Report: At what cost? Chinese funding and academic freedom in Europe

European universities have become increasingly international over the last decade, fostering relationships with researchers, institutions, private companies, and students around the world. While academic internationalisation provides many opportunities, it also presents challenges.

“European academia must recognise that vulnerability to authoritarian and illiberal interference is an undeniable reality in the contemporary context of globalised knowledge production,” the European Commission said in a working document published last year. “Risks encountered in this context crystallise as threats to the principles of academic freedom and integrity.”

The Commission didn’t single out threats from any one country, but its document was published amid heightened concerns about interference from China.

This report asks to what extent Chinese money is being used to fund European universities and to what extent is it eroding academic freedom in the process. The report looks at funding from Chinese companies, Chinese international students, and the protections the EU and UK have in place to prevent undue interference. You can download the report here or view it online using the reader below:


Report: The rise of Confucius Institutes

“First, we stood up, then we got rich, and now we got strong.” Chinese officials are repeating this slogan over and over, China analyst Mareike Ohlberg recently told the audience at an Index on Censorship event. “Part of being a strong country means being able to influence or determine what people talk about, not just in China but globally.”

Confucius Institutes were established in 2004 with the stated mission of teaching Chinese language and culture abroad and are widely acknowledged as one of the ways China exerts its influence around the world. In 2010, the Confucius Institute headquarters (known as Hanban) received the ‘Chinese Influence the World Award’. “People often ask me about the Confucius Institute’s role in soft power,” said its founder, Xu Lin, at the award ceremony. “We are indeed trying to expand our influence.”

Confucius was a sixth-century philosopher, educator, and quasi-religious figure, who has since come to symbolise peace and harmony. By promoting this image and avoiding any reference to Marxist ideology, a Chinese state institution has made its way onto more 550 university and college campuses, and into 1,172 primary and secondary school classrooms around the world. According to the New York Times, “The carefully selected label [of Confucius Institutes] speaks volumes about the country’s soft-power ambitions.”

In the West, the largest number of Confucius Institutes are found in English-speaking countries. Why? “The Chinese government is minimalist,” Ohlberg replied. “If you have the government in your pocket, why do you need a Confucius Institute?” The UK has approximately 30 Confucius Institutes, five in Scotland. France has 21, Germany has 19, and Italy has 16. There are 103 in the EU.

By operating primarily on campuses, Confucius Institutes are unlike other countries’ cultural organisations, like the British Council, Alliance Française, or Goethe Institutes. Tao Zhang of Nottingham Trent University believes this enables the Chinese authorities “to gain a foot-hold for the exercise of control over the study of China and the Chinese language.”

Confucius Institutes are also unlike European institutes in that they are directly managed by the Chinese government. According to the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, “[t]his offers Confucius Institutes the possibility to unilaterally promote Chinese policy and ideas in a one-sided way, to commit censorship, or to stimulate self-censorship about China among students, pupils and the wider public”.

This report looks the rise of the Institutes and whether those fighting for freedom of expression should be worried.

Should we have to respect or just tolerate abhorrent views?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115791″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I love words. I love how language evolves and how a book, or an article or a speech can change your perception of the world in a moment. I am so proud to be part of the team at Index because our role is to make sure that everyone, wherever they live, has a right to use the most core of human rights – our right to free expression. That you and I both have the same rights to have our voices heard.

But just because we have the same rights to free speech doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you, or respect you, or even like you. In fact, my right of free expression empowers me to fundamentally disagree with you and tell you so. It gives me the right to challenge you, to challenge societal norms, to think differently and to make my argument to the world. It allows me to write this blog.

Of course, there are limitations, certain clubs you may choose to join have their own standards and by joining them you are choosing to abide by their rules. Some institutions have set frameworks on language for good reason, but in the main, in our homes, at the pub (whenever we get to go to those again – not that I am bitter about living in Tier 3!), on our social media, free speech empowers people and ensures that the minority have the protected right to be heard.

What we don’t have is a protected right to be liked or respected. Respect is earned. Respect demands that I value your opinion. Respect requires me to think there may be merit in your views. I am a proud anti-racist. I simply can’t and would not respect the views of a racist. I am a proud trade unionist. I could never respect a union-breaker. I am a proud internationalist. I would never respect the arguments of populism or nationalism.

But while I may not respect the people that espouse these views or the ideas themselves that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to tolerate them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to say them and to promote them. It just means I have the right (and on occasion the responsibility) to challenge them and prove them wrong. I may find someone’s arguments abhorrent (and I do, regularly) and I am never going to respect them but I do have to accept their right to have those views and in a free and fair society I have to tolerate the objectionable.

Which brings me to Cambridge University. On Tuesday (8 December) we will know the result of a ballot of academics at one of our most important academic institutions. The ballot is on the issue of free speech and as you would expect from an institution built on the principles of academic freedoms and intellectual curiosity there is a debate about the definition of free speech. Specifically, whether academics have to respect each other’s opinions or merely tolerate them.

Honestly, I think it would be perverse for an institution which is meant to be free to explore and investigate every aspect of our societies, an institution that demands its academics debate and argue to prove their point, an institution which has a global leadership role – to demand respect for abhorrent views, rather than toleration.

