again, although the professors’ concerns are understandable, the China Initiative needn’t be scrapped. Investigations should still be carried out, but with far more care. CCP-backed espionage and intellectual property theft are still occurring. This is what the CCP does; it lies and steals, doing whatever is needed to gain an advantage. As Cambridge so clearly demonstrates, if you give Beijing an inch, it will take a mile.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of the New York Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Newsweek, National Review, The Spectator US, and other respectable outlets. He is also a psychosocial specialist, with a keen interest in social dysfunction and media manipulation.