Oxford University has renamed the Wykeham chair of physics to the Tencent-Wykeham professorship, and in return are set to receive a £700,000 donation from Chinese company Tencent.
This professorship, named after Bishop William of Wykeham who founded New College in 1379, was established in 1900 as part of a cohort of professorships in the bishop’s name.
This seemingly innocuous change has raised alarm bells in regard to national security, as the latest in a line of connections between British universities and Chinese companies. The new Chairman of the Office for Students (OfS) has pledged to take “firm action if necessary” on UK universities’ links to China. The Times’ article notes that according to the CIA, Tencent were founded with the support of the Chinese Communist Party, in addition to financing from the Chinese Ministry of State Security. A recent Pentagon report amplified these concerns, stating that Tencent are working closely with Chinese security agencies on artificial intelligence.
Tencent own the mobile app WeChat, which is the predominant social media app in China, and has around 1.2 billion active monthly users. Its chat and online payment functions have made it an “indispensable part of daily life” for many Chinese citizens, and this has been used by the government, who regulate Tencent and reportedly have them “suppress dissenting views” on WeChat.
A University spokesperson has stated: “The University has a rigorous due diligence process and Tencent has been approved as an appropriate donor by our independent Committee to Review Donations, which includes independent, external representatives. We have a very clear position on academic independence from donations. Our donors have no say in setting the research and teaching programmes of the posts they fund, nor do they have any access to the results of research, other than publicly available material.”
This follows a report from The Times that nearly 200 UK academics at over a dozen institutions are being investigated on suspicion of unintentionally assisting the Chinese government build weapons of mass destruction. In particular, they are being investigated for violating the 2008 Export Control Order “by transferring world-leading research in advanced military technology such as aircraft, missile designs and cyberweapons to China”. There are concerns this technology could be used in “the repression of political dissidents and minorities such as Uighur Muslims”.
This also has ties to the Myanmar coup, which the Chinese Government have labelled as little more than a shuffling of the cabinet. Relations between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing appeared cordial at a meeting last year, although China have had to deny claims that they had been supplying arms to regional rebel forces in the North of the country formerly known as Burma. According to the Stockholm Peace institute, “China accounted for 50% of Myanmar’s major arms imports from 2014 to 2019, including warships, combat aircraft, armed drones, armoured vehicles and air defence systems”. China has also been accused of hindering international attempts to condemn the coup from the U.N. Security Council.
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