Chinese professor accused of ‘spying’ has ban lifted

A Chinese professor who previously headed the now-closed Confucius Institute at a university in Brussels, Belgium, and who was barred from entering Europe’s Schengen visa area for eight years after being accused of ‘spying’ by Belgian state security, has had the ban lifted after a court hearing.

Song Xinning, a professor at the School of International Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, was barred from travelling to the 26-nation Schengen zone in Europe in October 2019 after Belgium’s state security services claimed he had recruited informants from among Chinese students in Belgium and recruited individuals to China’s intelligence services.

Song denied the charges and took the state of Belgium to court over the travel ban. “The entry ban has now been quashed for the whole Schengen area,” Song’s lawyer Julien Hardy, of the Belgian law firm Casabel, told University World News this week, adding that the ban had “severely affected” his client’s academic activities and reputation.

The barring of a high-profile professor from entering the 26-nation European area shocked many academics in Europe as a particularly heavy sanction for what was seen at the time as unproven allegations. It was also regarded as highly unusual to ban an academic without court proceedings.

A three-judge bench – unusual for this type of hearing, which is usually presided over by a single judge – at an immigration court in Brussels known as the Aliens Litigation Council overturned the travel ban on a technicality saying such a travel ban cannot be imposed after Song was already outside the Schengen area. He had returned to reside in China in September.

The travel ban order must be presented while the person concerned is still in the country, accompanied by an order to leave the country, according to the technicalities of the law.

While it was a technical victory that now gives Song the right to travel and even apply for residency in the Schengen countries, he remains under a cloud over security allegations. Instructions from the Belgian intelligence service remain classified.

Security allegations

Song’s lawyer stressed, however, that the state had not presented enough evidence of such activities. Hardy said Song has consistently denied the accusations.

According to documents provided by the Belgian state security authorities to the court, Song’s activities had allegedly “directly supported the spying and interference activities of the Chinese intelligence services and that his activities therefore constitute a threat to the internal and external security of the state”.

Hardy said that during hearings in January and written legal procedures, questions were raised as to whether there was enough information in the file presented by the Belgian authorities “to sustain the accusation of a threat to state security. I said there is not enough, and indeed there was not much in the file about that”.

“We need to know exactly why they say he is a threat to state security,” Hardy said. “We need to know details of what kind of persons he would have been in contact with or what would have been known that would back the conclusion that he would have been a threat, but there was nothing substantiated enough,” Hardy maintained.

The lawyer acknowledged that security services are often reluctant to provide detailed information derived from intelligence sources, but added that “sometimes when they don’t provide information, it is because they don’t have information”.

While the lifting of the ban allows Song to apply for travel visas to any of the other Schengen countries and attend academic conferences in Europe, Belgian officials said that Belgium’s refusal of his visa remains and the reasons for the Belgian ban continues to be “visible” in the visa information system for Schengen member states.

Closure of the Confucius Institute

Song had been the head of the Confucius Institute at Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), which the university in December 2019 announced would be closed after its agreement expires this June.

Without commenting on the security service’s allegations against Song, the university said in a statement last year that cooperation with the Confucius Institute – whose stated aims include promoting Chinese language and culture and facilitating cultural exchanges – was “not in line with [our] principles of free research”.

Another Brussels university, Universite libre de Bruxelles or ULB, also announced the closure of its Confucius Institute in December last year, though it stressed at the time there were no security concerns involved; rather it was about “efficiency” of the Confucius Institutes’ operations within ULB.

ULB has its own centre for East Asian studies and says it plans to set up Chinese language classes within the university.

A number of Confucius Institutes have closed in Europe in recent years, including at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Stockholm University in Sweden and the University of Lyon in France.

Almost two dozen Confucius Institutes have also closed at universities in the United States in the past two years after campaigns by China hawks in the US Republican Party and in the wake of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in August 2018, which prohibits universities that host Confucius Institutes from receiving US Department of Defense funding for Chinese language study.

Academic cooperation with China

Jonathan Holslag, professor of international relations at VUB, said in an opinion piece published by the Belgian newspaper De Morgen last year that Belgian universities needed to adopt a joint approach towards China.

Academics want to cooperate with China “but without political instruments such as Confucius Institutes or chairs of large state-supported companies. We want to be hospitable, be open, be constructive, but it is in the interest of the Chinese students to refrain from propaganda, espionage.”

At least two Chinese PhD students, who were not students of Song, have also taken successful court action against visa bans slapped on them by the Belgian state on security grounds.

Ingrid d’Hooghe, lecturer at Leiden University’s Asia Centre, said Confucius Institutes should not have a role inside European universities. “It’s not a good idea to have Confucius Institutes in the form that they exist now; I think they should be located outside of any knowledge institution or institution of higher education.”

She described many universities in Europe as naïve. “They do not realise Confucius Institutes are part of and are managed indirectly by the Chinese government. They are not independent from the Chinese government and if you look at how they are run, it is not always very transparent.”

“Confucius Institutes at a certain point also started pushing for more academic cooperation in addition to just teaching language and organising cultural events. They started up a China studies programme in which they wanted to stimulate China research abroad but then, of course, it is the type of China research that suits the Chinese side and they have all kinds of funding mechanisms to support it,” d’Hooghe said.

But she noted that many Confucius Institutes “were established in Europe at a time when we did not look at China so critically and were still focusing on extending and deepening cooperation with China”. For some universities the institutes provided free teaching of Chinese, which represented a significant asset, she said.