EU puts €10.5M towards strengthening pan-European research on China

09 May 2023 | News

To boost capacity in China monitoring, the Commission is funding three Horizon Europe projects to support and connect EU-based China scholars. ‘We have to get our own feed’ of information independent of US, says one

As geopolitical tensions with China mount, the European Commission has started organising the EU research community to boost Europe’s own, independent knowledge of China and its intentions.

So far, €10.5 million for three Horizon Europe projects has been dedicated to strengthen and connect the 1,000 or so specialist researchers on China who are scattered across various EU universities and think tanks. The aim: to build an EU knowledge base on China that is independent from the US, UK or others now scrutinising China’s rising economic and political might – and feed that knowledge into EU decision-making. 

“We have to increase our own, independent knowledge of China,” says Philipp Brugner of Vienna’s Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI) which participates in one of the three projects, called ReConnect China. “We have to get our own feed,” he said.

The three Horizon projects fit into Commission efforts to develop a new EU-wide strategy for dealing with China – signalled in a speech last month by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, calling for Europe to “de-risk” its China relations rather than halt or “de-couple” them. Exactly what that means isn’t yet clear; but at a recent European Parliament session she said scientific cooperation with China generally should continue, but in a way that results don’t leak to the Chinese military.

Indeed, many China specialists are urging an EU-specific strategy. “I think there is a European take on China” different from that in other regions, says Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard, a China expert at Copenhagen Business School, which is coordinating one of the Horizon projects. In contrast to the US, ”I don’t think we see China as a threat. We’re more objective; it’s not ideological.”

But to develop a robust China policy, Brødsgaard says, ”You need basic knowledge. You need to know what you’re talking about.” Member state intelligence services, of course, monitor China – but what they learn isn’t publicly available to most policy makers. And for public research, the community of China specialists is scattered across the EU, he noted. “Most universities and think tanks do not have a critical mass of China scholars. Therefore it is necessary to establish links and synergies between existing knowledge nodes through joint initiatives such as the Horizon projects.”

On its own terms

The three projects are a step towards remedying that, Commission officials say. As one of the Commission’s Horizon documents puts it, “Because of China’s increasing relevance, Europe needs to get to know and understand it on its own terms: not through the lens of other external sources.” As a result, the Commission limited participation in the projects to organisations based in the EU or in countries that have joined Horizon – meaning that some of Europe’s best-known Chinese research institutions, such as Oxford University’s China Centre and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, aren’t part of the Horizon projects.

Two of the Horizon projects began late last year on a combined budget of €8 million – and their priorities are generating more research on China, networking together the EU’s existing experts, and passing what they learn to policy makers and the wider public. A third project, for which grant applications closed in March, will allocate €2.5 million to set up a public, online database of all types of China research, including English translations of official Chinese government documents.

The Copenhagen-led project, called China Horizons, has started publishing a stream of in-depth China reports. One, by researchers at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, uses artificial intelligence to analyse the Chinese prime minister’s annual summary of government business last March. Compared to the 2022 summary, the researchers found a jump in references to gross domestic product, reflecting the government’s concern about economic growth. The analysis also found “a more cautious stance on debt accumulation and a more supportive environment for businesses.”

Meanwhile, ReConnect China has started organising its first policy roundtables; and a special report on EU-China science and technology collaboration written by ZSI is scheduled for August, says Bart Dessein of Ghent University, who is coordinating the project.

The project’s scope for China study is broad. For instance, a March expert meeting focused on “China’s narrative challenge to Europe” gave a warning that the EU needs to do a better job tracking Chinese communication tactics inside Europe, and start thinking about trying to shape Europe’s own narrative inside China. “If Europe is to fulfil its promise of evolving into a mature geopolitical actor with a degree of strategic autonomy, it needs a ‘narrative identify’ to match,” the meeting report says.

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