University funding row raises Chinese influence fears
But the row in the Netherlands amid other recent controversies over Chinese funding of university centres and Confucius Institutes in Germany and the United Kingdom has also made university disclosure of foreign funding more urgent, academics said.
In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the CCHRC at VU Amsterdam received a subsidy of between €250,000 (US$282,000) and €300,000 (US$339,000) from the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, China.
According to documents obtained by Dutch broadcaster NOS, the Chinese university was the sole financial contributor to the CCHRC during those years, which has raised eyebrows.
VU Amsterdam has said it would return the money it had already received from China for this year, NOS revealed last week. But the university only backed down after the damaging revelations prompted a public outcry and strong statements by the Dutch education minister and others condemning the activities of the centre.
On Wednesday NOS said the activities of the Centre were being suspended, with all its lectures for students cancelled, ascribing the decision to the executive board and deans of the university. The Centre’s activities were already in doubt after the return of funds, making it dependent on the university or other donors for its continued survival.
The row blew up just as the Dutch education ministry is due to present its National Guidelines on Knowledge Security on 31 January and to announce its ‘Government-wide knowledge security front-office’, which is expected to have an advisory role and support universities in identifying risks.
It also followed the publication last week of the European Commission ‘toolkit’ for universities on how to deal with foreign interference.
Dutch Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf responded swiftly and unequivocally to the report, saying he was “very shocked” that the funding arrangement signalled possible academic dependence.
“It is urgent and sensible that the Free University now takes action quickly. Scientific core values such as academic freedom, integrity and independence must always be guaranteed,” he said in a statement.
The minister added: “It is important that Dutch knowledge institutions are and remain alert to possible risks of undesired influence by other countries and that they take adequate measures to safeguard academic core values, especially when it comes to universal values like human rights.”
The centre runs an academic journal and organises conferences. Its mission, laid down in the financing agreement with the Chinese university, is to draw attention to a “global view of human rights”, and specifically to the way in which non-Western countries such as China view human rights.
University’s lukewarm initial response
After a lukewarm initial response when the university merely underlined that “as befits the Free University, the research of the CCHRC is independent, interdisciplinary, dialogical and socially relevant”, it added to its statement just hours later, saying “even the appearance of dependence is unacceptable” and announced that it was “taking appropriate measures”, including halting the funding from China.
The university said it has not yet decided whether it will also refund subsidies from previous years, but it said it would first conduct an investigation to determine “whether the independence of the institute’s research has been safeguarded on all fronts”.
The CCHRC website noted in October 2020 that a delegation of people affiliated to the centre ‘recently’ visited the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Western researchers estimate that over a million ethnic minority Uyghurs are being held in ‘re-education camps’, widely regarded as a euphemism for concentration camps, in Xinjiang. Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of genocide against the Uyghurs.
However, the CCHRC website noted: “The situation we encountered in the four cities in this trip did not reflect the grim situation as depicted in the Western reports. There is definitely no discrimination of Uyghurs or other minorities in the region.”
CCHRC Director Tom Zwart, who is also a frequent guest at Chinese state events and on Chinese state television, told NOS any similarities between the centre’s positions online and those of the Communist Party were “coincidental” and were not steered by any direct influence.
Zwart described the CCHRC website as a place for “uncensored free thought”, ascribing the comments on its webpages to individuals “who do not represent the organisation as a whole”.
On 26 January CCHRC released a new statement on its website saying the website would be “temporarily taken offline” in order “to check whether a sufficiently clear distinction is made between statements made on behalf of the Centre and opinions and observations made in a personal capacity.”
It added: “[The] Centre explicitly endorses the conclusions of the United Nations regarding the systematic violation of the Uyghur human rights. In this vein, the Centre’s director, in the presence of members of the Chinese State Council and the Politburo, called on 8 April 2021 to respect and protect the rights of Uyghurs and stop repressive anti-terrorism policies.”
Is academic freedom compromised?
Ingrid d’Hooghe, an expert on China-Europe relations and senior research fellow at the Leiden Asia Centre, Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: “The director of the Centre said in an interview which was also on TV that they were fully independent, there was nothing that made them say what they were saying. But apparently it did not cross their mind that even if they are independent, it doesn’t look like it.”
Dutch academic Lokman Tsui, a researcher on digital freedoms and a former assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said via Twitter: “Important to note: until this year, they [the university in Chongqing] were the only funder. Problematic, because it’s hard to be independent if your research centre relies on one single funder. Problematic also, because public universities in China are closely affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party.”