We all want to live in a world where people are nicer to each other, where you can go on social media without fear of abuse, where hate crime is a thing of the past. I don’t think that we’re going to achieve these goals if we demand respect from each other. We need to earn it and the first step on that journey is toleration.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Academic freedom in Hong Kong: “It’s a storm and no one wants to go outside, even with an umbrella”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114944″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”right”][vc_column_text]A 12-year-old girl tackled by police and pinned to the ground, a media tycoon in handcuffs, dozens of activists in court – these have become the familiar images from Hong Kong since the passage of the national security law. But there’s another victim of the amplified censorship and persecution happening in the city – academia. Hong Kong’s classrooms and lecture theatres are increasingly at the receiving end of pressure to conform – or else.

Within days of the new law, Hong Kong’s education bureau ordered schools to review all reading materials in the curriculum.

“If any teaching materials have content which is outdated or involves the four crimes under the law, unless they are being used to positively teach pupils about their national security awareness or sense of safeguarding national security, otherwise if they involve other serious crime or socially and morally unacceptable act, they should be removed,” the Education Bureau said in a statement.

Politically sensitive books, including those written by pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, and titles related to China’s Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square massacre, were removed from library shelves. Textbooks censored out phrases like “separation of powers”. Gone too were illustrations showing anti-government protesters and criticism of the mainland Chinese government.

But the purge hasn’t stopped at reading material. Teachers have been fired. Just hours before the law came into effect, a secondary school visual arts teacher, who is too fearful to reveal his real name and goes by the moniker Vawongsir on Instagram, was laid off. He had received a complaint months earlier about critical artwork he’d done outside of work and yet no firm action had been taken against him. Then the new law was announced and he was fired. At the same time, a middle school music teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed after she failed to prevent students from performing a protest anthem during midterm exams.

“If you look at primary and secondary education it’s really obvious what they’re doing. They’re not hiding it,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, in an interview with Index. Tsui, who formerly held the position of head of free expression at Google in Asia and the Pacific, focuses his research and teaching on digital rights, security, democracy and human rights in general and in China and Hong Kong.

Tsui says the censorship is less obvious in higher education. Less obvious though does not mean less controlling. “They won’t tell you to not do x, y and z but it’s clear it’s not rewarded,” said Tsui.

Tsui himself is an example. Earlier this year he lost his tenure which, as he described in a letter he wrote at the time, “is important for academic freedom, because it provides job security, so you will not be afraid to lose your job if you take on controversial or challenging research topics.” Tsui was unsure whether this was politically motivated, but it cannot be ruled out.

“Maybe it is true that I would have gotten tenure if I had spent my time exclusively and only on ‘safe’ research and nothing else. But that would not have been me,” he wrote in the letter, which received a plethora of responses in solidarity with him and what he had done and in support of his teaching.

Even tenure doesn’t fully protect you in Hong Kong today. Benny Tai, who was associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and one of the Umbrella Movement leaders, was fired in July. Shui-ka Chun, another university educator known for his political activism, was laid off. China’s liaison office in Hong Kong hailed the terminations as a “purification of the teaching environment.”

Unsurprisingly the result is an atmosphere of self-censorship and an environment in which “the good people leave”.

“It’s a storm and no one wants to go outside, even with an umbrella,” said Tsui.

A battle over independence is nothing new for Hong Kong’s educators. Earlier attempts to introduce a patriotic “national education” curriculum into Hong Kong schools resulted in tens of thousands protesting in 2012, forcing it to be shelved. In 2018, charges of “brainwashing” were once again levelled at the government and at Beijing after attempts were made to alter the way history was taught (more focus on mainland China; less on Hong Kong’s colonial past).

To ensure that teachers fall in line, organisations have been established to report on those who might say the wrong thing. A complaint to the Education Bureau was what led to the aforementioned visual arts teacher Vawongsir being flagged and later fired.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, has made it quite clear that she isn’t going to go easy on education. The city’s schools and universities are often accused of radicalising Hong Kong’s young with Western ideals and preventing a Chinese national identity from flourishing, accusations reinforced by Lam publicly. At an education forum in 2017 she highlighted that many people arrested for participating in illegal protests over the last year were students.

With each attack usually comes defence, often fierce and determined. And rightly so: minds are shaped in the classroom. But fears are this defence, already strained, will not continue.

As Tsui says, the lines have become further blurred since the passage of the national security law. He describes the law as a “clarion call for the entire society to encourage and amplify everything on the pro-government side” and an “open field-day for harassing anyone” who speaks in favour of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

“I think you have freedom even in China, it’s just the price you want to pay for it and they’ve been raising the price of it. It’s going up and up and up.”

“Realistically it will be difficult for me to find a professorship in Hong Kong,” he said, explaining that there are few universities as is and those that do exist are under pressure to follow the party line.

“While I was trying to get tenure, a lot people told me to keep my head low in order to get it. But I disagreed.”

The costs aren’t just professional.

“There are all kinds of social costs. My mother has said ‘Can you please not be so outspoken?’ Even your friends and your romantic partner will say that.”

Tsui is originally from the Netherlands. Will he be one of the good people forced to leave?

“I’m not leaving until they kick me out. We need people here.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”85″][/vc_column][/vc_row]