An official at the Chinese embassy in London warned a student debating society against allowing a critic of the Beijing government to speak at Durham University, saying they had "serious concerns" about the event and that it could damage relations between the UK and China.
Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada who was born in China, is due to take part in a debate at the Durham Union Society on Friday night. However, officials at the Chinese embassy in London phoned the student organisation to raise concerns about her invite, according to a transcript of the call passed to BuzzFeed News.
Chinese students on the campus have also complained that the invite is a "violation of the belief and feelings of Chinese students", as Lin has been banned from China for her human rights advocacy.
Lin moved to Canada while still a child. She was selected as her adoptive country's candidate for the 2015 Miss World beauty pageant, which was held in the Chinese resort city of Sanya, only to be repeatedly refused a visa. She travelled to Hong Kong regardless and attracted media attention as she repeatedly attempted to cross the border in mainland China.
"For Lin coming here we put [sic] some serious concerns about this debate," the official told the students on the telephone call, warning it could affect UK–China relations.
"Especially after the UK leaves the European Union, the prime minister has visited China and reconfirmed that China and the UK are seeking globally strategic collaborations. We don't think that this kind of debating would make any contribution to these kind of relationship.
"So we thought that we would just let you know that. Take a second and think between this debating and the more grand background of UK–China relations."
The diplomatic official said Chinese students at Durham had raised concerns about the event with the embassy, which then decided to intervene.
"The Chinese students are not comfortable about Lin because she's not friendly to the Chinese government," the official said.
When asked by BuzzFeed News why officials were attempting to influence who was allowed to speak on British university campuses, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy defended the intervention.
"Anastasia Lin is known to be a Falun Gong supporter," they said. "Falun Gong is a cult which has been fabricating and spreading the rumour of so-called 'organ harvesting' in China. China has strict laws and regulations on transplants. We hope that the British public will not be misled by Falun Gong’s lies nor provide platform for its deceptive tricks."
Other speakers at the event, who will debate the topic "This House sees China as a threat to the West", include former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chinese analyst Jonathan Fenby, and Ben Harris-Quinney of the conservative Bow Group think tank.
Tom Harwood, the president of the Durham Union debating society, which is run independently from the university and the students' union, said it had received several complaints from Chinese students on campus: "There were some quite curious messages from a couple of students making propaganda-laden accusations at Lin, accusing her of being the equivalent of an IS terrorist."
In one email, sent by a representative of the Durham University Chinese Students and Scholars Association and copied to university officials, several Chinese students registered their complaints about the talk.
"This debate invites a guest, Anastasia Lin, a lady who has been banned by the Chinese government for her human rights advocacy," the student representative wrote. "Our members find both the topic and the guest they invited a violation of the belief and feelings of Chinese students. Anastasia Lin has been banned by the Chinese government and she is obviously not an appropriate person to be invited to debate in a topic like this, which put China in a position to be discriminated."
"Hereby we sincerely ask you to cancel this debate on behalf of the majority of Chinese students in Durham university."
Lin said the embassy's actions show the Chinese government would not tolerate free speech: "The Chinese government have shown through their actions that they are ‘a threat’ to our freedom of expression. It’s not enough that for them to stifle their own citizens’ voices, they are reaching beyond borders to try to silence us here in the West."
A spokesperson for the University of Durham said it enforced a code of practice relating to freedom of expression in relation to meetings or other activities: “Under the circumstances, we have raised no objection to Anastasia Lin taking part in a public debate although this does not, of course, mean that the university takes any particular view on the debate topic.”