Sir David Davis comments on UK university ties to Chinese tech firm


As published in the Daily Mail:

Oxford University is to rename a prestigious professorship of physics after a Chinese software company accused of close links with the Communist regime’s intelligence services in return for a £700,000 donation, the Daily Mail has learned.

The Wykeham chair of physics, which was established in 1900 and comes with a fellowship at 14th-century New College, will now be known as the Tencent-Wykeham chair in honour of the computing conglomerate, Oxford sources revealed.

Last night, as two former Cabinet ministers urged Oxford to reconsider, it became clear the decision has set the university on a collision course with its own most senior official.

Lord Patten, Oxford’s Chancellor and the last British governor of Hong Kong, said he could not comment on the grant from Tencent because he had known nothing about it until he was contacted by the Mail.

But he added: ‘I’m strongly in favour of the proposal to do a comprehensive survey of relationships between China and all our universities.

Given that China has become a surveillance state, is probably guilty of genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and is snuffing out freedom in Hong Kong, we should be looking at these relationships very beadily.

‘I’ve got no doubt at all that there are serious strategic and security issues at stake, because China represents a threat to liberal democracies all round the world.’

CIA sources have claimed that when Tencent was founded it received money and support from the Ministry of State Security, China’s main intelligence agency. A Pentagon report last month said it has been working closely with Chinese security agencies on AI.

Tencent owns the WeChat communications app, popular with millions of Chinese emigres to keep in touch with home.

In an executive order last year, then-President Donald Trump said WeChat represented a security threat by collecting ‘vast swathes’ of data on Americans and other users, and by allowing ‘the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives’.

‘WeChat, like TikTok, also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive and may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party,” the order said.

The conglomerate denies that it received intelligence funding, saying its finances were ‘transparent’. It rejects accusations of wrongdoing.

Ling Ge, Tencent’s Chief European Representative, an expert in quantum computing research, has a PhD in this field from Oxford. Last night she declined to comment on why her company is sponsoring the Oxford chair. It is not known whether she played a part in negotiating the grant.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith last night urged Oxford to reconsider its decision, saying: ‘There seems to be no end to the degree that universities will bend the knee to China for money.

‘The reality is Chinese companies are obligated to the Chinese security apparatus to pass on information on demand, and for Oxford to celebrate Tencent by renaming this professorship is grotesque.’

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis added: ‘This is in my view a very unwise decision.’ Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, said he was amazed Oxford agreed to rename a prestigious chair for just £700,000.

He said: ‘The usual price for such things is in the millions. Having a foothold in the Oxford physics department is obviously of strategic interest to the Chinese government, and we should be very wary indeed of this kind of investment.’

Tencent, whose operations now span the globe, was founded in 1998 by four entrepreneurs in the Shenzen industrial zone, across the border from Hong Kong.

It has grown to become the world’s biggest computer gaming platform.

As well as WeChat, it has a huge presence in social media and online shopping, and is worth about £500billion.

Disclosure of the Tencent-Oxford link comes amid mounting concern at Chinese involvement in British universities.

A Mail investigation last year highlighted how China’s ‘collaboration’ often smacks of infiltration.

In a hard-hitting report yesterday, the think-tank Civitas highlighted how British universities have ‘unintentionally’ bolstered Beijing’s military arsenal with research programmes.

And The Times reported that up to 200 British academics face official probes as to whether they have inadvertently helped the Chinese militarisation effort.

Tencent did not respond to a request for comment last night.

Sam Armstrong, a China expert at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, said: ‘Accepting this donation and renaming a chair obviously risks reputational damage.

But there will also be security risks at forming relationships with Chinese firms in a field such as physics.

Even apparently theoretical research may one day turn out to hold the key to new technology with huge practical applications.’

An Oxford University spokesman said: ‘The University has a rigorous due diligence process and Tencent has been approved as an appropriate donor by our independent Committee to Review Donations, which includes independent, external representatives.

‘We have a very clear position on academic independence from donations. Our donors have no say in setting the research and teaching programmes of the posts they fund, nor do they have any access to the results of research, other than publicly available material.’

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, faces a significant rebellion of Tory MPs today over trading with China despite its human rights abuses.