The University of Exeter’s complicity in the Uyghur genocide
Flo Marks and Diana Jalea discuss how British universities’ links with certain Chinese institutions make them indirectly complicit by association in the Uyghurs genocide. They implore Exeter students to write to their MPs and sign the open letter, calling on the university to cut these ties.
Trigger Warning: Conflict, Torture and Sexual Assault
This article calls on all Exeter Students to sign our open letter to show your solidarity and support for the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign and for Exeter to eliminate its ties with organisations that have links to the genocide.
A genocide is currently being committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the ‘Xinjiang’ region (in North West China). Turkic-Muslim minorities, such as Uyghur, Kazak and Uzbek people, are being imprisoned en masse, tortured, pushed into forced labour and sexually assaulted. Although the genocide is affecting most minorities in the region, the crimes against Turkic-Muslim women are particularly horrific; the brave testimonies of women who have escaped from the camps outline the gang rapes, beatings, forced sterilisation and abortions taking place. Women that aren’t in the camps have been separated from their families, forced to live with Han men and treated as slaves in the factories of some of the world’s largest companies.
Moreover, the CCP’s intent to destroy the minority communities in the ‘Xinjiang’ region can be evidenced by the fact that, between 2015 and 2018, the population growth in the Uyghur heartland fell by 84%. This is linked to the skyrocketing sterilisations in the region (increased 5-fold from 2016 to 2018) and violates Article 2 of the Genocide Convention. Although now retracted, it was published via the official Chinese government family planning site. Yet the CCP continues to maintain the camps are for vocational training and that there is no genocide occurring. However, the CCP’s denial cannot erase the truth that policies implemented in the Uyghur region violate female bodies, weaponizing them as an instrument to commit genocide (i.e., preventing births).
The treatment of Uyghurs from the early 2010s on, under Xi, departs dramatically from the “golden era” of ethnic relations in the 1980s. Up until relatively recently, ethnic minorities were enjoying a certain level of ethnic and cultural autonomy, with some voluntary assimilation to ensure the growing wealth of China is shared equally. These policies were dubbed “first generation ethnic policy” by a new cadre of radical academics with a different conception of how ethnic tensions should be resolved in China. The most important of these are Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, the founding fathers of the “second generation ethnic policy”. Contrary to the consensual assimilation of the first generation, Angang and Lianhe’s second generation ethnic policy advocates the forced assimilation of minorities to create a “state race”. While the Party has not publicly acknowledged the influence of second generation ethnic policy, researchers believe that its central principles have already been implemented. This includes the so called “Becoming Family” campaign where Han men move in with Uyghur women after their husbands have been sent to the camps.
What is all the more worrying, is that UK universities can be indirectly linked to this genocide through their connections with organisations that have ties to the genocide. This includes Exeter.
Policies implemented in the Uyghur region violate female bodies, weaponizing them as an instrument to commit genocide
The University of Exeter is not new to establishing ties with organisations of authoritarian states. In 2017 Exeter received funds from the ruler of one of the UAE’s most conservative emirates – Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi of Sharjah. The latest case in Exeter’s dark history of affiliation with authoritarianism is the Arab and Islamic Studies department’s decision to sign a collaboration agreement with Tsinghua University, the home of second generation ethnic policy. Co-author of the key texts of second generation ethnic policy, Hu Angang heads the University’s Institute for Contemporary China Studies. This raises important questions about Exeter’s indirect complicity in the oppression of Uyghurs. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report calls for institutions of higher education globally to “resist the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine academic freedom abroad”. Nonetheless, the University of Exeter’s website speaks hopefully of “opening up new frontiers for joint research and teaching between the UK and China”. Of all departments, the Arab and Islamic studies department in particular should understand the constraints posed by ties with a state currently engaged in the genocide of a Muslim population.
In response to Exeposé’s request for comment from the university, an Exeter university spokesperson said:
“As a globally-connected university, Exeter is working with an expanding network of partners across the world on a wide range of research and education initiatives. Collaboration with international partners is important in enabling leading academics to work together to address the biggest global challenges of our time, such as climate and environment change and public health. Before entering into any new link, the University employs robust procedures and due diligence processes. We also ensure that we are following the most up-to-date guidance and regulations from the UK Government and Universities UK on these links. To date, that advice has been that we should continue our connections with China, as a part of the UK’s extensive education and cultural links with the country.
The University of Exeter is implementing recommendations set out in recent UUK guidance to all UK universities on ‘Managing risks in internationalisation: security related issues’. This involves aligning all our appropriate policies and procedures with the UUK guidelines, including those on research and education partnerships, donations and receipt of international income.
We take an active stand against all forms of racism and prejudice. We expect our entire community to uphold our values around equality, diversity and inclusion and strive to be part of the most compassionate institution possible. Our full statement and ways to seek support can be found here.“– Exeter University Spokesperson
In an interview conducted by the authors of this piece, professor of China studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles Vanessa Frangville emphasised that “the Chinese government is using Universities to build alliances that have nothing to do with education”, especially Arab and Islamic studies departments. The real motivation of the CCP is to gain legitimacy and obscure its second-generation ethnic policies. The University of Exeter should be wary and not allow itself to become a soft power tool in the hands of the CCP to justify its genocide against Uyghur Muslims internationally.
