THE SCULPTURE, a large, upside-down globe, brightly coloured like a child’s toy, looks innocuous enough. The intention behind it, according to the London School of Economics (LSE), is to recognise the university’s “international community”. That is not the spirit in which it has been received. Chinese students protested that Taiwan, which China claims, was shown as an independent country, and that Lhasa, in Tibet, was marked as a national capital. Following a meeting with students, press reports suggested that the LSE would change the map. Cue fury from Taiwan, whose foreign ministry fired off a letter expressing its disappointment and noting that Tsai Ing-wen, the country’s president, is herself a graduate of the LSE.
The university now says the sculpture does not reflect the geographical boundaries that it expected, but that “no final decisions have been reached.” It has stumbled into an important test of how willing universities are to stand up to China, says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. The LSE depends on foreign students, who count for 68% of those at the university (some 11% of the total number are Chinese). And the university already has an awkward history of foreign entanglements. In 2008 it awarded a PhD to Saif Qaddafi, son of Muammar, the late Libyan tyrant, before accepting a £1.5m ($2.9m) donation from his foundation.
China is likely to be a source of angst for many more British universities in years to come. Along with Australia, Canada and America, Britain has benefited from the country’s growing appetite for foreign education. The depreciation of the pound since the Brexit referendum in 2016 has provided an additional boost; British universities are now “quite a good bargain for Chinese students”, says Yinbo Yu, the international officer at Britain’s National Union of Students. In the past decade the number of Chinese students has more than tripled, with 76,425 starting a degree last year (see chart).
Like their classmates, most Chinese students just want to study and have fun. A minority, though, see themselves as “an extension of the party state”, says Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS. In 2017 students and the Chinese embassy protested against a debate at Durham University entitled, “This house sees China as a threat to the West”, as well as the participation of a supporter of Falun Gong, a sect outlawed in China. Chinese students’ associations at some universities are believed to keep an eye on those who head overseas. “There is a fear on the part of Chinese students that anything they do or say could be reported and influence their future,” says Charles Parton of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank.
The presence of students also grants the Chinese government leverage over universities. When Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, was asked by the Chinese embassy to prevent Lord Patten, the university’s chancellor (a largely ceremonial role), from visiting Hong Kong, she refused. Not all administrators are so steadfast. Mr Tsang says officials at another leading university attempted to get a speaker disinvited from an event after pressure from the embassy. Last summer an academic was removed from the management board of Nottingham University’s campus in Ningbo, a city on China’s eastern seaboard, after writing an essay critical of the 19th Communist Party Congress, a meeting of government bigwigs.
British universities have worked hard to court the Chinese, and the rush of students paying hefty international fees demonstrates the benefits of this approach. But as the LSE is now finding out, it is not without drawbacks. When threatened with receiving fewer Chinese students by the Chinese embassy, Ms Richardson of Oxford replied that there were many Indians who would be happy to take their place. The same is surely true at the LSE, one of the world’s leading academic institutions. It might just want to think carefully about what colour it shades Kashmir.
Correction (April 12th 2018): An earlier version of this story said that the LSE awarded Saif Qaddafi a PhD after accepting a donation from his foundation. In fact it awarded him his PhD and then accepted the donation. This has been corrected.