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Campaign Group ‘Disappointed’ After UK Council Refuses to Decouple With Chinese City

A Hong Kong diaspora group calling for the de-twinning of Nottingham and Ningbo said it’s “deeply disappointed” after the English City Council declined to cut ties with the Chinese city.

After a months-long review process, the council said it’s hoping the ties would allow Chinese students to keep travelling to Nottingham through an established university link so that they can be exposed to democratic ideas.

Nottingham Stands with Hong Kong (NSWHK), which started a petition last year calling for the de-twinning, criticised the decision, saying universities’ “over-reliance” on Chinese money “poses a threat to academic freedom in the UK.”

It comes after two other British cities, Newcastle and Bath, decided to de-twin with their Chinese sister cities over the Chinese regime’s human rights record.

There are at least 26 UK cities, counties, and towns still twinned or that have friendship agreements with their Chinese counterparts.

Chung Ching Kwong, Hong Kong campaigns coordinator at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance (IPAC) on China, told The Epoch Times that ongoing research suggests many of the relationships are facilitated by local Chinese associations, which are also linked to the Chinese unofficial overseas police stations.

Nottingham Council: Twin City Relationship ‘Important’

NSWHK is one of the 19 Hong Kong diaspora groups that launched a Global De-Twin With China campaign, calling on more than 100 cities in seven countries to cut ties with China.

It launched the local campaign last year after Nottingham, in March, severed ties with its Russian and Belarusian twin cities in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The council said it would review the arrangement after receiving the petition in June last year, according to Katy, a spokesperson for Global De-Twin With China, adding that the council replied to a further inquiry in January this year, saying the reviewing process was still ongoing and would include engagement with all stakeholders to fully assess the impact.

In March, the council decided to retain the relationship, which it said is “important for both of our cities, especially with the link established with our two universities.”

A general view of the Global Shipping Plaza in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, on Dec. 31, 2012 (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2004, the University of Nottingham and China’s Zhejiang Wanli University established the University of Nottingham Ningbo, the first of ten universities in China set up in collaboration with a foreign institution. Students of the joint university are awarded qualifications from both the University of Nottingham Ningbo and the University of Nottingham.

According to a local news report in China, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, then Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of the Zhejiang province, personally endorsed the idea and was present at the opening ceremony.

Another joint university has since been established in partnership with a British university named the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

In its decision to keep ties with Ningbo, Nottingham City Council said it hopes “that by encouraging young people to travel to Nottingham we will continue to expose international students to transparent values of openness and freedom of expression.”

The letter also said councillors share NSWHK’s concerns about human rights and have used the ties as a platform to write to “formally write” to the Chinese regime about them.

“As an active partner we would be doing a disservice to our relationship and failing in our democratic duty if we did not make it clear that we are concerned by China’s record in this Area,” the council said.

NSWHK said in a statement that it’s “deeply disappointed” about the decision, saying it “prioritised the economic link between the two cities over serious human rights violations taking place in China.”

“Heavy economic dependency on China has been a wide concern in many UK cities. In particular, universities’ over-reliance on incomes from Chinese international students and funding also poses a threat to academic freedom in the UK,” the group said, adding that it’s unclear if and how the agreement would benefit the residents of Nottingham.”

The group also said the decision is a “questionable gesture” since the council had “presented a clear stance to cut ties with its sister cities of Russia and Belarus.”

Agreement Terms Opaque

NSWHK also criticised the council’s decision-making process, saying it lacks transparency.

“The council leader responded that the council has been engaged with stakeholders of our city. Yet, the absence of debates in council meetings or public inquiry during the review process reflects a contradiction to this claim,” the group said.

“The twinning agreement with China is renewed every five years and the public has never been consulted since its establishment in 2004,” it added.

Apart from Nottingham, Global De-Twin With China is campaigning for 11 other UK cities to sever ties with their Chinese sister cities, including Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Medway, Perth, and Sheffield.

Kwong said the UK Parliament’s IPAC members are concerned because “nobody actually knows what is within those agreements and how are they being implemented.”

According to Kwong, who has been assisting some IPAC members with freedom of information requests about twinning agreements, Lord Alton of Liverpool has sought information from the Liverpool City Council, but didn’t get “anything really useful” in response.

“They seem to be saying that they don’t keep various arrangements. And according to some research that’s been ongoing, a lot of the organization that foster these agreements between cities are the local associations of Chinese people from different cities, and a lot of these facilities associations actually have ties to the overseas police station,” she said.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) speaks at a press conference and rally in front of the America ChangLe Association highlighting Beijing’s transnational repression, in New York City, on Feb. 25, 2023. A now-closed overseas Chinese police station is located inside the association building. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders last year exposed unofficial Chinese police stations dotted around the world, consisting of phone numbers and innocuous local addresses.

One of the stations in London shares an address with a food delivery business, with the owner Lin Ruiyou also being the director of the UK Fujianese association.

Such associations have often been connected to the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).

According to The Times of London, the owner, Lin has also been the vice chairman of a London Conservative Party group and has dined with two former British prime ministers.  The report also said Lin previously attended conferences and political events in China that are connected to the UFWD.

Lin has denied working for the Chinese regime, police, or the CCP. He has also denied working for UFWD, arguing that dining and taking photos with friends who work for the Chinese regime doesn’t mean he works for the UFWD.

Kwong said that with the large population of Hongkongers in the UK it’s very hard to reassure them and the general public without “concrete information” on what the twinning agreements entail.

Katy also told The Epoch Times that Hong Kong expats in the UK feel uneasy that local councils have ties with the CCP because they have been “victims” of the Chinese regime, but also because they are worried about “the possible infiltration that these ties can bring.”

Sheffield

The Epoch Times also spoke to Clara Cheung. Formerly a district councillor in Hong Kong, Cheung now lives in the English city of Sheffield, which is tied to two Chinese cities, Anshan and Chengdu.

The link between Sheffield and Anshan, both cities of steel, has been established in the 1980s, while ties with Chengdu came in 2010.

Speaking to councillors in January, Cheung listed the CCP’s human rights violations and stressed that the gesture of de-twinning with Chinese cities would be to de-twin with the CCP rather than the Chinese people.

Cheung told The Epoch Times that she believes it would make an impact on the CCP if ” a lot of UK cities” cut ties with their Chinese twin cities.

Commenting on Sheffield’s relationship with Chengdu, Cheung said the previous Labour-led Sheffield council was hoping to use the tie to develop “a lot of business with China,” although the plan never materialised.

Epoch Times Photo Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with China’s leader Xi Jinping (R) before the G20 leaders’ family photo in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 4, 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

In July 2016, during the so-called Golden Era of Sino-British relationship, Sheffield City Council touted the “biggest Chinese investment deal outside London,” after returning from a trip to the Chinese city.

According to the BBC, Chengdu’s Sichuan Guodong group, a Chinese construction group, was to invest £220 million over the first three years and £1 billion over 60 years.

The council in 2019 confirmed that no project was to go ahead. According to Yorkshire Post, Councillor Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business and investment at Sheffield City Council said, “It looks like he is not interested in Sheffield anymore,” referring to Wang Chunming, the owner of the construction group.

But according to a report by China Daily, the relationship between the two cities did result in a twinning agreement signed in 2017 between the Chengdu Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone (CDHT) and its counterpart in Sheffield, with the view of collaboration in education, sports, and aerospace technology. It came a day after the CDHT and Chinese energy company signed a separate agreement in London to establish a joint research group on quality engineering and smart technology.

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