German university ends ties with China scholarship scheme

A prestigious German university has decided to suspend collaboration with students funded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC) “to reduce the risk of industrial espionage”. It is the first university in Germany to openly break with the Chinese government scholarship scheme, though other universities in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United States have already done so this year on various grounds.

The CSC mainly funds foreign students in China, but it also awards thousands of scholarships each year to Chinese doctoral students to study at top universities abroad. Approximately 30 universities in Germany have CSC scholarship holders with numbers rising strongly in recent years.

However, in a move that could reverse that tide, one of Germany’s largest universities, Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), in the state of Bavaria, in a recent email from the university executive committee to staff, said its board, from 1 June onwards, “decided to suspend collaboration with holders of scholarships awarded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC) indefinitely”.

The committee, explaining its reasons, said: “complying with the principle of academic freedom is of the utmost importance for us. However, the political landscape has changed significantly in recent times and topics such as protection against scientific and industrial espionage, data security and safeguarding intellectual property also pose a challenge for our FAU”.

The FAU letter pointed to the contracts Chinese students sign with the CSC, which comes under China’s education ministry.

“The reason behind this decision is that these CSC students sign a contract in which they pledge absolute allegiance to the state, as well as undertaking to remain in contact with the Chinese embassy at all times, and to return to China to serve their country after completing their scholarship,” it stated.

FAU noted that the contract also encompasses relatives and family members. Other European universities have revealed CSC contract conditions that stipulate family members have to remain in China, and serve as guarantors of the CSC scholarship holder, a policy seen by some academics as holding family members hostage, contingent on the good behaviour of the scholarship holder while abroad.

“FAU is aware that under these contracts CSC scholarship holders will be unable to fully exercise their academic freedom and freedom of expression as stipulated under German Basic Law,” the email said.

Such wording in contracts “would be unthinkable in Germany, I don’t think you could have this kind of contract with any scholarship holder here”, Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow working on China at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Berlin, told University World News.

“Some of the issues in the contract have caused some debate here in Germany. Universities have to ensure people can enjoy the rights they’re normally guaranteed in Germany, like anybody else, such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression,” she said.

More German universities are expected to follow suit. But “it’s probably going to be a hard decision for most universities”, Ohlberg noted.

However, Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and an expert on Germany-China relations, told University World News: “I think it will be a domino effect. Once we see one university in Germany end this kind of operation other universities will be under pressure to do the same.

“Given what we know about the contracts, they are antithetical with our kind of values of academic freedom, and therefore there's absolutely no justification to carry on as if nothing happened,” he added.

“Now it’s all in the public domain, they (universities) should all terminate these programmes, and maybe renegotiate and make sure that the contract terms are acceptable to the German side.”

Sascha Klotzbücher, until recently an acting professor in the department of East Asian Studies at the University of Göttingen in Germany but now at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, noted that German engineering giant Siemens has a vast state-of-the art research facility in Erlangen, and major collaborations with FAU, which may have led to espionage concerns.

“There may have been some pressure from the industrial side, or from civic (groups),” he suggested.

However, he noted that FAU had a small number of CSC grantees compared with other German universities such as the Free University of Berlin (FUB) and the University of Munich, which had hundreds of CSC scholars – one estimate suggested more than 500 CSC scholars at FUB alone – and “they have special agreements with CSC. Compared to both these universities FAU does not have that kind of institutional cooperation”.

“Free University of Berlin, and also University of Munich, would want to stick to that cooperation scheme (CSC), simply because it's very profitable – they can save a lot of money because they don’t have to pay for the (Chinese) people who are working in the laboratories, or whatever, under this kind of cooperation project or research projects.”

DAAD joint scheme exempt

According to sources, FAU made the decision in late May after discussion in March. Notably, however, FAU has made an exemption for holders of the jointly funded Sino-German CSC-DAAD postdoctoral scholarship programme run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Fulda noted that the preselection of candidates was done by China even with the joint scholarships, “so they (DAAD) can’t wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with us”.

Fulda pointed out: “The German side thus far has not done their due diligence. They have basically allowed the Council to do the vetting (of recipients) on their behalf which means the scholarships are given based on their (Chinese) criteria, which are political. Therefore, if you want to do more in terms of vetting, you [will] need to change the cooperation agreement for example between DAAD and CSC. It doesn't mean you have to completely stop it.”

