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Welcome to the Noble Endeavours monthly round up of news relating to Chinese research policy for November 2023.

A slightly zoomed-out view this month as there have been a lot of developments happening at the geopolitical level that I don’t usually cover but which are relevant to UK universities’ interests.

The Xi-Biden Meeting

November marked the first time Xi has travelled to the USA in 6 years for the extensively documented summit with Biden. Overall the meeting has to be called a success, if only that it didn’t actively make anything worse and that a joint commitment from both sides to more dialogue is clearly good news.

Substantive deliverables include a resumption of military-military dialogue, a bilateral working group to address the dangers of AI, an increase in direct flights and an expansion of people to people exchanges.

Some specifically science deliverables that didn’t get as much widespread coverage include the Sunnylands meeting between climate envoys, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, on reducing methane emissions – following both countries’ 2021 publication of their respective national methane emissions plans and warming up for COP28 over the next few weeks’.

There was also an agreement to resume negotiations on the important USA-China Science Technology and Innovation Agreement that was almost allowed to lapse earlier this year. The agreement provides an overarching policy framework for research collaboration between the two countries and would usually last for 5 years. Both sides agreed to restart negotiations and it’s therefore reassuring to see that this week (November 24) Dou Xiankang, Director of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), met with US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, to discuss next steps.

Nobody views this as a major turn or reset of relations between the worlds’ two pre-eminent national powers, but we can collectively hope that it effectively puts a floor under things and the commitment to renewed dialogue on critical issues helps to establish some guardrails for the future.

China is increasingly a key player in global institutions

Sticking with multilateral news, a number of stories caught my eye this month that collectively reinforce my overall perception that, regardless of the challenges, China has really achieved status as a key global player that cannot be ignored. These include:

2 November: Invitation to the UK’s Global AI Safety Summit – While I’m sceptical of the Summit given how quickly it was pulled together and largely driven by a Conservative Party desperate for some kind of poll reset, the decision to include China in the discussions – despite political opposition – clearly demonstrates that it’s stake in AI research and technology is impossible to ignore.

6 November: First Meeting of BRI Science Ministers – 10 years’ on the BRI is clearly shifting in it’s overall goals and mechanisms, with less direct investment and a broadening of different types of collaboration. A meeting of 24 ministerial representatives aimed to build on the more than 80 national cooperation agreements signed over the past decade, deepening cooperation and scientific exchange across the developing world.

10 November: New UNESCO Institute in Shanghai – The new Institute for International STEM Education is the 10th Category 1 Centre established by UNESCO, and the first of its kind outside Europe and US. China is the largest contributor to UNSECO’s annual budget and there have been concerns raised about China’s ability to shape UNESCO to promote specific narratives of education and history so the new institute clearly represents and expansion of its influence.

16 November: BEIDOU Satellite Navigation System Accepted for Global Civil Aviation – China’s aviation agency submitted its application to include BeiDou back in 2010. By June 2020, the BeiDou-3 system completed its constellation deployment, and has been serving over 200 countries and regions since then. As a fun aside, I watched a satellite launch from the beach in Hainan a few years’ back.

While the question of whether China will or will not surpass the USA – and on what timeline – remains open to wild speculation in almost all directions. The reality is that China will have a seat at every table from now on. It is critical that institutions understand the country and develop informed strategies for secure, sustainable engagement for the future.

Edinburgh, Nottingham, Imperial Oh My!

Closer to home now, and many of you will have seen the Dispatches programme this week alleging Chinese interference from on university campuses. The closure of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies predates my joining UoN, so I have no further information about that than anyone else, but there’s two things here worth noting.

First, that media pressure of this kind can exist regardless of evidence. Such reports are not required to be impartial and often elide the ongoing efforts of universities to manage institutional risks effectively.

Second, that the term ‘influence’ is often used precisely because it difficult to challenge. Any institution with significant collaborative relationships will find that those relationships have a degree of ‘influence’. That’s a normal part of equitable partnerships. Therefore it is incredibly difficult to defend accusations of undue influence in specific decisions.

This month Civitas also published a new report on universities’ receipt of funding from Chinese organisations and the risk that this might entail. The report is exceptionally detailed, for which it should be commended, but itself states that “The purpose [of the report] is simply to discuss the potential risks that their research may be exploited”. I’m increasingly irritated with these kinds of non-accusations. The report is based on FOIs and desk research and seems to have made no effort to talk to the individuals and universities themselves to understand how such potential risks are being managed and mitigated.

In both instances, this kind of pressure from third sector or media sources is not going away and it is critical for all institutions to be able to robustly defend their partnerships, have confidence in their approach to risk management, and a clear strategy for their long-term engagement with China.


For a few closing notes this month, no I don’t believe the return of Lord Cameron indicates a substantive change in the UK Government position on China and yes, I’m deeply jealous of the new visa-free entry rules for France, Germany, and others – even if it is a very transparent attempt to shape EU policy towards China in advance of the upcoming Summit.