News - July 8, 2020

Self-censorship through Chinese influence

Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

Researchers collaborating with China are prone to self-censorship, says research institute Clingendael in an explorative study.

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For years, China seemed to become more transparent, but recently, this trend is reversed, a report by Clingendael states. The Chinese government censorship is on the rise. The Chinese approach even leads to self-censorship among Dutch researchers, the institute that researches international relations warns. Some topics that may hit a nerve in China, such as human rights or the origin of the COVID-19 virus, are avoided.

Friendly suggestions
This self-censorship is the result of 'friendly suggestions, tips or warnings' from Chinese colleagues. But the Chinese government may also apply direct pressure, according to the report. For example, refusing a visa or retracting funding for a research project. Dutch scientists adhere to fundamental values such as academic freedom, that are non-existent in China, the report states.

However, pinpointing the influence is not easy. The researchers recommend closer scrutiny of the role of the Chinese embassy. 'Chinese students are an important target and instrument for government influencing', the report says. 'They are frequently monitored by fellow students or the embassy and do not feel free to do as they please. Some students are committed to actively promoting Chinese government policy.'

Chinese students are an important target and instrument for political influencing

The Dutch house of representatives recently voiced its concern over whether the Dutch government is sufficiently alert in its collaboration with higher education and research institutes in China. The cabinet should consider treating Chines students and scientists as they would Iranians and North Koreans, says a motion that was passed unanimously. For their report, Clingendael researchers interviewed involved parties anonymously. They all agree that the government should be more transparent about its ambitions related to China. 

'One party calls on us to collaborate, while another pulls us back. This creates confusion.' However, there were also more radical opinions. 'Some researchers feel we should reconsider whether the Netherlands should seek extensive institutionalised collaboration with China', the report states. The issue is highly relevant, as all Dutch universities collaborate with China in the fields of research and education.

According to the Central Bureau for Statistics (Dutch acronym CBS), there are currently some 4500 Chinese students enrolled at universities and university colleges. Of these, some 500 are registered at WUR. Additionally, many hundreds of PhD candidates and researchers are employed at Dutch (mainly technical) universities.