Universities ‘in tricky position’ on Chinese student contracts

Institutions should pay heed to pressure from Beijing, but avoid depriving students of study abroad opportunities, scholars say

January 24, 2023
Person in a small container during a performance in China Beijing to illustrate Universities ‘in tricky position’ on Chinese student contracts
Source: Alamy

Scholars have expressed concern about allegations that Chinese PhD students have been required to sign oaths of loyalty to the country’s government in return for funding.

Chinese doctoral students enrolled at several Swedish institutions with support from the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) had been required to sign contracts swearing loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and pledging to act in their nation’s interests, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported.

A clause specifying that a member of the student’s family should remain in China until their return has aroused particular concern, with the prestigious Karolinska Institute subsequently imposing a temporary bar on enrolments under the scholarship.

Yu-Hua Chen, an assistant professor in China studies at Japan’s Akita International University, said having to agree to such contracts in return for funding was “usual practice” in China but noted that the country had become more zealous in controlling the actions and statements of its citizens abroad under Xi Jinping, with the early signs of change evident around 2013, when many Chinese students began to avoid participating in discussions related to the South China Sea disputes or over the treatment of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang.

Dr Chen said Western universities would do well to pay more attention to the issue, cautioning that the expectation of loyalty expressed in the documents could be a “moving target”.

“It could contain a passive meaning like ‘never participate in protests against Beijing’” but could also imply that students should develop local communist groups, help “mobilise” other Chinese citizens overseas or even engage in industrial espionage, he said, noting that the last would “seriously harm the democracy and academic environment of the hosting countries”.

Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, noted that CSC scholarship holders made up just a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese learners who study overseas each year, but agreed that broader restrictions on Chinese students’ freedom of speech put Western institutions in a “tricky position”.

“When Chinese students are intimidated by the government, it’s really difficult to get rid of that pressure…the best thing for universities to do is ensure academic freedom,” he said.

Dr Biao argued that accepting Chinese students under these terms was a lesser evil than shutting them out of study abroad opportunities in the West altogether.

“At least [students] have the opportunity to access the lifestyle of a democratic system, and then there’s a possibility that the young generation can bring these ideas to China,” he said.

But Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, thought that fears over the scheme were overblown.

“I am sure there might be language alluding to the need to be patriotic, etc. But as ever with these official forms, interpretation is everything,” he said.

Professor Brown said he has never been told of any restrictions by students he has supervised under the scheme. While students need to fill out an annual form on their academic progress, their complaint seemed to be “too little engagement” from administrators rather than too much.

“For sure, CSC is very unlikely to support people studying the separatism movement in Xinjiang or injustices in Hong Kong. But most students I know who are engaged in this are doing solid social or hard science.”

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Why is this a mystery? The West is at war with China and is constantly recruiting Chinese agents. I personally know a husband and wife team of such recruiters at one of our most famous universities. Let's not act surprised here. The Chinese are cautioning those youngsters to know what they're getting into and its consequences.

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