Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
17 July 2024

& Education

Fear of China dominates meeting on international collaboration

Security interests need to carry more weight when deciding on whether collaborative research with China is possible, experts feel. So give us some guidelines, universities have told the House of Representatives.

What interests are at stake in collaborative research with countries that are not free, such as China and Russia? The House of Representatives talked to three experts and two university rectors on this subject last week.

Heavy heart

“Yesterday I went to bed with a heavy heart”, said Utrecht University rector Henk Kummeling during the round-table meeting. That was because he had read an article from HOP that predicted what the universities would say at the round-table meeting.

His summary of the HOP article was wrong; according to him it said that the universities considered they needed no help from the government in the field of knowledge security. “Well, that’s definitely not the message I want to put across on behalf of the universities.”

The universities do need help, said Kummeling. One of the things they want is a government portal where they can get information about potential partner institutions. The reason for that is they have sometimes come up against a brick wall at the intelligence and security services when they wanted to ask questions about the risks of collaboration, the rector added, and then it’s hard to make a well-considered decision. Additionally, the universities want to get concrete government guidelines so as to assess what type of collaboration they can and cannot take on.


In the previous hour three experts had underlined the importance of security policy. In particular, analyst Joris Teer of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies outlined a stark view of the world. The growing tensions around Taiwan mean that a military conflict between the US and China can no longer be excluded, he said. Should it come to that, the US will have its hands full and will no longer be able to protect Europe against Russia. So it is in the best interests of Europe that China does not acquire any knowledge in the Netherlands that can be used for military purposes.

In the opinion of Ingrid d’Hooghe of the Clingendael Institute the government needs to take action. Whatever measures they are taking, universities do not, in her view, have the capacity to do everything themselves. That would lead to a “waste of manpower” and a “patchwork of opinions”.

The Members of the House of Representatives listened to the proceedings and Harm Beertema of the PVV was especially critical of collaborative research with China. Is it safe to leave the decisions to the universities themselves, he wondered. He could not help thinking about the controversial Confucius Institutes with which the universities joined forces. And not so long ago Groningen wanted to open a campus in Yantai, China.


Tim van der Hagen, rector and president of the board of Delft University of Technology had an explanation for that. He spoke of a “complete about-turn regarding China”. He asserted that until three years ago his university was “encouraged to receive as many Chinese delegations as possible and specifically to collaborate with them”. Nowadays roughly the opposite is the case, he said.

But the risk of new security checks by government bodies is that they can take months to complete. Van der Hagen warned that the most brilliant minds simply go elsewhere if approval takes too long. After all, they are welcomed everywhere.

His ultimate message was that the universities, with the help of bodies such as the intelligence services, can make their own decisions. They are careful enough. In Delft they say ‘no’ in case of doubt, Van der Hagen said. There was no mention of the collaboration between Delft and universities linked to the Chinese army.

His colleague Kummeling (Utrecht) conveyed the same message. Needless to say, the universities do not have a monopoly on wisdom, he acknowledged, “but if we have information, we can do a lot of sensible things”.


Member of the House of Representatives Hatte van der Woude (VVD) wanted to find ways of keeping the door to collaboration open. Most of those present, even the experts, felt that international collaboration is in principle a good thing. How strict should you be? Van der Woude thought that nearly all countries would drop out if you put security, academic freedom and ethical use of knowledge “to an equal degree in your decision-making framework”. Her view is that the Netherlands will have to set priorities.

The issue is a complex one because so many interests are at stake. China is an important trading partner and the Chinese universities are developing prodigiously, but the country is also a superpower that wants to increase its influence.

Science exists mainly for the benefit of science, and scientists are eager to foster knowledge and understanding, Kummeling told the House of Representatives. But that isn’t the only interest, you could hear the Members thinking.


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