China influence scandal rocks Berlin university

Contract reveals the Free University of Berlin is bound by Chinese law, which critics fear gives Beijing influence over teaching content

February 4, 2020
Source: Alamy

A leading German university has been plunged into scandal after it emerged that it had signed a contract binding it to abide by Chinese law while accepting hundreds of thousands of euros from China to set up a professorship to establish a Chinese teacher training programme.

German lawmakers have criticised the Free University of Berlin (FU) over the terms, which critics fear give the Chinese government leverage to prevent teaching about subjects such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet.

The contract, obtained by the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, allows the Chinese side to reduce or halt funding if any element of the programme contravenes Chinese law.

Other clauses also place the FU at the mercy of political pressure from China, critics argue. Each year, Hanban – the agency that runs controversial Confucius Institutes in Western universities and is the contractual partner of the FU – is allowed to revoke the agreement at its discretion, according to Tagesspiegel. If the FU wants to end the agreement, however, the conditions are more onerous.

The revelations have drawn condemnation from some German lawmakers. “The interference of China at FU Berlin clearly shows how China envisages ‘cooperation’ with our educational institutions. Independence of science is one of the most important freedoms and must be guaranteed,” tweeted Renata Alt, a federal parliamentarian for the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Jens Brandenburg, another FDP lawmaker, tweeted that the deal bound the FU into a “tight corset”.

“With this agreement, the FU submits to Chinese laws and Chinese jurisdiction,” he said, threatening the freedom of teaching and research at the institution.

Pressure had been growing on the FU even before these latest revelations. On 20 January, a group of FU alumni signed a joint letter expressing grave concerns about the university’s academic independence.

The arrangement was “untenable”, the letter said, because it meant that it was impossible to rule out Chinese Communist Party influence over teaching content at the FU. One signatory, David Missal, a Sinologist expelled from China in 2018, said the only acceptable way forward now was to cancel the contract.

Berlin’s Senate has also said it will investigate the contract, which is worth almost €500,000 (£420,000) over five years, and is designed to train up to 20 Chinese teachers a year.

It has also emerged that the Federal Ministry of Education and Research had concerns about the arrangement going back as far as 2018.

Critics have also voiced concerns about the language that the FU has used to defend the agreement. In a response to Tagesspiegel, the university said that forbidden topics in China, such as the “incidents of 1989”, would still be included in teaching. Some considered such terms to be an overly detached and neutral way of describing the killing of demonstrators.

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Reader's comments (1)

"German lawmakers have criticised the Free University of Berlin (FU) over the terms, which critics fear give the Chinese government leverage to prevent teaching about subjects such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet." Public surveys have repeatedly demonstrated that the Chinese Government is by far the most reliable source of information about China, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square so-called 'massacre' and Tibet. The Tiananmen incident–a six week student protest about cancellation of scholarships, sex (of course) and government corruption–ended peacefully and the youngsters were all in bed by 8:00 am. Many sources attest to this, including The Columbia Journalism Review: The US State Department's cables at the time: The Massacre that Wasn’t: New York Times: The Daily Telegraph: Australian prof. Greg Clark As to Tibet, how many Westerners have heard the testimony of US Ambassador Chas. H. Freeman, Director for Chinese Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 1979-1981: “I don’t see any reason why Tibet being part of China should be any more controversial than Wales being part of the United Kingdom. The periods when they were put into that position were about the same. I recall, as probably most people don’t, that the the Central Intelligence Agency, with assistance from some of China’s neighbors, put $30 million into the destabilization of Tibet and basically financed and trained the participants in the Khampa rebellion and ultimately sought to remove the Dalai Lama from Tibet–which they did. They escorted him out of Tibet to Dharamsala. .."The CIA programs in Tibet, which were very effective in destabilizing it, did not succeed in Xinjiang. There were similar efforts made with the Uyghurs during the Cold War that never really got off the ground. In both cases you had religion waved as a banner in support of a desire for independence or autonomy which is, of course, is anathema to any state. I do believe that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones applies here. I am part American Indian and those people are not here (in the US) in the numbers they once were because of severe genocidal policies on the part of the European majority”. 8/31/18 It is high time the German people were given access to reliable information about China–from China.