‘Facemask diplomacy’ won’t stem research influence fears

‘Facemask diplomacy’ has become a hallmark of China’s attempt to build up relations during the coronavirus pandemic, with boxes of masks sent around the world as gifts as China emerges from the pandemic while Europe, America, Africa and Latin America are still in the throes of it.

Big Chinese companies like Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei have sent gifts of hundreds of thousands of facemasks and medical kit around the world. This includes over a million masks sent as a gift to Canada by Huawei, which has also pledged 500,000 masks and other protective clothing to hospitals in New York, and millions of masks to European Union countries Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Spain.

Academics in a number of countries in Europe say they received smaller gifts of masks sent from universities in China, Chinese PhD students and alumni.

Last week University College Cork in Ireland received 10,000 facemasks from its partner, Minzu University of China, destined for the university hospital in Cork.

Hungary last month received a consignment of 56,000 facemasks from a foundation of China’s prestigious Fudan University. Fudan is planning to set up a branch campus in Budapest in the coming year.

Liaoning University in Shenyang contacted its partner institution, De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom, to donate facemasks to university hospitals and “strengthen solidarity and cooperation”.

Eight Chinese partner institutions of the University of Birmingham, UK, including a hospital affiliated to Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in southern China, sent protective clothing and 10,000 facemasks for university-affiliated hospitals and other community organisations in Birmingham.

Birmingham University has particularly strong partnerships with Chinese institutions and research organisations. “We are expecting more deliveries of facemasks from partners soon and are always open to offers of support from our Chinese friends during these difficult times,” said Jon Frampton, director of the China Institute at the University of Birmingham, adding that such support was greatly appreciated.

Frampton added that during the pandemic “research collaborations with China have continued in a range of fields. Whilst face-to-face collaboration has not been possible, we have used a range of online technology to bridge the gap between the UK and China, enabling research partnerships to continue.”


Many facemask and other medical equipment donations are publicised on Chinese university websites and in Chinese state media sprinkled with references to a ‘Health Silk Road’ between China and Europe – a slogan intended to echo China’s huge ‘Belt and Road’ trade and infrastructure initiative that spans Asia, Africa and parts of Europe.

The British embassy in Beijing posted a notice on its website on 22 April that 330 Chinese graduates who had attended universities in the UK had made ‘personal donations’ to buy ventilators for Britain’s National Health Service for use during the pandemic to show “support and care for the British people”.

China is not the only country donating medical kits and facemasks – South Korea, which had early success in controlling the virus, has also done so, but mainly to poorer countries in Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia and Myanmar. Those donations went directly to community groups and health departments rather than universities.

China is also shipping huge amounts of medical supplies on commercial terms – it is the world’s largest manufacturer of such equipment – some of which has been criticised for being substandard.

However, ‘facemask diplomacy’ as a form of Chinese ‘soft power’ to highlight China’s generosity has not been enough to deflect criticism that China did not act soon enough to control the virus when it first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December amid a heated politicised debate over the origins of the virus.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on 24 March: “We must be aware there is a geopolitical component, including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’.”

Concern about research risks

University-to-university facemask donations have also not dampened rising concern in Europe’s universities about the risks of research collaborations with China, which was beginning to be aired before the pandemic.

“There is a growing awareness in Europe of the potential risks of having these tight research collaborations with China, and related to having Chinese researchers in your institutions,” according to Caroline Meinhardt, research analyst at Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, referring to recent strong actions in this area in the United States.

China relations with the US are highly strained over the trade war and the US administration targeting intellectual property violations, ‘forced’ or clandestine technology transfer, and economic and research ‘espionage’ by Chinese academics in the US, but also notable non-Chinese academics collaborating with China such as Harvard University’s chemistry department chair Charles Lieber, arrested in January. The US has also highlighted links with military organisations in China of Chinese researchers in the US.

