The decision by a major Dutch university to reject any additional Chinese funding for a controversial think tank has sparked fresh concern over apparent attempts by Beijing to influence debate in European educational institutions.
amsterdam Free University (VU), the fourth-largest university in the Netherlands, has said it will not accept any more money from the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing and will repay the sums it recently received.
The announcement came after a investigation of the Dutch public broadcaster NOS last week revealed VU’s Intercultural Human Rights Center (CCHRC) had received between €250,000 (£210,000) and €300,000 per year from Southwest over the past few years.
According to NOS, the CCHRC used money from Southwest to fund a regular newsletter, host seminars and maintain its website, which has published several publications rejecting Western criticism of China’s human rights policy.
In October 2020, for example, the site noted that scholars associated with the CCHRC had recently visited four cities in Xinjiang province and concluded that “there was definitely no discrimination of Uyghurs or other minorities in the region.”
The US quoted Tom Zwart, Leiden University human rights professor and CCHRC chairman, as telling Chinese state television that human rights in China “must be seen in the context of internal circumstances and cannot copy the West.” .
Another associate of the center, Peter Peverelli, also described reports of labor camps for Uyghurs as “hearsay” and said it is fashionable to criticize China.
“Xinjiang is just lovely,” Peverelli said, according to the public broadcaster. “Lovely people, stunning nature, good food. And no forced labor, no genocide, or any other lies the Western media can make up.”
The center, which counts academics from institutions in the Netherlands, China and other countries among its affiliates, describes itself as an independent research institute aimed at fostering open intercultural debate on human rights concepts and issues.
VU said in a statement that “even the appearance that the investigation is not independent is unacceptable.” The university would not accept any more funding from China, return last year’s money and launch a full investigation. the statement said.
Zwart told NOS that the website was a forum for academic free speech and that the posts did not necessarily reflect the findings of the CCHRC investigation. The fact that some opinions on the site align with the Chinese government’s positions does not indicate formal support, he said.
Dutch Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf said he was “very shocked” by the revelations, adding: “Academic freedom, integrity and independence must be guaranteed and it is important that Dutch institutions remain vigilant against possible risks of unwanted influence by part of other countries and take appropriate measures.”
The incident follows many other examples of China’s efforts to wield soft power through European academic institutions, which in November led Germany’s then education minister to require universities to review all ties with China.
Anja Karliczek called Chinese influence over universities “unacceptable” amid accusations that some 200 state-funded Confucius institutes at academic institutions in Europe were simply “spreading propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.”
Despite fears of “elite capture” and even a threat to national security, Hungary in May announced plans to open a branch of China’s prestigious Shanghai-based Fudan University in Budapest, saying it would raise education standards. higher and would bring Chinese investment and research to market. country.
Britain’s former higher education minister Jo Johnson said in March last year that the risks involved in Beijing’s investment in UK universities were “poorly understood” after a study identified “a significant increase in Chinese funding and collaboration with Chinese researchers over the past two decades.”
“The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are currently not adequately understood or monitored,” Johnson said. If you don’t, you risk real damage to our knowledge economy.”
The report found a significant increase over the past 20 years in Chinese funding for university research, including in such sensitive areas as automation, materials science, and telecommunications, as well as in disciplines where collaboration “may threaten freedom.” expression”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism