Focus topics

Risks of joint research

By Alicia Hennig
Alicia Henning fordert eine klare Linie gegenüber China.
Alicia Hennig, deputy professor for General Business Administration at TU Dresden/IHI Zittau.

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) shows that, for the first time since 2004, there are more autocratic than democratically governed states. However, neither the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), nor the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) take this finding into account. Concrete guidance on how to proceed with research cooperation in autocratically governed states is still awaited.

Collaboration with Chinese researchers today must take into account that the entire Chinese educational sector should serve the Party’s goals exclusively. This means that faculty members (our potential research partners) are selected and promoted based on their patriotic qualifications and socialist moral character. Here it is illusory to assume independence from the state party and the educational system. Such a separation is not found in other authoritarian systems either because their educational content is always ideologically motivated.

Substantive limitation of critical science

In particular, because the freedom of research and teaching is enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, we have a responsibility to ensure that this academic freedom is also upheld in our academic collaborations with foreign partners.

In 2020, the DAAD already noted that the Chinese state is increasingly supporting its young scientists itself, e.g., through doctoral scholarships on the part of the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC). Recently, it was reported that these scholarships require party loyalty on the part of their recipients. This substantially limits the possibilities for collaborative, uninfluenced and critical research in Germany.

Appropriation for political-ideological purposes

Research and science in China have the task of advancing the party’s socio-political agenda, which is very strongly oriented toward “social stability”. Here, the technical and natural sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences, are equally appropriated for party goals. The latter serve the propaganda apparatus by imparting “patriotic education,” while the technical sciences, in particular, are used for civil-military developments and further developments of the surveillance apparatus. This appropriation of science for political-ideological purposes must always be present to us in scientific cooperation with authoritarian or autocratically led states.

The extent to which the German higher education system ultimately benefits from Chinese students, doctoral candidates and researchers is not empirically proven. It is undeniable that they contribute to the diversity of our higher education system. However, this does not allow us to draw any conclusions about their academic achievements, particularly since these would then have to be measured against the achievements of other German and foreign researchers in Germany.

Law on cooperation with intelligence services

Moreover, this assertion completely omits legal developments that are relevant in this context. For example, the National Intelligence Law of 2017 enables the Chinese government to oblige every citizen of their country to cooperate with intelligence services. Scientists, in particular, play an important role here, as they have access to relevant knowledge. Those who go abroad are reminded by the Chinese embassies to give back to the motherland (回报祖国). And there are various government programs to make such knowledge from stays abroad strategically useful.

In this respect, it is essential that all scientific institutions in Germany address the possibility of systematic screening of Chinese visiting scientists and doctoral students. This is the only way to prevent undesirable influences and intelligence activities. This is particularly relevant in the technical and natural sciences. Scholarship providers such as the DAAD or various foundations should also check their own Chinese scholarship holders.

Binding risk assessment necessary

The conditions of scientific cooperation with China must be reconfigured accordingly in the Xi era. For the time being, a decline in ideologization, which also affects the Chinese education system, cannot be assumed. Universities in China may have gone through politically difficult times before. Nevertheless, this is no reason not to take the current changes into account.

We need an appropriate and binding risk assessment and risk management for cooperation with Chinese scientists and institutions (for example, as in the MIT Guidelines). These measures also have nothing to do with a ban on cooperation. There is still room for cooperation, but it has become much smaller under Xi’s ideologically driven policies. All the more reason to take a closer look at ongoing and future research collaborations.


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