June 19, 2024

Questions raised about Chinese contract with German university

Author: David Matthews for Times Higher Education
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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 program.

German lawmakers have criticized 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 program 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, which threatens the freedom of teaching and research at the institution.

Pressure had been growing on the FU even before these latest revelations. On Jan. 20, 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 euros ($551,000) 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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