Jesus college, where Rishi Sunak made an unannounced visit over the summerLucas Maddelena with permission for Varsity

Over the Summer, Varsity has uncovered a series of troubling news stories. Chinese missile companies are sponsoring the Engineering Department. Rishi Sunak made an unannounced visit to Jesus College. The paper also uncovered that a significant philanthropist to Churchill College was at the heart of a major political crisis in China. Rather than her current focus on Free Speech, incoming Vice-Chancellor Prentice should be tackling Cambridge becoming an epicentre of geopolitical tensions.

Throughout our time in Cambridge, we are preoccupied with college inequalities, controversial fellows at the centre of culture wars and unfair standards in Tripos, as we can tangibly perceive how our student experience is hampered by being rebuffed by our college in lieu of a swanky Oxbridge summer school or professional conference. These impede our access to the quality of education and standard of living experienced by our peers – from prestigious internships to trips abroad, like the Oxbridge ski trip. Perhaps we should be less concerned over the unequal access to Val Thorens and more concerned over a recent Cambridge University Boat Club trip to Shanghai.

“Perhaps we should be less concerned over the unequal access to Val Thrones and more concerned over a recent Cambridge University Boat Club trip to Shanghai.”

Cultural exchanges between Cambridge University Boat Club and Chinese universities have flourished, with reports in Chinese media that the Cambridge squad headed to Shanghai for a Regatta this month to compete against top Chinese universities, including Peking and Tsinghua, with the prospects of winning a prize of $6,855. China Daily, a publication owned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reported (17/09) that Cambridge’s rowing team took the trophy for the “elite eight-man 500-metre sprint race” and the men’s 4.2 kilometre chase.

One anonymous source exclusively told Varsity that the “Boat Club is actively choosing to ignore China’s total disregard for human rights in order to make money … and effectively go on a ‘jolly’”, alleging that CUBC were paid to attend the event in China. When our Investigations Team approached CUBC to verify the allegations, they declined to respond to questions about investments from China, did not provide further information about the list of companies providing investments to CUBC, and did not offer any further information about whether their travel expenses were covered by companies linked to China.

Cambridge is yet to completely tackle and eliminate the Cameron-Osborne “golden era” to China. The University wants to project the impression that progress is being achieved – rejecting, renaming or even returning funding associated with China. Eliminating the tell-tale signs of foreign funding, like Jesus College renaming its China Centre in 2022, is the de facto strategy pursued these days. It masks the vast quantity of foreign funding the collegiate University receives for research, college events or even college gardens. Tackling China is something that Debbie Prentice pointed to in her post-appointment press campaign, setting out her ideological commitments and policies she hopes to implement. Prentice cautiously suggests “we have to be obviously concerned about the risks of collaborating with a country that doesn’t necessarily share our values.” Any worries about funding from China have since been trumped by concerns closer to home in the Cambridge community, who are understandably concerned by the prospects of the damage caused by a supervision boycott after the Marking and Assessment Boycott.

“It masks the vast quantity of foreign funding the collegiate University receives”

Behind the rhetoric, Cambridge colleges are still receiving funding from individuals or organisations with links to foreign governments. Cambridge has published statistics stating it has received a total of £23 million in research funding from China, but more significantly £52 million in philanthropic funding (both from 2017-2022). Churchill College has a garden named after a Chinese broadcaster, Xiaotian Fu, who is at the heart of a Chinese domestic scandal. Churchill published an interview with Fu, where she argues that her belief that “democracy extends around the world in a more profound way than ever before” underpins her act of philanthropy to the college. While a college garden is harmless, it’s hard to maintain that any alleged CCP-adjacent sponsor to a college is offering masses of funding for the benign purpose of promoting democracy.

A lack of scrutiny into the implicit links of the University and colleges to individuals or organisations linked to the Chinese Communist Party could potentially limit the University’s free speech. This summer, we’ve seen Jesus College’s lack of transparency restrict an opportunity for Cambridge students and academics to hold Rishi Sunak to account by omitting any details of Sunak’s visit in a college-wide email. The college admitted to Varsity that “income from such events supports the College’s educational and academic mission”. Colleges repeatedly roll out the same defence. The same premise is what most likely led Churchill College to accept funding from the Chinese broadcaster Xiaotian Fu.


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Putting more pressure on the University to reveal all foreign links is the only way to redress this abysmal state of affairs. Just last week (13/09), Varsity revealed that the leading Chinese manufacturer of military drones has given over £2 million in funding to the Engineering Department. A similar story implicated the Engineering Department – again – in exam term with allegations of facilitating the development of Iranian “suicide drones”. The high security risk posed by this type of research undertaken in Cambridge challenges whether any of these funding and research arrangements were made in good faith by Chinese sponsors in the first place.

“Cambridge colleges are used as political Trojan horses,” declared Professor of Postcolonial Studies Priyamvada Gopal, over the Sunak saga. It’s a sentiment that can also be extended to the University’s foreign funding models. The University is parlously placed to preserve Free Speech – the very thing poised at the top of the administrations’ ideological totempole – when thought is clamped shut and manipulated by research funding, gardens, or college events from dubious sources.