DAAD has argued that the CSC contracts reflect the reality of China: “in which universities have increasingly had to comply with ideological requirements for several years”.

Dr Heinz Christoph Steinhardt, associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna, disagreed with FAU’s decision which he said “highlight(s) a fundamental lack of grasp on basic realities” in China.

He pointed out via Twitter that, “except for the home return clause, there is little to no difference between the CSC students and those funded by DAAD” that FAU exempted from their ban.

He added that the university’s decision was “based on deeply flawed reasoning”, noting “if the risk of espionage and lack of full academic freedom is the driver, you have to consequently ban all Chinese nationals from campus”.

According to Fulda, although it was difficult to determine such forms of espionage, as cited by FAU in its email, CSC students and scholars “are rarely spies”.

He added: “But they may be directly tasked or incentivised (by Chinese authorities) to engage in highly unethical, irresponsible behaviour. So, there could be research misconduct or significant national security implications or other ethical issues.

“This is something we will have to deal with in terms of our existing risk management procedures and is absolutely justifiable to do so” he said.

Repressive rules

An investigation by German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle and German outlet Correctiv published earlier this month maintained that Chinese students in Germany were “placed under repressive rules by the Chinese state”, and that this was particularly true of young researchers and academics on CSC scholarships.

Sample CSC contracts seen by Deutsche Welle and Correctiv from different years and different countries, most recently from 2021 for a doctoral student at a German university, and previous versions translated by the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University in the US, found that CSC scholars have to sign a declaration in advance that they will not take part in any activities that ‘harm’ China’s security.

As indicated by FAU, the contract requires them to report back to the Chinese embassy on a regular basis, with violations of the conditions subject to disciplinary action. The contract also stipulated that they must return to China after their PhD and that the terms of the CSC contract only expired after two years of having returned home.

According to Ohlberg, who has seen older versions of the CSC contract, if they are in breach, “[t]hey can technically be asked to repay the scholarship, plus some additional fee on top”.

If the person breaks the contract, for example by staying abroad, and does not pay back the money, then the two people that are forced to remain in China would have to pay. “It also sends a political message, that also adds additional incentive and additional pressure on the person not to do anything that could be seen as breaking the contract,” Ohlberg said.

A Chinese embassy statement said: “Any program where students are sent abroad, sponsored with government money, comes with certain requirements. The China Scholarship Council follows international practice.”

However, a British-based academic described the CSC’s workings as “completely opaque” and said it was difficult to ascertain whether the contracts were in line with ‘international practice’.

Espionage fears

In its email FAU raised the fear of espionage at the same time that intelligence agencies in the UK and around Europe raised the alarm, particularly about military or dual civilian-military uses of technology and research.

Last month Germany’s domestic intelligence agency Verfassungsschutz, releasing its latest annual report, said that China was Germany’s “greatest threat in terms of economic and scientific espionage”, highlighting that research cooperation was a way for China to obtain German technology and know-how.

The German government on 14 July released its new China strategy focusing on ‘de-risking’ links with China without going as far as the US in ‘decoupling’. The strategy included limiting federal German funding to research projects with China in which “knowledge drain is likely”, or “only supported when suitable conditions are imposed”.

The strategy specifically refers to use of research by China’s military and increasing links between civilian technology and the defence industry. “China’s military-civil fusion policy is placing limits on our cooperation,” the strategy document says.

“We are taking into account the fact that civilian research projects, including basic research, are also being considered by China in strategic terms with respect to their military use,” it says.

However, as yet unspecified limits only refer to federal research funding. Germany’s Education Ministry leaves it to universities themselves to take specific action.

Fulda sees the FAU decision as a “stop gap measure”, because while there has been a spotlight on such issues in German media, “but policy is lagging”.

Revelations in Sweden and Denmark

Fears of research being syphoned off by scholarship holders affiliated, openly or clandestinely, to Chinese military-linked universities has also determined the reaction of some other universities in Northern Europe who have cut or reduced the number of CSC scholarship holders since the beginning of this year.

