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Report Suggests CCP-Backed Student Associations Seek Guidance on Registering as Foreign Power-Controlled Entities

The associations are ‘falling between the cracks’ of scrutiny because they are registered under the students’ union and are not subject to FOI requests.

Urgent clarification is needed on whether Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) across the UK are required to register their activities as foreign power-controlled entities, a report said.

The report, published by think tank Henry Jackson Society, said CSSAs, which are effectively controlled by the Chinese regime, has been able to avoid scrutiny by posing as normal student societies which are independent and self-governing.

The are more than 90 CSSAs across the UK, author Anson Kwong wrote. They are “branches of a central CSSAUK, which is overseen by Chinese diplomats in the UK, and part of the United Front Work system of China.”

The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is a department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee responsible for gaining political influence in and outside of China.

The report listed evidence of how CSSAs in British universities have accepted directions from the Chinese embassy and consulates, campaigned against events involving Chinese dissidents, including by pressuring the universities and organising counter protests, and collaborated with the UFWD on the CCP’s talent recruitment programmes.

Mr. Kwong stressed that the students involved, including those who run the CSSAs, “should not necessarily be seen as willing participants.”

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Despite their ties with the CCP, the CSSAs are “falling between the cracks” in terms of scrutiny, the report said.

“Universities appear to see individual CSSAs as independent student societies and, as such, consider their operation a matter for the students’ union. This may cause wider issues with CSSAs on campus—and the peculiar structure of CSSAs and their ties to the Chinese state—to be missed,” the report said.

“Of the 66 [percent] of universities that replied to the FOI requests on documentation that mentioned CSSAs, which were sent out through emails to all 96 universities and higher education institutes that host a CSSA, 97 [percent] of them said they do not hold the material because the CSSA based on their campus is registered under the students’ union, which is a separate legal entity against the university and is not subject to FOI requests.

“Particularly, Imperial College London said it was not aware of a scenario where the College’s governing body (the Council) would be called on to consider documentation regarding the CSSA,” the report said.

Mr. Kwong said this is “likely to change in the wake of the passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.”

The Act, which affects England, requires universities to protect the freedom of speech and academic freedom of all members, students, and staff.

England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), is also required to monitor foreign funding of universities and “assess the threat presented by arrangements involving overseas funding to academic freedom and freedom of speech.

In his recommendations, Mr. Kwong said both universities and student unions “must proactively investigate CSSA abusive behaviours,” while victims should report to the OfS universities’ or students’ failure to address CSSAs’ threat to freedom of speech.

He also called on the government to investigate and issue guidance “as a matter of urgency” on whether CSSAs should register under the new Foreign Activities and Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS).

As part of the National Security Act 2023, the Home Office gained the power to set up a two-tier FIRS.

Under the scheme, foreign agents and specified foreign power-controlled entities—apart from diplomats and their families—will be required to report activities that are intended to influence UK politics

Agents of a foreign power that’s included in the enhanced tier will be required to register almost all activities with limited exceptions such as cooking or building services for a diplomatic mission.

The Home Office is currently fleshing out the rules, which are expected to come into force next year. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said in September that there’s a “strong case to be made” to include China in the enhanced tier.

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