A former Chinese diplomat, who turned whistleblower after defecting to Australia, has claimed that China tries to control its international students studying at Scottish universities through student associations.
Chen Yonglin was first secretary at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney before he defected to Australia in 2005. He became a whistleblower about the persecution of Falun Gong in China revealing its consulate in Sydney had an “anti-Falun Gong working group”, dedicated to monitoring and countering Falun Gong practitioners and supporters in Australia.
In an exclusive interview with The Ferret, Chen claimed that Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) based at universities in Scotland try to control international students on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which rules China.
In reply, however, the Chinese Embassy in London said it would “never exert any political influence on normal academic activities in British universities” and it described Falun Gong as an “anti-humanity cult”. Falun Gong practitioners strongly deny this.
Three Scottish universities also commented and said their links to China were extremely important and that student’s freedom of thought and expression had been protected.
Chen’s comments follow a report this month which urged the UK to “urgently” improve its monitoring of academic links with China. Last month think-tank Civitas warned of closer ties between UK research universities and institutions linked to the Chinese military.
Chen has previously addressed the United States Congress as well as courts in Canada and Australia, revealing that Chinese consulates monitor Chinese nationals abroad who belong to the so-called “five poisons” – Falun Gong, Uighurs, Tibetans, Taiwan independence supporters and democracy advocates.
Falun Gong is a set of meditation exercises and texts that preach the virtues of truth, benevolence and forbearance. But China has banned Falon Gong branding it a cult.
In recent years the Chinese Government has been accused of the forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience including those practicing Falun Gong.
An independent tribunal in 2019 concluded that forced organ harvesting had taken place in China for years and the majority of organs came from Falun Gong practitioners murdered by the Chinese state.
Chen, who now works as a researcher for the Sydney Network for Democracy, told The Ferret that consulates seek to monitor Chinese students who study abroad through Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.
He said: “Every university has a CSSA. They were installed by the Chinese consulates and embassies. And they want to control students, they want to give them some favour, some small favour, and ask them to register. And the student associations act knowing they have consulate protection.
“The CCP wants to control the students. If they mix with the locals too much and if these students accept the western way of democracy, if these students return to China, the society might be changed. There’s a huge number of students who study in the UK so that’s why Chinese government spends lots of money in continuing spiritual control over the students.”
Each CSSA promotes social events for Chinese students and scholars studying or working at a British university. They also collaborate with Confucius Institutes, educational bodies within universities promoting Chinese language and cultural ties between China and western countries.
Glasgow University, Heriot Watt, Aberdeen University, Strathclyde and Edinburgh all have Confucius Institutes. Chen views them as a way for the Chinese state to offer a sanitised representation of Chinese culture and history.
He said: “They provide free textbooks, learning and language textbooks…published by the Chinese government. All free and they give to every Confucius Institute and to Chinese language schools. They of course have to follow the rules of the CCP or there’s nothing free. They shouldn’t talk about any ‘politically sensitive topics’ in the class and there is some propaganda in the textbooks. They need to publicly praise the CCP.
“I remember when Xi Jinping visited the UK. There was a British Confucius Institute conference and the students performed…they sang a song called ‘Gratitude’… to express gratitude to Xi Jinping. The Confucius Institute students sang to a dictator… so that’s the Chinese way of education…to brainwash… so they still don’t think a dictatorship is a problem.”
Chen was backed by Karen Lam, a Glasgow-based Falun Gong practitioner, originally from Shanghai, who told the Ferret she was filmed and shouted at by Chinese students when handing out Falun Gong pamphlets in Glasgow city centre.
Lam said: “One day when I was outside petitioning, two overseas students from China came to me yelling loudly to the people around them ‘Everyone don’t sign their petition’.
“They called the Chinese Embassy informing them that I was out petitioning with co-practitioners then kicked over our table causing our leaflets to scatter everywhere. They told everyone around that I was lying. They scolded me, telling me that I had no sense of shame. They even came over to steal my clipboard with signatures. These situations happen quite often, there were lots of people who come to interfere.”
Lam also claimed that some of her family in China had been intimidated by local authorities after learning of her Falun Gong practices in Glasgow. This led her to believe footage or images had been sent back to China.
