The Spectator's Notes

Jesus College’s China problem

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

Although Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, is committed to openness, it is a struggle to get information out of him about his university’s dealings with the Chinese Communist party. He has declined an interview, and when I raised questions about Jesus College’s China Centre and other China links, which he has publicly backed, he replied that ‘You cited one very specific initiative, organised by one of our 31 colleges, with a very narrow thematic focus’. I wrote back with further questions, but he says he is ‘not able to add anything to my earlier remark about Jesus College’. I also wrote to Sonita Alleyne, the Master of Jesus, who also declined an interview: she must ‘focus on the immediate needs of our community’ instead. On its website, Jesus speaks of its alumni as ‘a lifelong community’, but I discover that they, too, are not getting substantive replies. The Jesuan Sir John Jenkins, distinguished former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote to Ms Alleyne to ask whether the college would be prepared to invite a senior figure critical of Xi Jinping to address it. The Master’s secretary replied: ‘The College aims to foster a community of freedom of thought and expression in which all its members can flourish. Feedback from our alumni… is always welcome. We are proud of our wide range of research partners and academic independence. Please see for more details on the work of the China Centre.’ Finally, I tried Professor Peter Nolan, the China Centre director, and a long-term admirer of Xi’s ‘national rejuvenation’. When Professor Nolan retired from his university chair, he was given a Class A fellowship at Jesus, a high privilege at that stage in life which caused resentment among his peers. He is the one with the money-producing contacts at high levels of the Communist party. I have heard nothing back.

My latest inquiry of these reticent academics concerns the Yidan Prize. Jesus has thrice been host to the Yidan Prize Conference: Europe. The prize, for which each recipient gets the stupendous sum of $3.9 million, half in cash, seems to have oddly amorphous educational aims, with projects like Heart of Purity and Heart of Maple Leaf. How much money does Jesus get for staging the show? The prize money comes from Charles Chen Yidan, a founder of Tencent, a vast company controlled by China but incorporated in the Cayman Islands. President Xi sometimes attends its meetings. Tencent dominates the global games market. In 2017, it produced a mobile game called ‘Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech’. The winner was whoever could generate most claps for Comrade Xi’s magnificent address to the 19th party congress, in which he said: ‘We have strengthened party leadership over ideological work… The importance of Marxism as a guiding ideology is better appreciated.’ Professor Toope spoke warmly at the conference at Jesus in March, as Covid-19 began to engulf the world. He says Cambridge and Yidan should ‘collaborate even more closely’.

I recently heard on the radio that last year an average of 14 pensioners a day had to sell their house to pay for their care. This was supposed to shock us. Actually, the figure seems remarkably low (a little over 5,000 a year) and, in principle, reasonable. Rather like home ownership itself, care in old age is a likely, though not certain, cost in an average British life. Many people with enough money to buy a house are also in a position to make some provision for that care. By the time they need care, significant numbers find themselves in houses too big and expensive for their needs. It is not automatically wrong for such people to downsize or even to sell up to cover care costs. Much of the indignation comes understandably from the children of those selling up, who fear for their inheritance. But should this ‘first world problem’ drive public policy?

Last Friday, the Times reported that Heshmat Khalifa, a director of Britain’s largest Muslim charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide, had resigned. The paper had confronted him with ‘multiple anti-Semitic comments’ he had made on his Facebook page. He had called Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, ‘a Zionist pig’ and described Jews as ‘the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs’. Resigning, Mr Khalifa said: ‘I did not intend to insult the Jewish community and neither do I hold views which are anti-Semitic.’ He had just been upset about Egyptian politics, he explained. This was a big story. There was, however, no report whatever on the BBC. Imagine how it would have reacted if a director of Christian Aid had said the same things.

Mr Khalifa’s imagery about monkeys and pigs is not some personal eccentricity. It is a common trope in anti-Semitic discourse by Muslim extremists, including some widely considered mainstream. In a sermon of 2002, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and therefore the most eminent cleric in Sunni Islam, called the Jews ‘the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs’. Similar words have been preached at Al-Haraam, the most important mosque in Mecca. Such phrases derive originally from Book 5 of the Koran which has some tough things to say about Jews and Christians (‘Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends’), classing them as ‘those whom God has cursed… transforming them into apes and swine and those who serve the devil’. Nothing that Mr Khalifa said would shock most followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant literalists. When he was foreign secretary, David Miliband praised Islamic Relief Worldwide for combining religious identity with ‘the values that bind Britain together as a liberal democracy’.

Now that Olivia de Havilland is dead, is there anyone alive, apart from the Queen, who was famous in the 1930s?

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