Links to organisations associated with the Uyghur genocide have not only been uncovered at the University of Exeter. The University of Cambridge’s Jesus College has also been criticised for its links to China. The College’s China Centre located in Cambridge has been accused of ignoring the abuses the CCP is conducting against Muslim minorities in Western China. This raises questions about academic freedom in UK universities, especially since the college has accepted research grants from China in the past, £155,000 from Huawei (Chinese company) and £200,000 directly from the Chinese state in 2020. The college has denied any allegations that the research grants received from China influence, in any kind of way, the findings of their research. Additionally, they emphasised the importance of dialogue remaining open between the West and China, especially in light of the latter’s increased disregard of human rights. Nevertheless, the fear remains that China’s covert influence on UK universities may lead to topics such as the genocide perpetrated against the Uyghurs not being approached in student debates and discussions. Consequently, such issues would remain unknown and misunderstood among a category of people that would otherwise become more engaged in campaigns meant to sanction the Chinese state because of its human rights violations.
Moreover, not only are UK universities institutionally linked to the genocide, but their campuses have become breeding grounds for Islamophobia – a geopolitical force crucial to underpinning the genocide. Despite research projects evidencing an overall decline in levels of ethnic prejudice in the UK society, it has been emphasised that Muslims remain a minority who ‘attract uniquely intense hostility from all other groups’. This is not limited to the general public, but some university lecturers and students have shown to be complicit, directly supporting and spreading the Islamophobic narrative.
For instance, after receiving multiple complaints, the University of Bristol’s Islamic Society (BRISOC) gave a damning statement alleging Professor Stephen Greer of the Law School had been expressing ‘views in classes that can be deemed Islamophobic, bigoted and divisive’. Attempting to erase the reality of the subjugation of the Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in the ‘Xinjiang’ internment camps, he stated it ‘looks superficially like discrimination’ but it is actually just a poverty alleviation programme targeting poor Uyghurs communities in particular. This is, we believe, an outrageous assertion. Policies that systematically curtail the human rights and freedoms of any groups represent a violent act of discrimination. In the case of the Uyghurs, this amounts to genocide. BRISOC also argued that the new definition of Islamophobia provided by the APPG has ‘no effect in practice’ and more must be done to rid campuses of anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination. This is all intolerable because all students should feel safe, respected, and empowered on British campuses and because, rather than contributing to rising Islamophobia, university teaching must do more to advocate the tolerance of religious freedoms and celebrate diversity.
2020 also saw an explosion in anti-Chinese racism. For example, lecturer at the University of South Hampton, Dr Peng Wang was recently brutally assaulted by four men shouting “Chinese virus” and “get out of the country”. It is especially important to recognise this because one of the main tactics of the CCP to divert attention from its human rights abuses is by claiming those who criticise China are racist. While we should recognise how despicable and cynical the use of anti-racism as a tactic by a state currently engaged in genocide is, Sinophobia is still a very real problem, and so it is of course necessary to be consistent in our condemnation of racism wherever it occurs.
Policies that systematically curtail the human rights and freedoms of any groups represent a violent act of discrimination
While many universities in the UK are secondarily linked to the Uyghur genocide, some have been more effective in cutting these ties. The House of Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee sent Manchester University a letter on January the 14th 2021 warning them that their research-collaboration and financial agreement with China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) since July 2018 made them complicit in supporting and working with a company who provides “both technology and infrastructure that is being used for the identity based persecution of more than one million people, predominantly Uyghur Muslims.” This links to the rising phenomenon of terror capitalism (Darren Byler) whereby profit is generated through state contracts being given to private companies (like CETC) to surveil and control minority communities. This technology is then sold to other states and finally the surveilled populations become exploited as a source of cheap labour. Prior to this report and letter, Manchester University maintains they had no knowledge of the CETC’s links to the genocide and were only hoping to advance the field of radio technology. However, to Manchester University’s credit, they have now taken steps to terminate this agreement with the tech company.
What occurred at Manchester should motivate other UK institutions, universities or otherwise, to remain curious and ensure they are fully informed before entering into relationships that ‘see them complicit in the systematic abuse of the human rights of the Uighurs and other minority groups.’ We call on Exeter to review its agreements with all institutions that may have links to the CCP and the Uyghur region.
As a student at Exeter, you can make your voice heard by signing our open letter declaring our solidarity with the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign and their aim to end the CCP’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims before it is too late. We need students to begin calling on their universities to cut ties with any institutions/organisation that are directly, or even indirectly, involved with the CCP’s perpetration of genocide against the Uyghurs.
Another way you could potentially make a pivotal difference is by writing to your MP encouraging them to vote for the genocide amendment to the trade bill. The amendment will allow UK courts to make a preliminary determination that genocide is taking place in the Uyghur region since China has veto power over international courts. Writing to your MP is the most important contribution you can make to stopping the Uyghur genocide and takes only 30 seconds using this link.