The pandemic “may have indirectly accelerated” awareness of Chinese influence risks by highlighting how dependent Europe is on Chinese supply chains, including for vital pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, Meinhardt said.

But “when it comes to the heads of universities or research departments within universities who approve research grants that are funded maybe by Chinese entities, there is a lack of deep understanding of China’s strategic plan and priorities,” she said.

“Europe needs a robust mechanism for research cooperation with Chinese institutions to balance the risks against their commercial and academic institutions,” Meinhardt said. Such a mechanism would “allow different research institutions or countries to share information to gain the knowledge that they need to make informed decisions; and that are not overly harsh in defining any kind of cooperation with China as dangerous, because that would not be productive at all”.

Swiss concerns

While Swiss universities are less economically dependent on foreign students from China than US, UK and Australian universities, which makes acting against Chinese influence on campuses a double-edged sword for them, “a lot of Swiss universities have now come to realise that they should be more careful with Chinese cooperation and they are seeking advice on that,” says Ralph Weber, associate professor of European global studies at the University of Basel and an expert on Europe-China relations.

US action against Chinese influence in research has made many academics in Europe more “insecure”, he says. But “they don’t have the required knowledge to inform their decisions”.

Many Swiss universities, including Basel, have close research relationships with big Swiss life sciences and pharmaceutical companies. Their role in research and development of drugs and vaccines has come to the fore during the pandemic and these are now seen as sensitive sectors in a global race to produce a vaccine against COVID-19.

“The most sensitive sectors, paradoxically, have been more naïve about China. So, when it comes to cooperation in medicine and life sciences, Swiss universities send researchers [to China] who have no knowledge about the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime,” Weber notes.

A wider debate is needed in Europe that should also tackle the thorny question: “When are the benefits from scientific cooperation outweighed by ‘losses’ in mid- to long-term scientific competitiveness or political power?” says Weber.

“Switzerland has only in the last year or two started to rethink its research cooperation with China,” Weber says. “There’s a big discussion about whether Switzerland should have a China strategy or not. That relates to making sure every branch of government and department within government are more coordinated on China. And would include research which is financed by the state.”

Confucius Institutes

“We face an unequal playing field” in research collaborations with China, notes Jonathan Holslag, professor of international studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium.

“It’s clear that the Chinese government guides academic exchanges much more than we do. Whereas European experts are free, Chinese experts are often monitored and expected to transfer knowhow built up in Europe to equivalent centres in China. This is not always spying, as European laboratories open their doors, but it is orchestrated tech transfer,” said Holslag, who specialises in EU-China relations.

In December last year VUB announced it would close its Confucius Institute after the head of the institute, Song Xinning, was accused by the Belgian state of ‘spying’. Song denies the charges. It was followed by the closure of the Confucius Institute at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

“China specialists at Western universities often struggle to find funding from their own government, while China is generously providing support for projects related to the new Silk Road, the impact of 5G technology, trade, and so forth. This way, it shapes the debate and empowers China-friendly experts,” Holslag said.

Last year at Charles University in Prague, the Czech-Chinese centre within the university’s Centre for Security Policy was found to have received funding from the Chinese embassy, according to Czech media reports, including a course on China’s ‘Belt and Road’ (new Silk Road) initiative.

In Germany, the Free University of Berlin had signed a contract with the headquarters of Hanban, which administers Confucius Institutes under China’s Ministry of Education, to fund an endowed professorship over five years.

Revealed by the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel in January after an inquiry under the freedom of information act, it found that a clause in the contract bound the Free University of Berlin to Chinese law, and included language that critics said could increase the university’s vulnerability to political pressure. The Berlin state senate has said it will review the contract.

“The federal government is aware that the Chinese state or the Chinese Communist Party influences events, teaching content and materials at Confucius Institutes in Germany,” the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research said in late November in response to a question from Germany’s FDP parliamentary group. The majority of the 19 Confucius Institutes in Germany are located at universities.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Düsseldorf was closed this month, with a university spokesperson referring to a “lack of transparency” in cooperation. The universities of Bonn and Hamburg have said they are reviewing such collaborations.

