University of Manchester ends research project with Chinese firm over alleged links to Uighur persecution

Foreign Affairs Committee chair says he is ‘pleased’ at decision

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 03 February 2021 20:48 GMT
The University of Manchester has ended a project with a firm accused of having links to the persecution of Uighur Muslims
The University of Manchester has ended a project with a firm accused of having links to the persecution of Uighur Muslims (Getty Images)

The University of Manchester has terminated a research project with a state-owned Chinese company with alleged links to human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims.

It comes after a parliamentary committee accused China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) of providing technology and infrastructure used in the persecution of the ethnic minority group.

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, had written to the university over its Department of Physics and Astronomy's research partnership with the company.

“According to credible reports from both Human Rights Watch and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, CETC is one of the main architects of the Chinese government’s surveillance state in Xinjiang, China, providing both technology and infrastructure that is being used for the identity-based persecution of more than one million people, predominantly Uyghur Muslims," the MP said in his letter.

The Chinese government has been accused of widespread abuse in the northwestern Xinjiang province, including mass internment, slave labour and allegations of forced sterilisation.

China at first denied the existence of the internment areas. It later acknowledged them, but denied any abuses and says the steps it has taken are necessary to combat terrorism and a separatist movement.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is attempting to determine the extent of British involvement with organisations who are implicated in the situation as part of an inquiry.

In his letter, the chair asked the University of Manchester about its partnership with CETC, including whether staff had raised concerns and the university knew about alleged links with Uighur persecution when the relationship was agreed.

Professor Martin Schroder, the university’s vice-president and dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, said the institution has "now taken steps to terminate the current agreement" with CETC while it assesses the relationship.

He said the university had already been reviewing the relationship, after a licence application for a joint project was rejected.

“I also confirm that, as far as I am aware, the university had no prior knowledge of any credible reports stated in your letter, or from any other source, linking CETC's technology with the persecution of Uyghur Muslims. Your letter is the first to do so,” he told the committee in a letter. 

He added: “I confirm that as I am aware no members of staff at the University have raised concerns about the collaboration with CETC38, and no desires have been expressed or steps taken by the University or CETC38 to develop collaboration between these two organisations in the areas of artificial intelligence, big data or advanced materials.”

Mr Tugendhat said he was “pleased” that the university “has decided to suspend its relationship with CETC” following the committee’s intervention.  

“Although we welcome the university’s move to withdraw from any further projects with CETC, it is surprising that the university had not been made aware that CETC’s technology was being used to aid the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang detention camps. Our letter was apparently the first they knew of it," the Tory MP said. 

 He added: “It remains imperative that British institutions, educational and otherwise, are fully informed of who it is they are working and sharing research with.

“A lack of curiosity could inadvertently lead to some of our most well-respected businesses and universities entering into a relationship which – inadvertently or otherwise – sees them complicit in the systematic abuse of the human rights of the Uyghurs and other minority groups.”

The university said their research collaboration with CETC aimed to “significantly advance the field of radio astronomy”.

“The projects worked towards an objective of disseminating research results in the public domain through publication in academic journals and as is standard in collaborative research projects, results of the work undertaken were shared between the parties in accordance with the terms of the agreement," Mr Schroder said in his letter to the commitee.

They had already completed one project, had a licence application rejected for a second, and have now withdrawn a third application for a project, he said.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The University is reviewing its collaboration with China Electronics Technology Group Co. Ltd (CETC38) following the rejection of a licence application by the government’s Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) in relation to a specific project with the company.

“This took place in January and predates any correspondence with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Since then, we have taken steps to terminate the current agreement with CETC38 whilst assessing the relationship."

The spokesperson said the university had recently undertaken more work to address “the potentially complex risks and issues” arising from international research partnerships. 

“One of the aims is to provide a strengthened degree of assurance about potential new research partners with the University’s guiding principles, values, missions and goals,” they said. 

Additional reporting by agencies

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