Research centres unite to overcome EU ignorance about China

07 Jul 2022 | News

The Commission is trying to close Europe’s knowledge gap about China. Meanwhile UK and US intelligence agencies warn of Chinese research espionage, and a new report urges universities to brace for a sudden rupture in ties

A new Horizon Europe funded project is hoping to make up for years of neglect in China studies across the EU with €4 million of funding to create a new network of experts producing policy briefs, podcasts and seminars on the country.

"Dealing with a resurgent China" brings together research centres in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy to help offset a stagnation in the number of European students studying China and bringing back expertise to the EU.

“The EU's funding call is based on the realisation that there is too little knowledge in European countries about contemporary China,” said the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, announcing the project, of which it is a member.

For years politicians in the EU have worried that they lack a good understanding of a country that in two decades has transformed itself into a global superpower now defined by the European Commission as, among other things, a “systemic rival” to Europe.

A 2018 report for the German government taking stock of China expertise pointed out far more resources were allocated to understanding the US than China.

“The funding for research and teaching on the US is huge, and China it’s very small,” said Matthias Stepan, a research associate at network member Ruhr-University Bochum, and lead author of the report. This neglect could be “disastrous” for German understanding of one of its biggest trading partners, he warned.

For example, in 2017 the John F Kennedy Institute for North America Studies, based at the Free University of Berlin, had 37 professors, but by contrast one of Germany’s biggest China institutes, based at Heidelberg University, had just five professors, the report noted.

And since 2013, the number of German students studying in China has stagnated, due to tighter working rules and disillusionment with the idea that the country was becoming more open and liberal. This has squeezed the supply of graduates able to return to Europe and work as China researchers, said Stepan.

Without deep research on China in Europe, politicians risk seeing the country as black or white, he said. “China is more than the Communist Party of China, or Xi Jinping.”

Boxed in

“We do in Europe have China capacity,” said Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard, a professor specialising in China’s political economy at Copenhagen Business School, the institute coordinating the project.

“But the problem is that these research environments are scattered all over Europe. And we have very few China centres with a critical mass, like you have in the US,” he said.

What’s more, European universities tend to hive off China experts into discrete east Asia institutes, rather than hiring China scholars in mainstream economics, politics or anthropology departments, Brødsgaard said. By contrast, US universities hire China researchers across the full range of their faculties, he said. “China studies in the US is not boxed in.”

Without its own China expertise, Europe risks blindly toeing US policy. “I don’t think we should automatically follow the US take on China,” Brødsgaard said.

Funding for the new project will back both academic research, but also briefs for policymakers, podcasts and seminars. “Research has to be disseminated,” Brødsgaard noted.

ReConnect China, another project coordinated by Ghent University, also won funding from the same Horizon Europe funding call.

However, tightening controls on press freedom, and extensive quarantine restrictions to get into the country continue to hamper China scholarship. Neither Stepan nor Brødsgaard have been to China since the pandemic started.

“Since 2020 it’s become much more obvious…we have few levers to find out what is going on in its society,” said Stepan.

Geopolitical shock

Separately, a new report has warned that western universities need to be prepared for a new “geopolitical shock” that would rupture their extensive research links with China.

Led by former UK science minister Jo Johnson, the report says it would be “many orders of magnitude more significant” to isolate China scientifically in the event of a conflict than Russia.

European countries have largely cut official academic links with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, but compared to China, Russia’s science base is “weak, deteriorating and marginalised”, according to Stumbling bear, soaring dragon: Russia, China and the geopolitics of global science.

By contrast, China is the first or second most frequent research partner with every G7 country, plus the Scandinavian and Baltic states, Australia, Singapore and South Korea.

“While universities will understandably hope for the best, they must also prepare for the worst by diversifying their academic partnerships and international student bodies to mitigate the risk of financial and strategic dependencies on potentially hostile autocratic countries,” said Mr Johnson.

Spy warning

Compounding all the uncertainty, in a joint address on 6 July, the heads of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the UK’s MI5 warned an audience of academics and business leaders in London that  they risk having their research and technology taken advantage of by the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) through theft or unequal exchange.

“If you are involved in cutting-edge tech, AI, advanced research or product development, the chances are your know-how is of material interest to the CCP,” they said.

They cited examples of a retired political scientist in Germany passing intelligence to Chinese spies, and a NATO maritime scientist in Estonia convicted of transferring intelligence to Chinese handlers.

They warned that even innocent seeming approaches from Chinese contacts could be dangerous. 

“Seemingly flattering approaches turn into something more insidious – and damaging,” they said. One British aviation expert was wined and dined in China, offered an attractive job, and then paid for details of military aircraft by a company actually run by Chinese spies, they claimed.

Growing scrutiny

The speech adds to pressure on European universities to better scrutinise their links with China, particularly in sensitive areas of research.

An investigation last month discovered that academics at European universities had authored thousands of joint papers with Chinese military universities that critics say will help Beijing build a technological advantage in weaponry.

These revelations will contribute to a more cautious line on collaboration with China, said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP and frequent critic of Beijing.

“The EU and its member states are increasingly aware of these problems,” he said, and pointed to a recent flurry of new advice from the Commission on the issue. “In the end, it is upon the researcher to consider potential misuses of research within the framework of existing export control legislation,” he said.

The China Science Investigation was also discussed in a recent annual meeting of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Universities and researchers must “do a better job” of handling “fundamental contradictions” between engaging with Chinese research on the one hand, and recognising that Beijing was pursuing its national interests, said Katja Becker, president of the DFG.

“Nonetheless, we currently see no reason to impose fundamental restrictions on our cooperation activities with China, let alone put a stop to them,” she said.

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