A previously published version of this article stated that professor Albert Wagelmans is one of the authors of the letter in which scientists criticised the CSC scholarship. However, it has since become clear that Mr Wagelmans, as a member of the University Council, informed the Council about the letter and forwarded it to the Executive Board. He had nothing to do with the content of the letter. The editors of EM regret that Mr Wagelmans has been called to account over his presumed role in this story and has apologised to him.
A previous version of this article also stated that the Executive Board ‘acknowledges’ the issue with the CSC scholarship. However, that wording is too strong. At this moment in time, the Executive Board is merely developing guidelines for international collaboration to help make an assessment of the best way to address the risks involved. The Executive Board has stated that it will use these guidelines as a basis for considering its position with regard to the CSC programme.
According to critical EUR researchers, the conditions (which are available only in Chinese on the Chinese website of the scholarship programme) for submitting applications to The China Scholarship Council (CSC) are incompatible with the university’s core values. The researchers voiced their concerns in a letter to the Executive Board. University Council member Albert Wagelmans (professor at ESE) informed other Council members about the receipt of that letter on 17 May, and then forwarded the letter to the Executive Board. The critics did not sign the letter and wish to remain anonymous. Mr Wagelmans himself is not one of the researchers who wrote the letter.
According to the conditions of the scholarship, scholarship applicants (mostly Chinese PhD students) must swear allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, are questioned about their political ideology and are required to return to China after a research project.
“There is every reason to believe that bright young minds from oppressed groups can never get such a scholarship”, the researchers state in the letter to the Executive Board. They see a conflict with Erasmian values such as social commitment, world citizenship and broad-mindedness, and with the university’s objective of achieving ‘positive social impact’.
The letter states that the scholarships are ‘paid by a government which does not share such values, is nondemocratic, and which oppresses individuals as well as whole groups in its population, based on their religion, ethnicity, or political views.’
In a reaction, the Executive Board states that it is currently reviewing the scholarship guidelines and partner policy. Among other things, these guidelines deal with the way in which EUR staff members cooperate with foreign universities, research institutes and companies. In October, the university will publish a first version of a checklist for assessing international collaborations and scholarships.
The board also states that although the university greatly values international cooperation, its attention has increasingly been drawn to the risks associated with international collaborations in recent years. Therefore, the EUR follows the agreements of the umbrella organisation of Dutch universities (UNL) and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. UNL and the Ministry have published a Framework for Knowledge Security and a National Guideline for Knowledge Security, containing guidance to help make a careful risk assessment of international collaborations. In the promised checklist, the university will include the Erasmian values, knowledge security, international ranking, education and research themes.
Change of course
If the checklist becomes mandatory for university staff, this will be the first step towards a potentially more critical attitude towards Chinese (and other) partners. The EUR has been cooperating with China since 1979, when Rotterdam became a sister city of Shanghai. In 1998, the Erasmus University China Center was established, which has coordinated the CSC PhD programme ever since.
The university is developing new guidelines in a time in which the ties between Dutch research institutions and China are under increasing pressure. In the past two years, for example, it has been revealed that several research institutes and universities consciously or unconsciously contributed to questionable research objectives of the Chinese government. For instance, researchers from Delft University of Technology helped the Chinese army, and professors from the human rights centre of VU University advocated an alternative vision on human rights in a study financed by China.
Erasmus MC was also criticised for its cooperation with a Chinese researcher, who in addition to an appointment in Rotterdam also worked for a Chinese research institution. The issue was that two of his scientific articles were withdrawn because in his research for the Chinese institution he had allegedly used DNA material obtained in an unethical manner from Uighurs, a group that is heavily oppressed in China.