We are a group of academics with many years of experience of teaching on China, including Hong Kong, in the fields of law, political sociology, labour relations, human rights, and gender politics. We are deeply concerned that, in their eagerness to maintain fee income from Chinese international students as near to pre-Covid levels as possible, some UK universities have signed up to a China-based system for providing access to online teaching to students who choose to study for their UK degrees from their homes in the PRC. We are concerned this system potentially endangers our students and invites censorship of the curriculum in our universities.
2. UK HE and the Great Fire Wall of China
As has been widely reported, many UK universities that have become dependent on steep international fees from Chinese students faced a sharp fall in their incomes this academic year if applicants failed to enroll on their courses (see #USSBriefs94). In the event, the fall has apparently been less precipitous than forecasted, although reliable data is not yet available, due in part to last minute marketing of courses to students in China. But a significant proportion of these students are joining courses from their homes in China, due to a variety of factors, including worries among students and parents about the UK’s shambolic approach to coronavirus control and late issuance of letters students need to apply for UK visas. The Chinese Ministry of Education has announced that, unlike in the past, it will recognize UK degrees that involve online study.
But studying online for a UK degree from inside China presents specific challenges. The ‘Great Fire Wall’ restricts access to the internet outside China, imposing mechanisms to filter content and block ‘blacklisted’ sites, including major platforms such as Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter; news providers such as the Guardian and the New York Times; and transnational activist networks, among others. The ‘virtual private networks’ (VPNs) that UK universities routinely provide to their staff and students to access much of their content from off campus are blocked as part of a generalized Chinese government ban on VPNs and other forms of encrypted communication. Students in China joining some UK university courses (such as pre-sessional English programmes) during the summer reported significant connection problems.
3. Over the wall: the Alibaba ‘solution’
In this context, institutions representing UK universities are rolling out a dedicated service to enable students studying for UK degrees from China to access their course materials. This has been piloted over the summer at a number of UK HEIs, and is a joint project by promoters of all things digital in UK HE Jisc and Ucisa, the British Council (which is involved in marketing UK HE) and Universities UK. The service provides access to UK universities’ online platforms for students within China via a government-approved VPN enabled by Chinese internet and e-commerce giant Alibaba. UK universities want to ensure that students in China can have reliable access to course materials, including recorded lectures, readings and live activities, and are able to participate in their courses, posting comments on discussion boards and submitting assignments.
From the publicly available information, this service, which has been piloted in a number of UK universities over the summer, and is now being rolled out at some of our institutions, will allow students to access their UK university’s content via a login to a dedicated Alibaba Cloud service on its Cloud Enterprise Network. Although the documentation on the Alibaba service describes this being routed via the company’s ‘virtual private cloud’ on servers in locations outside China, this does not mean that Chinese government surveillance and censorship mechanisms would be avoided, because all traffic would initially be routed through Alibaba’s servers in China.
4. Censorship, surveillance and students at risk?
As well as claiming that it will provide ‘fast and reliable access’ to course materials, the documentation states that the Alibaba ‘solution’ would be ‘fully legal and compliant with Chinese laws and regulations’. These laws allow for extensive censorship of public content on social media and news websites, as well as of personal communications, based on broad and vague criteria. While parameters for what is forbidden are set by the authorities, responsibility for deleting and blocking related content, activity and users rests with social media platforms and services, including Alibaba. China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law makes companies that fail to carry out these responsibilities subject to massive fines, prosecution and even cancellation of business licenses. This legal responsibility implies that Alibaba could face legal sanctions if it failed to block course content on prohibited topics such as protests in Hong Kong or the detention camps in Xinjiang.
The Alibaba scheme could also put students at risk, as their engagement with their courses can be monitored through Chinese government electronic surveillance systems. This is the case not only for students studying for their degrees remotely from China, but also potentially other students who are in the UK but in the same courses, whose engagement could potentially be monitored via the access of the students joining course activities remotely. This is no idle fear in a context where there have been significant tensions among students over support for the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, for example.
Repression in China is targeted, and depends on identifying people regularly accessing content or online activities seen as problematic (particularly those engaging in any form of collective action national or local authorities find problematic), and focusing monitoring on such ‘suspect’ people. Using the Alibaba Cloud service, UK universities will not be able identify what kinds of monitoring and censorship happen when and to whom. Given the Chinese government’s demonstrated AI capacities, this monitoring could include automated profiling of student use of materials or interaction with the teaching to infer political reliability or political inclinations. By providing the Alibaba service to their students, UK universities could be complicit in enabling such profiling, and in our view this would be a failure in our duty of care to our students.
