Be braver when dealing with China

Because universities in China are not independent

Photo: Monique ShawMeeting between Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker and the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, last month at the Leiden University Academy Building.

European universities are not adequately aware of the risks of working with Chinese academies, experts warn. “It’s hard to say no to a barrow load of cash.”

By Anoushka Kloosterman Li Keqiang, the Chinese prime minister, made a flying visit to Leiden University last month. He toured the botanical gardens and cheerily shook hands with Rector Carel Stolker, who was to visit Hong Kong two weeks later while Vice-Rector Hester Bijl visited China too, in early October, “to reinforce our ties and forge new ones”.

And Leiden is not the only university to invest heavily in its relationship with China. The University of Groningen (RUG) had very advanced plans to set up a department in Yantai but were shocked to discover that a high-ranking officer of the Communist Party had been appointed as its head.

However, that’s exactly how the Chinese academic world works – it’s inextricably entwined with the CCP’s political agenda. A group of researchers at Leiden Asia Centre feels that government authorities and universities should be more aware of that. Last week, the team presented their report  on partnerships between European universities and Chinese universities to a room of researchers and policy-makers in The Hague’s Museon.

Their message is: don’t be naive and make sure you have a strategy. Although a partnership with China certainly has its advantages, there are certain risks associated with it that Europe cannot yet cope with.

“Chinese universities are not independent”, says Ingrid D’Hooghe. “They work for the big man.” The Chinese government wants China to be a global power and has rolled out some very ambitious policy plans to achieve its goal. The country wants to belong to the highest echelons of all sorts of academic disciplines by 2050 and they need technological knowledge for economic growth. “It’s evident in how things are funded: most of the money goes to hard science.”

The knowledge acquired abroad is intended to reinforce the Party State and could be used for military purposes and so on, according to Frank Pieke, a Professor of China Studies who recently left Leiden for Berlin.
“The Security Service intercept research students in China and force them to tell everything they have done and what the rest of the research group is doing.”

He has heard of a student who managed to avoid being stopped by moving from hotel to hotel. Another student pretended that he hadn’t learnt anything. “We should start briefing these students.”

In recent years, the scope for uncensored debate has diminished, particularly in social sciences and humanities, Pieke explains. Chinese researchers working abroad are under increasingly tight supervision and even in Europe, their academic freedom is undermined more and more. The same applies to international students, Pieke adds: “They cannot speak very freely and are constantly watched. Party cells at the university make sure they toe the line.”

He doesn’t want the situation to be regarded as a “clash of civilisations”. “We need to find a balance between naivety and paranoia.” The researchers recognise that there are obviously advantages to such partnerships: millions of students, plenty of available data, slacker privacy laws, facilities. But above all, there’s money. China is investing generously in international partnerships and universities are finding it tough to turn down that money.

Mark Kas, a research developer and member of the RUG’s “Yantai team”, believes that money is a “crucial aspect”. “It’s hard to say no to a barrow load of cash. If the Netherlands don’t put money on the table as well, you become vulnerable.”

It’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to work with China on an equal footing. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, agrees D’Hooghe. “And decides on the quality. You can’t attract the best researchers without adequate funding. China’s in no two minds about that.”

We shouldn’t rule out partnerships, says Pieke, but European partners should think carefully about how they intend to match China’s plans and strategy. “We need to punch our weight and be more assertive. We don’t do our homework properly and the Chinese do, so China writes the agenda and takes the lead. We need to be braver when we’re dealing with China and say: this is OK, that isn’t.”

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