Ethical concerns over Lancaster’s China campus collaboration

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Lancaster University’s ambitions to build a campus in the Nansha district of Guangzhou n the South of China, in collaboration with the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (GDUFS), have raised ethical concerns in relation to forced evictions in certain Chinese regions, as well as fear that the institution may be subjected to academic censorship by the Chinese government.

An article which appeared in the South China Morning Post revealed that mainland universities had been ordered, by China’s new Communist Party leaders, to “steer clear of seven topics in their teaching, including universal values, press freedom and civil rights.”

In response to questioning over whether Lancaster University would be able to offer a teaching quality of the same standard available in England, Professor Steve Bradley, Pro-VC (International) told SCAN; “Business and Management, Linguistics, Environmental Science, Biological Sciences and Mechanical Engineering will be offered which will follow the Lancaster curriculum.

“All quality assurance will be conducted by Lancaster staff.”

As reported by SCAN in November 2011, Lancaster has reached an agreement with GDUFS to create a university in Guangdong province, to be named The Gungwai-Lancaster University. According to Professor Bradley, similar campuses in China have been successfully created by “other highly ranked UK universities.” The intention is to create a semi-autonomous university in Guangdong province.

“Crucially”, added Bradley, “Lancaster University will provide the curriculum and quality assure the programmes.”

In Michaelmas term, it was announced that Hongfa, a Chinese investment firm specialising in construction development, had been chosen as Lancaster University’s investment partner in the venture, and that the campus and its facilities would be situated in Nansha, south of Guangzhou.

A Senate report in a Lent term issue of subtext (a bi-weekly email newsletter circulated by Lancaster University staff) noted that a member of the body asked Professor Bradley what steps had been taken by the University to ensure that the Guangwai-Lancaster University campus in China had been obtained without the deployment of violent evictions, which Amnesty International had reported were increasingly being used in nearby areas to obtain land for development.

In response, the body was assured that the land reserved for the project was dedicated to educational purposes, and that Lancaster University had received permission to establish a campus on the land by the Mayor of Guangzhou.

The Senate was also told that Hongfa had undergone ‘due diligence’ by KPMG, an Audit service, and received a ‘clean bill of health.’ However, the Vice-Chancellor added that a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that forcible evictions had not taken place could not be given, but assured the Senate that the reputation of the University was not being put at risk.

However, at a recent meeting of University Council, members were informed that the Hongfa Investment Group would no longer serve as Lancaster University’s investment partner in the Gungwai-Lancaster project. This function will now be fulfilled by the Guangzhou Nansha Asset Operation (GNAO), a Chinese government agency that administers state-owned assets in the Nansha district.

Professor Bradley explained to SCAN; “[The University] could not agree a satisfactory business model with Hongfa which would have protected the long term future of the Guangwai-Lancaster University. For this reason, a search was undertaken for an alternative investor.”

The establishment of a Lancaster University campus in Nansha is part of a wider political scheme to attract big-businesses and cross-border collaborative projects to the area, and turn it into a provincial administrative centre.

As the assembly of building sites in the Nansha district has yet to reach completion, there are currently no reports of forced evictions in the area. However, the Chinese news media has reported extensively on land seizures within Guangzhou and Guangdong province. According to a source in China, such seizures involve state-owned bodies funding developmental projects using money obtained through loans taken out from state banks that they cannot repay, and leaving villages with the debts.

Furthermore, the South China Morning Post recently reported on a protest, made up of over 1,000 residents of Wanggang village, assembled in front of Guangzhou city’s government headquarters. The protests were in retaliation to land seizures and alleged official corruption. Protestors accused their party secretary, Li Zhihang, of embezzling funds and making personal profit through the leasing out of collectively owned village land.

As yet, there is nothing to suggest that GNAO specifically has had any involvement in violent land seizures. SCAN has been informed that GNAO is currently receiving due diligence from KPMG, but a verdict on its previous operations has yet to be released.

While the ethical issues surrounding a partnership between Lancaster and China still remain unresolved, a source within the University has informed SCAN that things are expected to move forward “very quickly.”

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