In 2020 the University of North Texas in the US, abruptly ended its relationship with CSC, sending researchers home in the middle of a pandemic.

But in Europe, revelations about CSC contracts first appeared in January 2023 in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, reporting on a PhD student at Lund University who had to sign a CSC contract pledging allegiance to China and providing guarantors in China.

It had had swift repercussions in Sweden, with Uppsala and Lund Universities saying they would terminate cooperation with CSC and the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm imposing a temporary bar on enrolments of CSC scholarship holders.

The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm said it was “in discussions” with the CSC, hoping to review the wording on the contracts.

In neighbouring Denmark, Aarhus University decided at a senior management meeting in March to no longer admit CSC-funded PhD students from China. However, current CSC scholars – around 46 of them at Aarhus – would be able to complete their PhD.

CSC students who had already received an offer from AU but not yet begun their PhD would be allowed to take up their place, Aarhus University clarified. In February, this year, it had suspended admission of CSC-funded PhD students in order to investigate whether they were subject to unreasonable contractual terms.

The Chinese embassy in Denmark told the Danish newspaper Politiken that reports from Dagens Nyheter, Correctiv and Deutsche Welle are “nothing other than a malicious distortion of the content of an agreement in order to politicise and stigmatise normal teaching and research collaboration between China and other countries”.

Netherlands – a more nuanced approach

In the Netherlands where there are an estimated 2,000 CSC-funded PhD students, several Dutch universities have rejected CSC-funded Chinese scholars, the Dutch newspaper Trouw revealed in an investigation in May.

Nonetheless, most Dutch Universities have taken a more nuanced approach to not banning CSC scholars altogether but screening them individually.

Utrecht University said it will not “enter into discussions” with PhD students with CSC grants, but noted this was also due to the low salaries that PhD students receive: EUR1350 (US$1511) per month, over EUR400 per month below the Dutch minimum wage.

Delft University of Technology, with 242 CSC scholarship holders, told Trouw it was “increasingly reluctant” to admit PhD students with a CSC scholarship and accept CSC PhD candidates in sensitive research areas, such as “dual use” technologies. The university also no longer admits students with ties to the ‘Seven Sons’ – seven universities with close ties to the Chinese military.

Maastricht University, with 182 CSC holders, withdrew three PhD projects because of the candidate’s ties to a ‘Seven Sons’ affiliated university. Wageningen University said it has become ‘more reserved’ about accepting CSC grantees, which Eindhoven University of Technology told Trouw it was also reducing the number of CSC students it accepts.

After questions were asked in the Dutch parliament, Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf said last month that he would investigate the risk to “knowledge security” of the Chinese scholarship. Most universities don’t want to ban Chinese researchers altogether, he told Trouw. “If we want to continue to participate at the top of science, we cannot say that we do not want their knowledge,” he said.

Nonetheless, in an interview with the Financial Times this month Dijkgraaf said he would investigate “how many CSC researchers there are in the Netherlands and in which fields they are active”.

The Netherlands is also preparing a knowledge security screening law. “The risk areas – sensitive technologies – are currently being mapped out. The screening will be risk-oriented,” Dijkgraaf said, adding it would apply to any country outside the EU.

There was no specific policy “to exclude Chinese students...or to discourage co-operation with Chinese institutes or researchers in sensitive fields”, Dijkgraaf stressed.

Ingrid d’Hooghe, coordinator and senior research fellow at the Clingendael China Centre, at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Hagu, said: “Research in the Netherlands should not be financed through Chinese government scholarship programmes that are subject to political conditions, but through equivalent financial contributions by all parties involved.”

In addition, practical measures should be put in place to ensure academic integrity and freedom in cooperation with China,” she said in a commentary published by Clingendael in May, noting: “There is still too little discussion about this at present.”

Continuing collaboration

But not everyone is rushing to the exit. Notably, the University of Melbourne Australia this week announced it was renewing its partnership with CSC for a combined investment of up to AUD$75 million (US$50.79 million) until 2027 to support top-ranking graduates from institutions in China to undertake a PhD at the University of Melbourne, its Vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell said during a visit to China.

The partnership between CSC and Melbourne was established in 2011 and has offered scholarships to 215 candidates since its inception.