• Why is an "ethics consulting" not-for-profit organization with millions in unused assets teaching Chinese intelligence operatives about British security practices? Given the recent growth of Chinese influence within Western universities, it should probably not be a surprise that a number of Western academics are party to the scandal.

Organizers of a conference for members of the Chinese intelligence services due to be held at Cambridge University in September have barred attending academics from asking questions about China's human rights record.

The Sunday Times has reported that Anthony Glees, a British counter-terrorism academic, turned down an invitation to speak at the seminar for officials from China's Ministry of Public Security after the seminar's organizers barred him from commenting on Chinese government repression and cyber-espionage.

The University of Cambridge. (Image credit: Llee Wu)

In the United States, in June 2013, Chen Guangcheng, a leading Chinese activist, claimed he was forced to leave New York University because the faculty was worried that his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government might "threaten academic cooperation," presumably with its plans to establish a branch in Shanghai, as it has already done in Dubai.

In August, Chen Guangcheng said that the university asked him not to travel to Washington to meet members of Congress. Further, upon his return to New York after the trip, two university officials accompanying him refused to allow a reporter from Radio Free Asia to interview him at Washington DC's Union Station.

The matter of foreign regimes working to exploit Western universities is nothing new. Several years ago, during the uprising in Libya against Gaddafi's regime, Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, resigned from the university's governing council after the university accepted a £1.5 million donation from Gaddafi's Libya while Gaddafi's son was studying at the university.

Hundreds of millions of pounds from undemocratic Arab and Islamist regimes have, in fact, poured into British universities during the past few decades. It is estimated that since 1995, about £250 million of Islamist and Arab regime funds have enriched a number of leading British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

In 2011, for instance, the Independent reported that the Syrian ambassador to London arranged a donation to St Andrews University of £100,000 from a company believed to be closely associated with Assad's regime. Further, the University of Durham received more than £700,000 in research grants from Middle East sources, including £11,000 from the Iranian regime.

However, while funding of British universities by despotic Middle Eastern countries caused a small sensation in the British media, the growing financial influence of China – the world's largest dictatorship and one of the most repressive -- within Western academia has remained largely unchallenged.

In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed the 17th Communist Party congress and proclaimed that China must "enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country." The expansion of this 'soft power' over the past decade has led to the creation of a dozen "Confucius Institutes" on British university campuses, and several hundred others across the West. The Institutes are funded by the "Office of Chinese Language Council International," known by the name Hanban, a quasi-autonomous, theoretically non-governmental Chinese organization -- but "affiliated with the Ministry of Eduction -- ostensibly to teach the Chinese language and culture. Hanban, which pre-approves all teaching materials, states that it aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020. So far, it has spent at least $500 million setting up these Institutes.

Although Hanban claims its offer of funding is "unconditional," the money comes, not surprisingly, with strings attached: in 2011, the Chinese regime offered Stanford University $4 million to host a Confucius Institute on Chinese language and culture and also to endow a professorship -- on the condition that the professor would agree not to discuss "delicate" issues such as Tibet.

According also to June Teufel Dreyer, a lecturer at the University of Miami, accepting funds comes with conditions: "There is a whole list of proscribed topics. You're told not to discuss the Dalai Lama -- or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China's military build-up, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership -- these are all off limits."

In April 2013, McMaster University in Canada announced it would close its Confucius Institute after the Institute announced that its instructors must have no connections to organizations considered by the Chinese government to be problematic – that is, civil and human rights groups.

The increasing level of Chinese "soft power," has its cheerleaders in the West. Tim Wright, a board member of the Confucius Institute at Britain's University of Sheffield, has said that, "Someone who wished to undermine China might not be welcome at the institute, but then the British Council didn't exactly put on talks about the IRA."

As for the seminar planned next month for Chinese security officials, the hosting organization is the Centre for Business and Public Sector Ethics, a group run by a number of British academics. According to its own accounts, the Centre receives funding directly from the Chinese government.

The Centre's director, Rosamund Thomas, promised delegates a "briefing on the current British information security system" as well as the "practice, tactics, techniques and strategies of counterterrorism in the UK."

Thomas, along with another trustee of the Centre, also runs an "ethics multimedia" business, which offers "consultancy services on ethics and human rights; and an "Ethics International Press" company, which publishes books on "ethical behaviour" in business. Both of these companies claim to be "associated" with the Centre for Business and Public Sector Ethics. Despite production of a just a few books and no apparent evidence of strong demand for the companies' consultancy services, the companies hold assets of several million pounds and have turnovers of just a few thousand pounds each year.

According to the Sunday Times, one of those attending the seminar is Fan Ke, a member of the ministry's Third Research Institute, which shares a base in Shanghai with Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army -- the Unit that has been identified as the base for China's cyber-attacks against the West.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the UK's intelligence and security committee, said, "In the case of China, their security apparatus and their intelligence agencies… [are] used for suppressing political dissent. … I'm certainly disappointed that this academic group doesn't feel able to allow issues involving human rights to be raised."

The Centre for Business and Public Sector Ethics has, in fact, been hosting Chinese government and intelligence officials at the University of Cambridge since 2002. In 2012, the Centre brought over a Chinese "media delegation", which included representatives of the Shanghai Information Office, described by Chinese bloggers as the Chinese Communist Party's "propaganda arm."

Why is an "ethics consulting" not-for-profit group with millions in unused assets teaching Chinese intelligence operatives about British security practices? Given the recent growth of Chinese influence within Western universities, however, it should probably not be a surprise that a number of Western academics are party to the scandal.

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