She said: “The Chinese authorities once approached my brother and said that I was embarrassing the Chinese government by putting up banners in the street. A girl from Glasgow went to London with me to participate in an anti-persecution march, and the police went to her home in Shandong to threaten her mother. There are many things like this in the UK.”
Commenting on Lam’s claims, Chen said this was an example of students doing the Chinese government’s “dirty work”.
He added: “The CCP sometimes threatens the family. That’s their usual way. These students grow up under CCP education, they’re ignorant of the crime history of the CCP and have no idea of Tiananmen 1989 Massacre, so a lot of international students they volunteer to help the CCP…they’re proud to defend the CCP, to defend their motherland.
“They see the Falun Gong giving these pamphlets and it’s not patriotic, it’s against China, so they think to collect information on individual Falun Gong practitioners is a contribution to the country.”
Chen said that collecting information, building profiles on Falon Gong practitioners and sending them back to China was a duty of workers in the Sydney consulate.
He added: “We monitored the activity and found out their connection with some practitioners still in China and collected their names and all their personal information and photos and even the car plate and all this information and then sent back to China to the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Public Security and local police departments”.
In response to questions from The Ferret, the Chinese Embassy in London said China-UK education exchanges “enhance mutual understanding” between Chinese and British people and “mutual learning between the Oriental and Western civilizations”.
An embassy spokesperson added: “Such cooperation is mutually beneficial, open, transparent and beyond reproach. China is committed to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and respects academic freedom. China has never, and will never, exert any political influence on normal academic activities in British universities.”
On Confucius Institutes, the Chinese Embassy said they “serve as a bridge” for people around the world to learn the Chinese language, understand China, and “strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and other countries”.
An embassy spokesperson added: “Confucius Institutes in the UK are established based on voluntary applications from universities under the principles of mutual respect, friendly consultations, equality and mutual benefit. They follow open and transparent operation and management models, strictly abide by local laws and various rules and regulations of the universities.
“They have made immense contributions to promoting people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and the UK, thus widely welcomed by the universities and people in the UK.
“Discrediting Confucius Institutes, interfering with their normal operations and deliberately undermining the cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation between China and the UK go against the public opinion of the two countries and will definitely be rejected by the righteous people.”
The Chinese Embassy described Falun Gong as an “anti-society, anti-science, and anti-humanity cult” involved in “anti-China political activities” while explaining it was outlawed in China in 1999.
A spokesperson added: “Even worse, members of the cult have filed unwarranted lawsuits against Chinese Government institutions and officials, and are harassing Chinese Embassies and Consulates in many countries. These are solid proofs that the cult has long become a downright anti-China political group. We believe that you will not be misguided by slanders and false accusations.”
A University of Aberdeen spokesperson said the institution fosters a culture which “promotes freedom of thought and expression within a framework of mutual respect”.
“Since opening in 2013, the Confucius Institute has acted as a linguistic and cultural bridge, promoting knowledge exchange between China and the people of North East Scotland and serving as the first port of call for information on China,” the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for the University of Strathclyde said the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools “creates opportunities for children and young people to learn a language that is spoken by over 1.3 billion people worldwide”.
The spokesperson added: “Teachers working in Scotland’s Confucius Classrooms are required to teach according to the curriculum for excellence in the same way as other teachers working in Scottish schools.”
A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said there has been “no loss of academic freedom nor inhibition of academic debate” at the university as a consequence of its relationship with the Confucius Institute.
The spokesperson continued: “The director of the Confucius Institute at Edinburgh is appointed by the University of Edinburgh. The institute has contributed to significant discussion of matters relating to contemporary China. Edinburgh University Students’ Association has robust processes in place in regards to its societies, and are confident that none of these, including the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, assert control over their students.”
A spokesperson for the Falun Gong in Toronto, Canada, said: “Human rights groups and scholars agree that the Chinese regime’s campaign to demonize Falun Gong as a ‘cult’ is nothing but propaganda which is used to incite hatred and create indifference in order to hide the crimes that they are responsible for against Falun Gong.”
This story was co-published in partnership with the Sunday National.
It was updated at 16.01 on 5 April 2021 to add a comment from a Falun Gong group in Canada which asked to respond to claims made by China.
Cover image thanks to: David Simpson / iStock