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Why scientific cooperation with China should be continued

By Julia Haes and Klaus Muehlhahn
Julia Haes, Gründerin des China-Instituts für die deutsche Wirtschaft, und Klaus Mühlhahn, Sinologe und Präsident der Zeppelin Universität.

Scientific exchange with China has recently come under suspicion. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of scientific cooperation with China, German Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger urged vigilance. China, she said, has gone from being a strategic partner to a tough competitor and systemic rival for Germany and the EU. DAAD President Joybrato Mukherjee even believes that the era of partnership relations between China and Germany is coming to an end. Politicians and science managers in Germany increasingly feel that research cooperation is unfair and unilaterally benefits China.

After 50 years of successful cooperation, mutual distrust has replaced faith in the common benefits of scientific collaboration. A strange mix of isolationism and nationalism is spreading across the globe. We live in a time of incipient deglobalization. Both Germany and China increasingly place their own interests above shared concerns and dream of a future with greater “independence” and “autonomy,” even though historically no country has ever benefited from decoupling.

But what are the consequences?

The underlying concern behind the new fear of China is that China will scientifically surpass Germany. After all, China has far more intellectual capital than any other country on earth. In 2030, 37 percent of all graduates in mint disciplines will come from China – compared to 1.4 percent from Germany.

China’s rise in science

The relevance of the Chinese education system is also reflected in the steady rise of Chinese universities in global rankings. Top German universities such as TU Munich (50th place) are already behind the Chinese ones (Qinghua University: 17, Peking University: 18).

China has the world’s most dynamic science system. In the prestigious Nature Index, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is currently ranked first, ahead of Harvard University (second) and the Max Planck Society (third).

Another indicator is research articles submitted to professional conferences. In the field of semiconductor research, for example, the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) is considered an indicator of the intensity of research efforts in countries of origin. In recent years, the United States has always had the most accepted articles, followed by South Korea in second and China in third. In 2022, China had the most papers for the first time. 198 papers were accepted in total, of which 59 were from China, 42 from the US, and 32 from South Korea. China was strongly represented in all research categories.

Not a threat but an opportunity for Germany

China’s education system should be viewed less as a threat and more as an opportunity. German research institutions have been strengthened enormously by recruiting Chinese students, doctoral candidates and scientists. The German research landscape has been significantly enriched by exceptional Chinese guest scientists and partners. If Germany now turns these scientists and partnerships away, then Germany harms itself first and foremost. Today, any science system that is not open to talent and collaborations from around the world has to fear falling to second-class status.

The German science system is less threatened by China than by domestic problems such as underfunding, lack of investment and poor agility. Excellence and top international research are strengthened by cooperation, but also by international competition for talent, funding and citation indices.

Nevertheless, some German universities have reviewed their cooperation with China. Heinrich Heine University in Duesseldorf as well as the University of Hamburg have decided to terminate cooperation with their Confucius Institutes. But self-righteous German science politicians and university administrations do not know – or do not want to know – how committed deans and presidents of many Chinese universities are to shield both international collaborations and students from political pressure. The December 2022 protests against the Covid policy started in universities precisely because courageous leaders there have been able to preserve a valuable measure of freedom over the years.

Cambridge shows how collaboration works

In November 2022, MIT in Cambridge published extensive guidelines for dealing with Chinese universities and research institutions, something from which German institutions can learn a lot. The commission that drafted the guidelines explicitly points out that disengaging from Chinese partners would jeopardize MIT’s position as a top university and harm scientific progress. Accordingly, cooperation with Chinese partners is to be explicitly continued and expanded. Project managers and review panels receive clear recommendations on what to consider in cooperation projects and under what circumstances such projects should be rejected.

The guidelines show that critical yet constructive interaction with Chinese partners is possible. And they also demonstrate the courage and determination of a university administration not to engage in speculation and accusations in a China-critical climate or to cave in, but to form its own judgment based on evidence and expertise.

Such an approach would also serve German universities well. German universities enjoy an excellent reputation in China, and the vast majority of returning students or academics feel a lifelong bond with Germany.

Chinese universities have led the country to the top of the world in science and technology. They survived countless political campaigns in the socialist People’s Republic of China, and time and again actively protected their freedom as scientific institutions – often under difficult circumstances. They have seen interventions like the current restrictions under Xi Jinping come and go. They need to think in the long term. And so should we.

By severing our ties with Chinese universities, we do the most harm to scholars who share the values of open and free science and work to achieve them at the risk of personal detriment. Direct collaboration and communication with students and scholars on the ground in China helps to break through the government’s omnipresent rhetoric and propaganda, provide alternative perspectives, and establish discursive spaces.

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