Report on benefits and risks of research cooperation with China

Leiden Asia Centre, November 2018

Assessing Europe-China Collaboration in Higher Education and Research

By Ingrid d’Hooghe, Annemarie Montulet, Marijn de Wolff and Frank N. Pieke

Executive Summary

The global balance of power is shifting and China’s rise on the global stage is indisputable. These developments are reflected in the field of higher education and research. From the 1980s onwards, following its policy of reform and opening up, China has invested heavily in its domestic institutions and it is now reaping the benefits. Today, China has the second-largest research and development budget in the world after the US and the second-largest pool of researchers in the world after the EU, and it recently bypassed the US in the number of published articles in the sciences. Seizing the opportunity of China’s opening, many European governments and institutions have been open to student and staff exchanges, recruitment of Chinese students, joint education or research projects and programs, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes and even joint institutions. European institutions accrue many benefits from these collaborations, such as a supply of much-needed PhD students, a large influx of fee-paying students, as well as access to cutting-edge Chinese facilities and data. However, Europe-China cooperation in higher education and research comes with risks and challenges too. In the last couple of years, as changing global power dynamics are increasingly palpable, these risks and challenges have come to dominate the western discourse about collaboration with China. Indeed, the pioneering days of China’s opening up, building connections and the promise of more liberal changes, are gone, and more realistic and better-informed assessments of the opportunities and risks of collaboration with an emboldened illiberal China are necessary. This report aims to strengthen the basis for cooperation between Europe and China by helping European institutions to define their best interests, identify opportunities and risks, and develop their own strategy. Our ultimate goal is to strengthen the basis for further cooperation between European and Chinese institutions and individuals. We hope to contribute to a level playing field so that cooperation between Europe and China can continue to develop and prosper in a way where it is not encumbered by stereotypes or unfounded expectations. We find that Chinese strategizing and the risks of collaboration should not be grounds for a blanket rejection of collaboration out of fear that higher education and research have become a battlefield in the conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the values of a liberal education. Rather, the European side should base its cooperation on a clear strategy and an assessment of the risks and challenges balanced against the benefits. It should then also be open to the conclusion that certain things are not – or are no longer – possible. For instance, considering targeted measures such as the exclusion of certain foreign nationals from specific study programs or research projects on national security grounds (including the protection of critical infrastructure) should no longer be a taboo. Besides barriers of language and culture, among the most important challenges for European institutions is a lack of strategic vision, giving China a significant advantage in setting the agenda. The European side is often insufficiently informed about China and its academic system. Furthermore, European higher education institutes often lack an understanding of the relationships and collaboration goals of their Chinese partners. Our interviewees mentioned a shortage of strategically allocated funding on the Euro- v pean side (particularly on the national level) as another area of concern. Equal funding is considered a condition for reciprocal and mutually beneficial cooperation. It is also important to note that, in recent years, higher education and research within China have been subject to increased control by the political center with resulting effects on academic freedom. There are signs that this trend is also being extended to Chinese nationals including scholars and students who are abroad. Our European interviewees’ experiences of censorship and infringement of academic freedom mostly took place in the social sciences and humanities, and primarily in China and not in Europe. Moreover, self-censorship in Europe-China collaborations is seen as a very widespread phenomenon. Dependence on Chinese (government) funding can potentially limit the academic freedom of non-Chinese partners. Despite widespread concern about the Chinese presence in higher education and research in Europe, we found no evidence of large-scale and concerted political influencing activities. Furthermore, this study cannot categorically substantiate claims of Chinese data or intellectual property (IP) theft in this field. This does not mean, however, that data or IP theft are not taking place, as organizations and scholars will not easily share such sensitive information. In general, our interviewees had clear opinions that much was afoot and that science in China had become more aligned with the state’s security needs and strategic vision. Furthermore, well-attested problems for research cooperation emanate from the fact that China itself has insufficient safeguards with regard to personal data protection and research ethics.

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