5. China and the chilling effect
There are broader concerns about the potential chilling effects for teaching of China-related material in UK universities, both short term and long term. This is not an idle concern: in recent years, controversies have erupted as the Chinese government has sought to pressure academic publishers to censor ‘politically sensitive’ content, including Cambridge University Press. It also comes in the context of the newly passed National Security Law in Hong Kong, which criminalizes a broad range of previously acceptable speech, and exerts extraterritorial powers that have raised deep concerns among scholars working on China-related issues. In such an environment, content deemed potentially offensive to the Chinese government may be at risk from (self-)censorship, either because teachers opt to eliminate it or because institutions decide that certain ‘problem’ courses are no longer viable. Documentation for staff at a number of universities offering this service has made vague references to ‘problematic’ content that may result in some teachers preemptively removing any China-related material from their courses.
Some institutions have effectively started justifying such censorship of courses for Chinese students studying remotely, asking teachers to provide ‘alternatives’ to ‘problematic’ China related content for these students. Such moves presume that all Chinese students will be offended by or want to avoid such content; in our view this is a mistaken assumption based on stereotyped notions of Chinese students. Some of our students from China choose to study at UK universities precisely because they will encounter a different range of approaches and opinions to those they have encountered in universities in mainland China, and some specifically want to hear about alternative analysis of developments in their own country at a time when such debate is being closed down at home. Pro-government, nationalist students may be vocal, but there are many others with a variety of viewpoints. One indication of this in the UK context is a finding from a representative sample of mainland Chinese students studying for undergraduate and postgraduate taught degrees at UK universities. The Bright Futures survey, conducted in 2017–18, found that 71% of respondents said they ‘never’ participated in activities of the Chinese Students Association (which is supported and funded by the Chinese authorities) and a further 22% said they participated once a month or less.
6. Alternative solutions and academic freedom
Given the concerns outlined above, we do not believe that UK universities have done enough to find alternatives to the Alibaba service that might mitigate some of the risks we describe. Other academic institutions, including joint-venture universities with campuses in China, have apparently negotiated exceptions to the ban on foreign VPNs. For obvious reasons, these universities do not publicize the ad hoc solutions they have been able to find, as these would technically be violations of Chinese law. In the current context other possibilities for UK HE might include approaching the Chinese Ministry of Education to negotiate access for students in China to UK university VPNs, or to a collectively managed joint UK-university ‘VPN concentrator’ located in China. Another part of a solution could be a joint-UK university project to mirror UK university server content in locations nearer to China (such as Singapore, South Korea or Japan) that would allow for faster access to content via VPNs. These solutions could address some of the key surveillance concerns, but would nonetheless still be subject to censorship demands by Chinese authorities.
Universities should not plead that they cannot consider alternatives on cost grounds, since the Alibaba service is reportedly costly (although rates have not been made public), with prices likely reaching £100,000 per institution annually depending on data volume. With a model of payment by data volume, UK universities are in the invidious (and likely unworkable) position of distinguishing between ‘study-related’ and other usage of the service. More importantly, no saving of expenditure or maintaining of pre-Covid income levels can justify the ‘costs’ of exposing our students to the risk of persecution as a result of taking UK university courses, or of inviting Chinese government censorship into our university systems.
Unfortunately, there is little sign that the leaders of the sector are considering the complexity of the risks involved. On 15 October 2020, UUK issued a report entitled ‘Managing risks in internationalisation: security related issues’. Deplorably, this report suggests that universities are, or should become, guardians of UK national security, but fails to recognise the nature of the risks to academic freedom that staff and students in the UK are actually facing. The report certainly makes no mention of the concerns we outline above, despite UUK being a co-sponsor of the Alibaba scheme. Addressing itself exclusively to ‘senior leaders’ in universities, the report also suggests a top-down, managerial approach to addressing the risks of academic internationalisation, without giving sufficient thought to the need to involve academic staff. Self-governance is an important dimension of academic freedom. One reason we are publishing this piece is that we have had little or no say in how our institutions are making policy in this area, despite the evident relevance of our expertise, and the gravity of the concerns we raise. At this moment, we believe UK universities need to commit to strong defense of academic freedom, ensure that this applies equally to staff and students and prevent this key value of our universities being undermined by ‘technical’ or market considerations.