Tsui added: “But whether the research centre is independent or not is also beside the question. The more important question is: Why is the university allowing its integrity and its reputation to be compromised by accepting money meant to validate China’s atrocious human rights record?”
Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and an expert on Europe-China relations and academic freedom, said: “If they had also received funding from the Dutch government or from the EU or whoever else, they could say they are not dependent on just one funder. But if you’re completely dependent on one funder and you lose autonomy, you are more likely to bend your research in one way or another.”
“A member of the Dutch public will not know whether this [research] is the genuine article or whether this is something that is deeply problematic – this is the area where we enter the field of idea laundering and reputation laundering [by China],” Fulda told University World News.
Need for disclosure legislation
“We need legislation that universities have to make funding public,” Fulda said, pointing to Section 117 of the United States Higher Education Act which requires universities that receive foreign gifts of US$250,000 or more within a calendar year to file a disclosure report to the government.
Other draft foreign influence bills, including the Senate Bill S.1169 in the US, are currently attempting to tighten those rules, including reducing the amount that has to be declared by institutions and individuals if the funding comes from certain countries such as China, after a number of universities failed to report substantial foreign gifts under Section 117.
An amendment to the UK Higher Education Bill tabled on 12 January in the House of Commons would require disclosures of foreign funds of £50,000 (US$68,000) going back 10 years.
“The question is, if the Dutch government or other governments in Europe issued new regulations where universities were forced to make these contracts public, whether it would change things, and I think it would,” said Fulda.
Leiden Asia Centre’s d’Hooghe said: “There is no regulation that forces people to register somewhere what kind of collaboration they have. With new regulations in Australia and, to a certain extent, in the US and Canada, you have to become public with that kind of information. Not so in the Netherlands.”
“It’s not necessarily that people want to keep it a secret, it’s just not something that is done routinely. So at top levels in the university, but often even at the faculty level, the departments don’t have a good overview of exactly what kind of research is being done with whom, and how this is financed,” she said
The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) published a “Framework for Knowledge Security” in July 2021 that outlined risks and the need for monitoring research collaboration, as well as recommending that universities set up their own internal ‘knowledge security advisory team’ to include experts such as cybersecurity specialists.
The focus is on building risk awareness but does not go as far as requiring disclosure of foreign funding. Some universities have pointed out that they cannot ‘police’ research or researchers on behalf of the government.
Who will investigate?
The Netherlands Inspectorate of Education has not indicated that it will carry out a broader investigation into China influence at universities in the country, saying in a statement following the VU Amsterdam row: “No other signals about Chinese influence are known to the inspectorate.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the Inspectorate of Education “would be wise to do more homework in this area”.
“In a decade of documenting Chinese government threats to academic freedom around the world, Human Rights Watch has found threats at universities from Australia to the United States, and proposed a code of conduct to help mitigate these risks.
“One key step: universities should publicly disclose all direct and indirect Chinese government funding and a list of projects and exchanges with Chinese government counterparts on an annual basis,” she said.
“In showing its permeability to Chinese government influence, the Free University shouldn’t limit its response simply to returning the funding. It should urgently assess whether students and scholars of and from China on its campus are subjected to harassment or surveillance,” which she noted had been well documented elsewhere, notably in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.
“University leadership and scholars should assess whether censorship and self-censorship have eroded the curriculum or classroom debate,” Richardson added.
“The Free University should also join forces with counterparts across Europe – from Berlin to Cambridge to Budapest – who have faced similar problems, and agree to share information and adopt common standards with the goal of collectively resisting Beijing’s efforts to curtail academic freedom. The list of potential participants – supposedly ‘free’ universities – is disturbingly long.”
EU toolkit for universities: will it make a difference?
The EU issued a toolkit for universities on 18 January. Although it is comprehensive, d’Hooghe noted that “these rules are not binding because the EU has no competence in the area of education”. Universities are outside Brussels’ remit.
She saw it more as a “service to EU member states who still don’t have national rules, who find it very difficult to develop them or don’t have the capacity to develop them”.
While many ongoing collaboration projects with Chinese universities continue, despite academics and researchers being unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions, d’Hooghe said she knew of many who “are staying away” from starting new projects with China, in part due to risks, including reputational risks.
But she noted that legislation on a national level regarding foreign influence could be tricky. “University autonomy is regarded as an important value and very important for science to advance, so universities are very reluctant to be limited by binding regulations.”