03 Sep 2020   |   News

European Parliament’s China chair urges caution in research collaborations with Beijing

Reinhard Bütikofer is wary of the growing power of China and the reach of companies seen as beholden to the Communist government. His views are typical of the more hawkish approach emerging in Brussels

China EU

The chair of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China, Reinhard Bütikofer, urges cautious engagement on research activity with Beijing, saying science collaboration is possible in areas like climate change, but there’s no “one size fits all” option.

“Whenever there is a chance to collaborate, why not? To pursue the ideal of putting up walls is not what Europe is about,” Bütikofer said. “We can cooperate where it’s possible, but without hurting ourselves, or playing into the cards of totalitarian power at our own expense.”

Bütikofer, Green MEP and a prominent critic of China's policies, sits on parliament’s committee on Foreign Affairs, and on the committee on International Trade as a substitute member.

“I don’t see why we could not cooperate on an effective emissions trading system, for example. We introduced our own system 10 years ago; China ran regional versions and promised a national one,” Bütikofer, said. “There would be an interest in joining forces and cooperating here. I would assume, also, there would be many areas in health where cooperation would make sense. I’m not sure, however, that we’d want to cooperate on research that’s security-relevant.”

Though some would like to see China deepen its research ties with Europe, becoming an associate member of the next big EU research programme, for instance, there are no such plans in Brussels to invite the superpower into the club.  

“We should not allow others to exploit our openness to eat our lunch economically,” Bütikofer said. “We cannot say we’re a systemic rival with China on Monday and then forget about it Tuesday.”

His views are typical of the more hawkish approach to the communist government in Beijing that has been fomenting in Brussels for the past year. EU officials now more likely to complain about investment ground rules and market reciprocity, than they are to talk up forming new research and technology partnerships with Beijing.

There is widespread concern over the brutal persecution of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province and the draconian new security law in Hong Kong. Questions have been raised too over Beijing’s cooperation in sharing vital information about the spread and origins of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.

Bütikofer is wary of a growing Chinese influence in European universities, including the opportunity for intellectual property theft and risks arising from joint research projects. But he does not want to overstate the risk.

“We do have concerns, for instance, regarding the role of some very special students that are de-facto researchers for the PLA [People's Liberation Army] and hide that fact and try and steal IP and research results. We also share a concern over the role of Confucius Institute [partnerships between Chinese and international universities] and the threat of universities self-censoring their output to appease China.

“In my own country, Germany, these concerns are not as pressing as in the UK, for instance. Our universities are not dependent, budget-wise, on overseas student fees,” Bütikofer said.

Lack of trust in Chinese tech companies

Bütikofer does not trust any tech company beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and agrees with those who view Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, as a threat to European security because of its links to the Chinese military (an accusation the company has denied).

“Huawei is compelled to do the bidding of China’s security agencies without being able to resort to judicial oversight in independent courts. So on that basis, you can’t trust a company like Huawei,” he said.

As the world moves to install 5G wireless networks, “I would be in favour of taking the Australian approach on this – they never explicitly excluded Huawei from their mobile networks, but they made sure to set down criteria for trustworthiness that vendors had to follow. I think we should legislate similarly in Germany,” Bütikofer said. “There should not be a place for Huawei in our future communication network.”

The battle over Huawei has left European governments in contortions, trying to offend neither the US or China.

Under pressure from Washington, and a backbench rebellion within the ruling Conservative party, the UK government switched tack on the use of Huawei equipment UK 5G networks. The UK's mobile providers must now remove Huawei 5G kit from their networks by 2027.

“I would say Brussels understood the Chinese challenge earlier than London did. When London was full of half-baked dreams of future golden British-Chinese relations, Brussels had already started pushing back,” Bütikofer said.

He lists several examples. In 2016, MEPs voted against granting China the status of ‘market economy’; the EU has applied anti-dumping measures on Chinese imports and started a process of tackling takeovers of European companies by from state-backed Chinese companies. Last year, the EU formally labelled Beijing as its “systemic rival”.

The mood is certainly tougher now, but the relationship remains crucial for both Brussels and Beijing. The EU is China’s biggest trading partner, and China is the EU’s second-biggest after the US.

Bütikofer says he, “would be happy with China rising if it didn’t prevent others from rising too. But a China that sees its growing strength as a weapon to bully other countries has to be pushed back against.”

“I would not want to fall into trap of reiterating propaganda on the invincibility of the Chinese rise. They have been extremely successful but a lot of people assume it’s inevitable China will dominate the world. I don’t think that for a second. Their political model is not overly attractive to many people. Why, otherwise, would the Hong Kongers, the Uighurs, Tibetans, and Taiwanese make their best efforts to reform the country?”

Eye on Chinese ‘tech shopping’

Bütikofer says it’s right for the EU to make it harder for Chinese and other foreign state-backed firms to buy stakes in European companies.

With the virus cratering the world economy, concerns are growing over unfair competition from outside Europe.

Politicians in Brussels warn about the need to shield European industries during the economic downturn, and plan to introduce a tougher mechanism to vet high-profile acquisition attempts by China of Europe’s technology jewels.

It has crossed Bütikofer’s mind that European knowhow and expertise may end up on the market for a cheap price. But he notes, “[The] overall level of Chinese FDI [foreign direct investment] has shrunk slightly this year. Smaller investments are coming in. China has not been on a shopping spree around Europe this year, but we have to be careful,” he said.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up