Politics aside, China must be integrated into world science

Hardly a week goes by without another blow to academic relations and collaboration between China and Western countries. The latest kerfuffle is the decision by the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg to suspend collaboration with the China Scholarship Council (CSC), a key funding scheme of the Chinese government for Chinese students and researchers – the first German institution to do so.

Some universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States have already ended CSC collaboration, while tensions have also accelerated between Chinese and Australian universities and government agencies.

These actions fit into a pattern of previous measures to disrupt academic collaboration with China. There have been numerous examples of Chinese agencies or individual scholars accused of stealing intellectual property, several of which have proven to be false.

Some academics, often of Chinese descent, have been accused of inappropriate or illegal ties to Chinese universities or government agencies, and again some of these accusations have been false.

Many Western universities have closed their Confucius Institutes, the China government-sponsored centres for Chinese language and culture: only 10 remain in the United States while 111 have closed in recent years. In Europe, in recent years, many Confucius Institutes have been closed.

In the United States, funding pressure from the Trump administration was a key rationale for closure, while in Europe concerns about academic freedom were more important. But the result is the same. Higher education and research relations with China in Western countries have deteriorated generally. In the United States, anti-China rhetoric is now a standard of Republican politics but also finds ears in Democratic circles.

Similar patterns can be seen in Europe and Australia. Academe has been dragged into the melee – with investigations and pressures on universities.

China is a global leader in science

Once, Western universities were the dominant global model, the exclusive producers of scientific research, and the arbiters of recognised knowledge. This is no longer the case.

While Western, and especially American, ideas about the nature of universities remain central, research production and innovative ideas are now produced everywhere, and especially in Asia – and here China dominates, although other Asian countries are also key scientific producers.

China is now a leading producer of highly cited scientific journal articles and is a major source of patents and other innovations.

And China’s production of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates is now the world’s largest. Asian, and especially Chinese, academics and researchers are also in key positions in the world’s universities and laboratories, and many work in Europe and North America.

Fundamentally, China now has one of the world’s largest, most important, and increasingly productive academic systems. It is of central importance that it be integrated in world science.

For almost a half-century, China has been increasingly integrated into global higher education, building Western-style research universities, participating in scientific collaboration, emphasising English and permitting a modicum of academic freedom.

Now, in the Xi Jinping era, the tide has turned. English is being de-emphasised, academic freedom and institutional autonomy severely curtailed. Ideological conformity in universities is being stressed.

Western institutions with branch campuses in China, as well as their faculty and students, face challenges with academic freedom and ideological pressures on the curriculum.

While to some extent overemphasised in the West, there has been a significant amount of theft of intellectual property. Occasionally, pro-regime students studying overseas have been reported to be spying on fellow Chinese students who express dissident views.

Russia and China – Two of the same?

It is tempting to compare academic cooperation with Russia and China and consider them to be the same. But there are some fundamental differences. In the first place, as mentioned, China is much more important in academic and scientific production and more present globally.

In the second place, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done everything to break the academic relationship with the Western world, whereas China still keeps the channels open.

And third, the leadership of Russian higher education institutions has publicly supported Putin with regard to the invasion and war crimes in Ukraine, while in China higher education leaders take a more silent, although controlled, position.

In that respect, it is clear that formal academic and scientific relationships with Russia are no longer possible.

As we wrote, together with Jamil Salmi, in a previous article in University World News: “In this new, tragic, and uncharted academic and scientific environment, we must be firm in condemning the institutions and academic leaders supporting the war, but keep the door open for contact and perhaps collaboration with those who share common values of integrity, mutual understanding and academic freedom.”

The essential truth is that China has become an important part of global higher education and research. Regardless of current (and likely continuing) deteriorating economic and political relations between China and the West, special efforts should be made to maintain academic collaboration.

Realism and openness

Perhaps the key term that can be used for an ongoing relationship is ‘Trust, but verify’. This term was used by former US president Ronald Reagan in the Cold War to support nuclear agreements between the Soviet Union and the United States, although it is actually a Russian proverb. It was used to support essential work between the two superpowers of the day, recognising that realism and openness were key to an emerging ‘thaw’ in the Cold War.

This is a good guideline for productive academic relations between China and the West. Both sides need to be careful and recognise that there has indeed been a shift in the broader political realities of the mid-21st century.

Clearly, academic relations need to be restored and put on a firm and sustainable footing. There is no reason why Confucius Institutes cannot flourish on Western campuses if the relevant agreements are carefully framed to focus exclusively on language and cultural themes, and if minimum standards with respect to integrity, mutual understanding and academic freedom are respected.

Research collaboration, with careful attention to mutual respect, transparency and protection of intellectual property, is of crucial importance. Exchange and scholarship programmes of all sorts are central, keeping in mind that building ‘soft power’ is part of Fulbright, British Council and other initiatives, similar to China’s policy.

Researchers funded by the CSC should be welcomed, with attention given to ‘sensitive’ fields.

In the current climate of restrictions on academic freedom and the overall politicisation and ideological trends in China, the openness expected in Western countries cannot be counted on. Compromise and pressure to keep the ethical standards of academic cooperation in place are necessary.

Suspending collaboration with China out of hand is not productive and leads to mutual isolation. An open, mutually respectful and productive academic relationship between China and the West is vital in view of the severe geopolitical, climate, energy and healthcare challenges that the world is currently confronted with.

Philip G Altbach is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow and Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow, both at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. United States. E-mails: Philip Altbach:; Hans de Wit: