Argument

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German Academic Freedom Is Now Decided in Beijing

German universities are bowing to China on censorship. That could finally change under the new government.

By , an associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations, and , a human rights activist at the Tibet Initiative Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the opening of the Confucius Institute in Stralsund, Germany, on Aug. 30, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the opening of the Confucius Institute in Stralsund, Germany, on Aug. 30, 2016. Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

We need to talk about Germany’s strange marriage with China—again. But this time, it’s not just about Germany’s unhealthy economic dependence on China. This time, the issue is hybrid interference from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is increasingly using state and nonstate agents under its control to threaten academic freedom in Germany.

The most recent example is a canceled book tour at various Confucius Institutes affiliated with German universities. As most observers know by now, Confucius Institutes present themselves as cultural organizations in the British Council mold, but their task is to advance Beijing’s political interests on Western campuses and beyond. They partner with reputable universities to give themselves a veneer of academic seriousness. But their political character became once again apparent on Oct. 22, when it became public that the two German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges were disinvited from giving public talks at German Confucius Institutes about their new biography of China’s president, Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World. The disinvitation came at the behest of the Chinese consul general in Düsseldorf. Aust told the German newspaper Die Welt that an institute staffer informed the journalists that “[y]ou cannot talk about Xi Jinping as a normal person, he is supposed to be untouchable and unmentionable now.”

Similar attacks on academia are becoming increasingly frequent. In response to European Union sanctions against Chinese officials for their alleged connections with crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the CCP retaliated by imposing countersanctions against European lawmakers, academics, and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, on March 22. Sanctioned individuals include Jo Smith Finley, a China expert at Newcastle University; Bjorn Jerden, the director of the Swedish National China Centre; and Adrian Zenz, a fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. They and their families were barred from entering China. Targeted companies and institutions were restricted from doing business with China.

We need to talk about Germany’s strange marriage with China—again. But this time, it’s not just about Germany’s unhealthy economic dependence on China. This time, the issue is hybrid interference from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is increasingly using state and nonstate agents under its control to threaten academic freedom in Germany.

The most recent example is a canceled book tour at various Confucius Institutes affiliated with German universities. As most observers know by now, Confucius Institutes present themselves as cultural organizations in the British Council mold, but their task is to advance Beijing’s political interests on Western campuses and beyond. They partner with reputable universities to give themselves a veneer of academic seriousness. But their political character became once again apparent on Oct. 22, when it became public that the two German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges were disinvited from giving public talks at German Confucius Institutes about their new biography of China’s president, Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World. The disinvitation came at the behest of the Chinese consul general in Düsseldorf. Aust told the German newspaper Die Welt that an institute staffer informed the journalists that “[y]ou cannot talk about Xi Jinping as a normal person, he is supposed to be untouchable and unmentionable now.”

Similar attacks on academia are becoming increasingly frequent. In response to European Union sanctions against Chinese officials for their alleged connections with crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the CCP retaliated by imposing countersanctions against European lawmakers, academics, and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, on March 22. Sanctioned individuals include Jo Smith Finley, a China expert at Newcastle University; Bjorn Jerden, the director of the Swedish National China Centre; and Adrian Zenz, a fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. They and their families were barred from entering China. Targeted companies and institutions were restricted from doing business with China.

The blacklisting of Western scholars by the CCP is a familiar phenomenon, but the March sanctions still signified a step change and sent shockwaves through European academia. More than 30 European research institute directors expressed deep concern, and 1,336 scholars signed a solidarity statement. Among the signatories were 80 China experts at German universities. Not everyone was on board, however. Many prominent German China scholars did not sign the solidarity statement, perhaps because they fear retribution or don’t want to risk Beijing’s support for their research projects, institutional partnerships, or consulting positions.

The response from Berlin was inadequate: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas summoned the Chinese ambassador, but there was no public reaction to the CCP’s attack on European China experts from Chancellor Angela Merkel. By staying silent, she doubled down on her China policy of putting potential deals for German companies over her country’s values. Less than three months after the incident, the German Ministry of Education and Research announced a new initiative aimed at strengthening independent China research. Education and Research Minister Anja Karliczek acknowledged that Confucius Institutes had been given “too much room” in the past—but did not lay out any direct consequences. At least Berlin will now spend 24 million euros ($28 million) until 2024 to develop greater China expertise.

The new German government could introduce a German version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act and cut federal funding for universities taking Chinese money.

But even as the German government slowly starts to encourage more independent China research, it is not cracking down on continued CCP interference in German academia. One reason is Germany’s federal system, where only the 16 states have oversight over universities. Another is Germany’s poor transparency laws and abysmal record of dealing with conflicts of interest. Universities are largely exempt from freedom of information laws and are all too eager to veil Chinese money boosting their budgets. Individual researchers often have even more to lose should they be barred from entry to China, access to Chinese primary sources, and cooperation with their research partners. The CCP still has much leverage to influence German academia, and its efforts continue to be successful.

What’s even more concerning is that the German state seems unable to rein in risks to academic freedom: Neither the relevant government ministries nor the German political parties have developed a comprehensive China strategy for academia—with the exception of the Greens and the Free Democrats, both of which will likely be part of the next government. Under Merkel, the fear among German politicians and bureaucrats of upsetting Beijing appears to have prevented them from standing up to Chinese interference and taking action to stop it.

Other key players have been just as ineffective. The German Rectors’ Conference, the main association of German universities that could push much more strongly on this issue, has done little more than publish a list of 100 “guiding questions about university cooperation with China,” even though few people in the country are better placed than these university leaders to answer them. Similarly, the German Academic Exchange Service, a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy that runs a whole range of exchange programs with China, defends cooperation with Beijing and continues to downplay the risks. It is highly doubtful that waiting for those who run and benefit from continued cooperation to put a stop to foreign interference will be enough.

In the face of passive government and university administrators who fail to protect academic freedom against CCP interference, individual researchers and their academic associations will need to shoulder greater responsibilities. For example, they could warn their universities about potential reputational risks and other costs of cooperating with China, and they could help individual academics and their institutions develop new policies to deal with censorship and self-censorship. Unfortunately, such intellectual leadership has been in short supply. A case in point is the German Association for Asian Studies: In a public statement in June, the organization’s board merely bemoaned interference and self-censorship in German academia. Strikingly, it has failed to develop any actionable proposals for dealing with such problems.

Help may be on the way from the new German government. Two of the three parties in the likely coalition—the Greens and the Free Democratic Party—are unusually critical of China, at least by German standards. One key step would be the much-discussed and long-overdue establishment of a national security council, which Germany does not yet have, to coordinate security issues, including the defense of academic freedom from autocracies, across ministries and agencies. A national security council under the leadership of the future chancellor—likely to be Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz—could provide strategic guidance to key stakeholders on the federal and state level.

There is also a strong need to train university administrators in political risk assessment, ethical due diligence, and reputation management—in hopes that they, too, will come to see the benefit of transparency and academic independence even at the cost of Chinese funding. Academic associations could help by making the case for full disclosure of third-party funding by German universities. Greater transparency would empower professors and staff to critique their colleagues’ and institutions’ unhealthy financial dependencies. Less reliance on funding from Chinese sources could also help reduce self-censorship among German China scholars.

If transparency and other prods don’t lead universities to self-correct, however, tougher measures will be needed. The new German government might consider introducing a German version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act and cut federal funding for universities taking Chinese money or failing to implement better risk management. All 16 state governments should introduce effective transparency laws.

German academics also need to critically reflect on their position toward the Chinese state. (One start might be our 10 recommendations for a better China discourse.) Xi’s hard authoritarian turn requires a critical reevaluation of CCP-led China in Germany and elsewhere. Staying silent on the CCP’s abuses at home and increasing aggressiveness abroad is no longer a neutral position nor counts as disinterested research. A higher level of professional and public discourse about the best strategies to mitigate the CCP’s threats to academic freedom in Germany is more urgent today than ever.

Andreas Fulda is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations and the author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents.

David Missal is a human rights activist at the Tibet Initiative Germany, where he focuses on China’s influence in Germany and human rights issues in China. Twitter: @DavidJRMissal

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