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Lancaster is currently in a partnership with the Guangzhou Nansha Asset Operation (GNAO), a Chinese government agency, in order to develop an independent university campus in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, in southern China. This semi-autonomous institution, which will be named the “Guangwai-Lancaster University,” will be operated by Lancaster itself, following its own course structures and quality assurance measures.
The primary issue that I have with Lancaster opening a campus in China is that of censorship and free speech. China has been known to operate under a government in which academic censorship and monitoring of research is common. To what extent will a Lancaster campus in China have freedom to research what needs researching? Any research that comes out of the campus will be doubted, because there is a possibility that the government has tampered with it without our knowledge. Lancaster has a good reputation for research, and this possibility of government censorship would reflect incredibly poorly on us as an institution.
Furthermore, according to the South China Morning Post, mainland Chinese universities have been ordered by the Communist Party to steer clear of various topics in their teaching, including universal values, press freedom and civil rights. In allowing this development to go ahead in a country that notoriously still denies the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and allows human rights abuses to occur under government oversight, Lancaster is, in a way, endorsing this mindset, this complete control and subjugation of independent thought that I believe to be contrary to the spirit of academia at Lancaster University.
There is no cast-iron guarantee that the Guangwai-Lancaster University will be built on land that hasn’t been obtained through forced evictions of chinese citizens. There are currently no reports of forced evictions in the Nansha district, where the campus will be located, but this could change. Furthermore, there have recently been protests in retaliation to land seizures and alleged official corruption in Guangzhou. Should Lancaster really be tarnishing its reputation through association with these controversies? Surely any chance that the land was obtained through forced eviction or land seizure reflects negatively on Lancaster’s reputation, and any association with this alleged corruption is bad for the University.
It is true that a new institution in China would bring opportunities and open doors for students. Students would be able to spend time in China, perhaps with semesters spent studying at the partner institution. However, this could be said of any partnership agreement, such as Erasmus partnerships in Europe. Furthermore, we could be making these investments in countries with better human and civil rights records than China. However, in this we can see the increasing business emphasis placed on Lancaster as an institution – China is a growing economy, and therefore investment for the future must be made there. Although I have no problem with this idea in theory, in practice it implies support for a government that can still be considered oppressive.
It is incredibly likely that this development will go ahead. I doubt that there will be too much resistance, and the ethical concerns that have been raised will likely be swept under the rug of development. It is expected that things are going to move forward “very quickly.” However, we must remember the ethical issues that this Chinese campus brings, and the fact that, by creating an academic institution in China, we are endorsing their system of censorship and oppression in the academic world. We cannot be sure that students will hear the whole story at the Guangwai-Lancaster University, or that they will be fully able to research subjects that should be free for all.