Nolan suggested that the questions surrounding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China are ‘questions that affect all countries that have any kind of minority at all’Lucas Maddalena

Content note: This article contains discussion of human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims

Professor Peter Nolan of Jesus College, who is the director of the College’s China Centre, has cautioned about holding discussions of human rights abuses of Uighurs at the College, stating that they are often not “helpful” due to their likely intense media coverage.

Transcripts of a private meeting, obtained by OpenDemocracy as part of their investigation into Nolan and Jesus College’s relations with China, recount Nolan cautioning students about holding public debates on the topic: “You have to have both views represented,” he is reported to have told the centre’s advisory committee last Autumn. “Otherwise the college will be perceived as being a campaigning college for… freedom for the Weiwu’ers [Uyghurs].”

According to OpenDemocracy, Nolan allegedly has financial ties with China’s former prime minister.

Nolan suggested that the questions surrounding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China are “questions that affect all countries that have any kind of minority at all”.

He continued: “It is not the case that there is a homogeneous, correct view of what is happening in Xinjiang. The predominant view… is that everybody knows what is happening. Everybody doesn’t know what is happening.”

The transcripts also include Nolan’s description of the “World Ughyur Association”, which he claims is aiming for “regime change in China and other parts of the world.”

The College's Global Issues Dialogue Centre (GIDC) has previously received significant financial donations from China, including a £200,000 research grant from China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in 2018, alongside a further £155,000 for a two-year research grant in telecommunications from the Chinese technology company Huawei in 2019.

Nolan has previously held the role of Chong Hua Chair at the University’s Centre of Development Studies. According to OpenDemocracy, it was funded by a £3.7m donation in 2012 from the Chong Hua Foundation, which has been claimed to have been controlled by the daughter of China’s former prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “[Nolan] seems to be a mouthpiece for the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] – and all its appalling behaviour. All of those comments come straight from the mouth of the Communist Party.”

The College itself was also accused of “refusing to talk about these abuses of Uyghur Muslims for fear of causing offence” by Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat in Parliament earlier this year.

Meanwhile, students at the College have raised concerns about the College and Nolan’s links with the Cambridge China Development Trust, which the UK government has confirmed runs training programmes for Chinese officials, and of which Nolan is a trustee.

Students have appealed to the college to “ensure real academic freedom” in light of Nolan’s comments. 

Responding to this investigation, Nolan told OpenDemocracy: “I support Jesus College’s position that no topic is out of bounds for academic discussion. At a College meeting last November, a group of academics and students debated the challenges inherent in organising balanced events on contentious topics. Since then the China Centre has hosted events covering topics including human rights, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and potential war with China, with speakers representing a wide range of opinions.”

In a statement, Jesus College told OpenDemocracy that it was “strongly committed to the principles of freedom of speech and academic independence.”

It added: “We fully agree with Iain Duncan Smith that no opinion should be stifled. It is our position that no subject is out of bounds, as the range of recent events hosted by the College demonstrates. It is a bleak day if outside forces succeed in inhibiting academic debate.”