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Rights Protection: How the UK Should Respond to the PRC's Overseas Influence

Research output: Book/Report/ProceedingsOther report

Publication date12/05/2022
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherLau China Institute, King's College London
Number of pages16
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Publication series

NameLau China Institute Policy Series 2022: China in the World
PublisherLau China Institute, King's College London


The extraordinary MI5 interference alert issued in January 2022 over lawyer Christine Lee’s parliamentary lobbying and donations showed Britain’s security services are paying close attention to the political activities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the UK. However, while such issues are rightly matters of concern, evidence of actual PRC influence on UK national security and foreign policy remains limited, compared with its demonstrable and direct impact on human rights and civil liberties of diaspora communities in the UK, and on academic freedom in higher education. Yet, few tangible policies have so far been proposed or implemented to address these effects.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can surveil, harass and threaten Chinese critics and exiled diaspora communities in the UK, shape the Chinese-language information environment and induce self-censorship from local organisations. Policymakers in Westminster must address these impacts by applying a rights protection approach. Meanwhile, UK universities have built a range of partnerships with PRC institutions – often beneficial – and competed for market share in overseas education. However, they have not put in place adequate measures to protect academic freedom and ensure all members of their community can experience a campus environment free from political constraints. Upholding the principle of academic freedom requires higher education institutions to address this, rather than waiting for heavy-handed government intervention.

Addressing the PRC’s overseas impact is an opportunity to fundamentally strengthen the UK’s institutions. But policy responses must start from a recognition of the differences between issues of national security, human rights and academic freedom, in order to avoid doing further harm to liberal democracy. Although widely cited as an example to follow, Australia’s response illustrates many of the downsides of applying a singular national security lens to such issues: overbroad legislation; neglect of key rights protection issues; and alarmist discourse that fans anti-Chinese sentiments in the community.

This paper lays out a series of measures that government and universities should take to address the PRC’s impact in a manner that avoids these pitfalls and reinforces core liberal democratic principles.