University of Oslo under fire for hosting Fudan’s centre

The controversy over the University of Oslo’s agreement to host the European centre of China’s Fudan University, signed back in February, has re-erupted in the past fortnight, triggered by parallel anger in Hungary where protesters have taken to the streets to oppose plans for a Fudan branch in Budapest.

“I have full confidence in the University of Oslo handling of the China centre,” Norway’s Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim said in answer to a question in the Norwegian parliament from the head of the education committee, Roy Steffensen, on 9 June.

He was forced to defend the arrangement on the day that Hanne Skartveit, political editor of Verdens Gang, the major Norwegian newspaper, warned that “a centre controlled by the Communist Party in China is in the process of being established at the University of Oslo. This is naïve.”

She described the Oslo-Fudan agreement as “the fox in the academic chicken coop” and pointed out that the only other country in Europe that has welcomed Fudan University is Hungary, “a European country in flight away from democracy”.

“China got an agreement to build and fund a new university in the capital Budapest, partly by loans and partly by direct funds from China. This has created massive protests. People in the capital will not have a Chinese-governed university which is breaking with academic freedom. And protests have succeeded,” Skartveit said.

“Now [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán has promised to have a plebiscite in Budapest on the matter. Most people think the city will reject the Chinese offer. And then Oslo can be the only foothold in Europe for Fudan University.

“The fox is on its way into what is looking like an academic chicken coop. And it is unbelievable that the gate has been opened from the inside,” she said.

Transfer from Copenhagen

In December 2020 the academic senate at the University of Oslo (UiO) was presented with a note from the rector informing them of negotiations with Fudan University to transfer the European centre to Oslo after Denmark’s University of Copenhagen had decided to close down the centre there.

“The University of Oslo is collaborating with 12 of the most important universities in China and Hong Kong. And in the years 2014-19 more than 2,400 articles were published in collaboration in all major scientific areas, including the humanities and social sciences. And we have more than 50 Chinese PhD students studying at our university. This is the result of a long and good collaboration,” the note said.

It added that 25 years ago UiO was one of the universities taking the initiative to establish the Nordic Centre at Fudan University in Shanghai. Today more than 20 Nordic universities have contributed to better collaboration between Nordic and Chinese scientists and now UiO has become the host of the Fudan-European Centre for China Studies.

“The centre is virtual but is housing one researcher and leader from Fudan and one administrator from Oslo. The goal is to make possible more research collaboration with Fudan and to strengthen student exchanges and research communication,” the note stated.

Critical voices

However, after the agreement was signed, Professor Harald Bøckman, the grand old man of China studies in Norway, based at UiO, wrote an opinion article in Khrono, the web-based Norwegian university newsletter, stating that “in general Fudan might be the best Chinese university to cooperate with, but this is something else”.

“In contrast to the Confucius Institutes that is a national programme directed from China, this initiative is coming from Fudan University, but it still has the character of being part of a global Chinese strategy that without doubt is endorsed by the highest political level in China,” Bøckman said.

“Over the past eight years there has been a constant stream of guest professors, stakeholders and politicians [from China] to Copenhagen. Such traffic in the other direction has been very thin. And the way scientific issues are presented is witness to the political strategies behind [them],” he said.

He said many are coming directly from Chinese President Xi Jinping and his speechwriters: “ecological civilisation”, “the peaceful rise of China”, “Chinese best solutions to solve global questions”, “One Belt One Road initiative [the global investments strategy of China]” and “building together a unity of faith for humankind”.

“This is ideology in an academic disguise,” Bøckman said.

He accused the rector, the deans and others who had prepared the agreement of not doing their homework.

According to Bøckman, while the note for the senate lists nine advantages of the agreement for UiO, this is very skewed since the overarching political framework is not discussed.

“The motives from the Chinese side are not mentioned. In particular, it is bad that the centre is going to be a part of the department of culture studies and oriental languages, where Chinese language is taught. Here we see the cuckoo again, which will grow and significantly affect other work,” Bøckman said.

In a response to Bøckman, on 7 March, UiO Rector Svein Stølen, together with professors Heidi Østbø Haugen and Mette Halskov Hansen and head of the department of culture studies and oriental languages Rune Svarverud, said: “We think that academic collaboration with China is more important now than ever before.

“Bøckman’s argument that Fudan researchers are passive spokespersons for the Chinese regime is not justified. We have chosen Fudan University as a collaborative partner because some of China’s best scientific milieus within the natural sciences, the humanities, in law and social sciences are based there,” they said, adding that the centre today involves 25 Nordic universities.

A second article by Professor Bøckman in major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on 26 May stirred a wider political debate in Verdens Gang, in which Rector Stølen and Pro-Rector Åse Gornitzka responded, stating that cooperation with China has to be seriously thought through.

“Authoritarian and populist governance are on a winning path in several places and research freedom is threatened in many places, not least in China. The huge global challenges in climate, environment and health are demanding a thought-through strategy for collaboration in research and higher education across national borders.

“We must manage to balance contradicting needs and interests [in this work]. This is an important part of our daily work at an internationally oriented university, as the University of Oslo is,” they said.