Chinese Embassy censors student conference

ChineseEmbassyBy Chris Somers &

The Chinese Embassy imposed restrictions on a Durham student-run conference on Saturday 15th of November.

The conference was a joint-society event covering the Occupy Hong Kong protests and was organised by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), the Hong Kong Society and the Politics, Philosophy and Economics Society.

The event was originally intended to be a discussion of the future of Hong Kong’s democratic status and broader look at the development of Hong Kong.

However, after the event had been organised the President of the Durham CSSA, Jake Zhou, was contacted by a representative of the Chinese Embassy Education Office, and advised to limit the discussion to ensure that the proceedings did not have “any negative impacts on China’s status with Hong Kong.”

Palatinate has confirmed that at least two professors due to speak at the conference were contacted after this point with an email warning that the Chinese Embassy “wanted to make sure that the conference does not involve any comments which seeks [sic] to weaken China’s national unity.”

“Fundamental human right”

Spokespeople of both the CSSA and the Hong Kong Society initially denied that anything had changed about the conference following contact by the Embassy. However, after a leaked email exchange, Palatinate can confirm that substantial changes were made to the content of the debate and the structure of the conference.

After contact was made by the Embassy, the framework was limited to a discussion of Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement and a planned question and answer session of 40 minutes was removed from the proceedings. Media coverage of the event was banned.

of the Embassy’s involvement drew criticism from visiting academic Professor Jeffrey of the University of Bristol, and several student attendees.

Professor Henderson, one of the speakers for the event, told Palatinate:

“In my view, no government – foreign or British – has the right to influence the activities of student societies, except in the case of the British government where that society may be breaking the law.”

Matthew Gibson, a student who attended the event told Palatinate:

“A Durham society claiming to represent ‘scholars’ was complicit in limiting academic freedom of speech. They were prompted to do this by a government who has just convicted Ilham Tohti, a prominent Chinese academic to life in prison for suggesting improvements to Chinese policing policy.

“I value freedom of speech and am absolutely appalled that what was a genuine attack on this fundamental human right occurred on our campus. This might sound like an exaggeration; it is not.”

However, CSSA President Jake Zhou told Palatinate that the CSSA is generally non-political and the conference was organised to smooth relations between Hong Kong students and Chinese students and that the Embassy actually had little influence in the proceedings.

Zhou was unsure about how the Embassy had heard that the conference was taking place, but said that he appreciated the advice.

He revealed that he was in “regular contact” with the Education Office and that the Embassy has been keen to receive “more details about the conference”.

Zhou told Palatinate that the Education Office “told us that we should be prepared to make sure that there were no negative impacts on China’s status with Hong Kong.

“It’s not compulsory for the CSSA to listen to the Chinese Embassy.”

However, the CSSA president also expressed his concerns that if the CSSA did not cooperate with Embassy wishes, the Embassy might withdraw support.

Zhou also said that if Palatinate published the story of Embassy involvement, it could damage the “complex relationship” between the University, the Chinese Embassy, and the CSSA, as well as lead the Embassy to withdraw support for Chinese students in Durham in need of assistance.

Professor Peter Preston of the University of Birmingham, who had been due to speak, made the decision not to attend. A representative of the Hong Kong Society suggested to Palatinate that Professor Preston did not attend due to ill health.

However, Palatinate has confirmation from multiple sources that Professor Preston decided not to attend because he disagreed with the conference’s restricted framework. Professor Preston could not be reached for comment.

Zhou told Palatinate: “Peter Preston didn’t agree with the suggestion of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. I think it was mainly a misunderstanding.”

Raymond Li, the head of the Chinese Service of the BBC, who also spoke at the conference, expressed his dissatisfaction with the limits of the debate.


The Durham CSSA is a branch of an international support network for Chinese students with branches in the United States and Canada as well as the UK.

The organisation functions to provide support for Chinese students studying abroad and is primarily a cultural bridge, maintaining close connections with the intellectual community in China.

The CSSA website states that CSSA branches operate “under the guidance of Education Section, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United Kingdom.”

Professor commented that “In practice, ‘guidance’ is probably Chinese Communist Party speak for ‘direction’ or ‘instruction.’

“Given this, and the fact that the Embassy – I assume – provides much of the funding for the CSSA, it seems likely that the Embassy interferes in the CSSA’s activities where discussion of what it regards as ‘sensitive’ issues is likely to take place.

 “Having said that, the incident at Durham on November 15th is the only evidence I have of the Embassy providing political ‘guidance’ to the CSSA.”

CSSA President Jake Zhou told Palatinate that the Durham CSSA maintains strong connections with the Chinese Embassy, noting that at some universities such as the University of Warwick, tensions between the Warwick CSSA and the Embassy have led to a withdrawal of support.

“If we did something that they [the Embassy] didn’t like, then that’s okay,” Zhou told Palatinate.

“But, we always want more resources and we don’t want to jeopardise that relationship.”

“Complex relationship”

The Durham CSSA is partially funded by the Embassy Education Office, however, they supplement this with outside funds from businesses and are occasionally sponsored by departments of Durham University.

Specifically, on the 10th May of this year, Durham University Business School, in association with the School of Government and International Affairs, hosted the ‘Cultural & Business Conference: Sino-British Dialogue’ with the Durham CSSA.

In response to Palatinate’s questions about the appropriateness of direct intervention in student affairs by foreign governments, Durham University said:

“The International Office works with a number of international student associations at Durham including the International Students’ Association, the Nigerian Society, the Saudi Students Club, Made in America and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

 “These societies are funded in different ways, but it is not unusual for them to be associated with the embassy.”

In addition to occasional University funding, however, the Durham CSSA is also a registered society in the Durham Students’ Union with a web page and a Union Fair stall.

Professor told Palatinate that “If a student union has evidence that one of its affiliated societies is influenced by a government agency, then I should have thought that student union would be in a difficult situation ethically and should, perhaps, consider its options.”

Similar concerns that the Durham Students’ Union may be supporting a society with undue influence from a foreign government were raised by a student who attended the debate. This student asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from the Chinese government.

In response to these concerns, the Durham Students’ Union Activities Officer, Joely Charlton, told Palatinate:

“We have received no complaints about this event. Of course, we would investigate if this happened.

“We believe it is acceptable for student groups, which have cultural objectives to have contact with their respective embassies. We encourage student groups to find sponsorship and this sometimes includes from the University or statutory organisations.”

However, Matthew Gibson, the student attendee, believes that this issue goes beyond simple cultural objectives.

Gibson told Palatinate:

“I think that the [Durham Students’ Union] absolutely have to disaffiliate the Chinese Students and Scholars Association as a society under their legal and financial framework. What the CSSA did goes fundamentally against the project at the core of Durham University’s existence, the idea that we can debate in a free and open manner in a hope of gaining a greater understanding of the world in which we live.

“The CSSA attempted to prevent this from happening and so do not deserve to in any way, shape or form deserve to be treated as part of the Durham University community.”

Correction, 15/12/2014: The article states that “a planned question and answer session of 40 minutes was removed from the proceedings”. Palatinate understands that a question and answer session did, in fact, go ahead, but this was significantly shortened in length and restricted to pre-submitted questions for the speakers.

2 thoughts on “Chinese Embassy censors student conference

  • “China’s status with Hong Kong.” Is Hong Kong independent?


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