Even as individual academics at the University of Basel were receiving gift packages of facemasks from former students in China, the university last month announced it was closing its Beijing-funded Confucius Institute which had operated for seven years, leaving just one Confucius Institute operating in the country, at the University of Geneva. A planned Confucius Institute in Zurich was shelved in 2014 over academic freedom concerns.

All Confucius Institutes in Sweden have now closed, while the Netherlands has also closed university Confucius Institutes including at Leiden University.

Foreign influence rules

So far, neither the EU nor other European countries such as Switzerland and the UK have set up new rules to counter foreign influence in research, as the US and Australia have done in the past two years.

As in the US – where the Federal Bureau of Investigation was among the first to sound the alarm on a government level – European intelligence agencies have sounded warnings.

China was described an “opaque actor” as far back as 2016 by Markus Seiler, then head of the Swiss intelligence agency Nachrichtendienst des Bundes. He referred to China-funded Confucius Institutes as “part of a comprehensive strategy to gain more influence” and explicitly referred to Confucius Institutes in Basel and Geneva as being used by China as centres for “academic diplomacy”.

The 2018 report of Germany’s internal intelligence agency the Verfassungsschutz warned that for several years China had used students and researchers to transfer strategic and sensitive technologies back to China.

European countries like Germany have become alarmed by Chinese investment in strategic industries in the EU, the security-related debate about the involvement of Huawei in 5G networks and the freezing of research collaborations with Huawei by the University of Oxford and top US universities.

More recently, US diplomats in Europe have been visiting key European campuses to persuade them to scale down research collaborations with China in key areas, in particular dual-use technologies that can be used for civilian and military purposes, a number of academics have said.

US diplomats believe that with greater scrutiny in the US, coupled with difficulties getting visas, China is stepping up research collaboration in Europe.

Ingrid d’Hooghe, lecturer on China at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: “In Europe, universities have become more aware of the risks and challenges of cooperation with China. Increasingly European universities are looking more into their cooperation with Chinese partners in a number of countries.”

“Several countries have published checklists for cooperation. Sometimes they are state-neutral, but they often have China in mind,” d’Hooghe said.

No broader strategy

The EU in a strategy paper on China last year already referred to China as a “systemic rival” but coordinating an EU position with member states is tricky, acknowledges Meinhardt. “In the end it has become an institution-based case by case issue which is hard to manage and find a unanimous approach.”

A ‘state-agnostic’ European Commission draft discussion paper dated 20 February on “tackling foreign interference in higher education institutions and research organisations” said consultations in December with universities, industry and research organisations called for the establishment of guidelines to help identify foreign interference, safeguard academic freedom and institutional autonomy and protect intellectual assets.

It was an indication that “some thinking was going on”, but it was hard to see if an EU approach would emerge, academics said.

A UK parliamentary foreign affairs select committee in November 2019 found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on UK campuses.

A response by the UK Foreign Office published by the committee in April said the Foreign Office was “aware of cases such as autocratic state actors putting pressure on universities and academics to avoid certain topics or self-censor their research or course content”.

“There are also reports of pressure or influence exerted on overseas students. We are also aware of autocratic state actors targeting research collaboration.” But it stopped short of government-led guidelines for the sector, saying instead it would support guidelines expected to be released by the vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK in the autumn.

In a letter to the Financial Times in November, China’s Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, wrote: “China is committed to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and respects academic freedom. I believe it has never, and will never, exert any political influence on normal academic activities in British universities.”

Meinhardt said: “I don’t see these kinds of collaborations being shut down or abandoned completely at British universities. What we might see is certain research grants being scrutinised and perhaps revoked. But, all in all, there is still a lot of research cooperation with a lot of value and benefit.”