China and soft power: Are Dutch Universities Influenced by China? What is at stake?

By Federico Arcuri

Nowadays, with China trying to strengthen its political and ideological influence abroad, it is increasingly common for mainstream media to mention the rise in Chinese investment and trade in Africa as an example of Chinese soft power. As a matter of fact, China is exploiting a favorable opportunity in Africa. Initially, investment-needing African countries tried to improve their economies through neoliberal policies, however, after years of perceived unsuccess, they changed their strategy. They are now turning to China’s model of development: reducing poverty through economic and social control, which may also include limitations to the freedom of speech. 

Unlike in Africa however, China’s aspirations of spreading its influence internationally have not been as evident in Europe. Some experts believe that this is due to China’s political ideology being incompatible with Western concepts such as neoliberalism and democracy. This interpretation is for example backed by a research project of the Clingendael Institute conducted in 2010, that concluded that the main obstacle to a successful Chinese public diplomacy is its lack of credibility. However, the increased volume of China-EU trade seems to contradict, or at least cast doubt on such conviction. In 2020, China surpassed the US as the EU’s biggest trading partner, and its ties with China are stronger than ever. In this context, events such as the first planned opening of a Chinese University campus in Budapest in 2024, making it the first in Europe, cannot be considered surprising. Or, for example, Italy being the first G7 country to join the Belt and Road Initiative shows how European countries are moving closer and closer to China. Why is this issue important? What is at stake? According to some, China’s investments do not pose a significant threat to European democracy, since China has to be seen as “both a systemic rival and a vital economic partner.” Others, however, do not agree and see China as threatening European democratic values.

In this context, Confucius institutes, created in 2004 based on the model of Spain’s Cervantes Institute and Germany’s Goethe Institute, seem to be the main tool of increasing Chinese soft power in education. By the end of 2012, 400 Confucius institutes were established in 108 countries and regions in the world. Yet, recently one could observe an opposing trend to this development. As of April 2021, at least 92 universities around the world decided to cut ties with the Confucius Institute. Some of them justified this decision because of a perceived lack of academic freedom. In 2019, for example, Leiden university did not renew its contract with the Confucius Institute, as its activities “no longer align with the University’s China strategy and the direction this has taken in recent years. In this strategy, projects that are based on research at Leiden University and its partner institutions in China take priority.”

With this in mind, I was surprised when, on the 17th of February, I was sent an article by from a Dutch friend. The article explained how Groningen students are pushing for a petition to no longer cooperate with the Chinese Confucius Institute. It also mentions how concerns about academic freedom are growing in other Dutch universities. In this sense, one statement that stood out to me from the article was by Dr. Casper Wits, a BA International Studies lecturer of History of East Asia and Politics of East Asia. He told NOS: “I notice that some students from Hong Kong and China no longer dare to open their mouths in the lecture hall.” This situation that he mentioned is linked to the student association ACSSNL (Association of Chinese Scholars and Students in the Netherlands): “Those who don’t join, know that they will have a difficult time later in their career.” These statements that showed how wider geopolitical issues can be reflected in our reality, even in our weekly lectures and classes, sparked my interest and made me decide to dig deeper. Thus, I decided to interview Dr. Casper Wits to learn more about this issue.

Federico: In the article, you mentioned that some Chinese students are intimidated as a result of the Chinese student association ACSSNL’s influence. Do you know how ACSSNL concretely limits Chinese students’ freedom of speech? 

Dr. Casper Wits: “I think it’s done a lot through simple peer pressure. I doubt there are real policies about this, but simply by Chinese students with each other – under the umbrella of the government, as it is directly controlled by the embassy, it is even said on their website. It is gonna be clear what their ideological take on thing is: I think it has a lot to do with self-censorship. An effective authoritarian state creates a system in which people censor themselves, so it doesn’t have to be done openly. It has been literally stated by Xi Jinping, and by the Chinese Government in general, that Chinese students abroad have to be controlled more to make sure that they don’t bring home ‘ideologically dubious’ ideas. This type of control has now increased and they are now more aware in China of the importance of controlling Chinese students than in the past.

Federico: Do you know if the influence exerted by ACSSNL is natural (bottom-up) or determined by PRC policy?

Dr. Casper Wits: I think that they [ACSSNL] do have the objectives of Chinese foreign policy in mind, for example, the fact that there shouldn’t be discussions about the most sensitive topics – Uyghurs, Tibetans, Democracy, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the “five poisons” as they are called. But at the same time, it’s also simply similar to student associations from other countries that work abroad to help people to socialize in a more positive sense, and that’s probably gonna be the experience of most Chinese students in the Netherlands who are engaged with this. Therefore, I think it works both ways, also in the sense that young Chinese people nowadays have gone through the program called “patriotic education”, so they tend to be very well-versed in ideology and also much more pro-government than they were in the 1980s. So it is in a sense also bottom-up. Not in The Netherlands, but abroad there are many instances of Chinese students who speak out and are then harassed by their fellow Chinese students. Hong Kong students as well have been verbally attacked by Mainland China students.

Federico: Do you think that Leiden’s withdrawal from the Confucius Institute is a consequence of growing awareness of the conflict of interests behind such institutions? Do you think that this withdrawal is part of a wider trend of academic retrieval from Confucius institutes?

Dr. Casper Wits: I wasn’t here yet when that happened, I was still in Cambridge. To be honest, I don’t really know. I think that Leiden mostly felt that they didn’t have much use for the Confucius Institute, because we already have an up and running China program, so in that sense, Leiden was probably different from any other University that wanted the Confucius Institute because they did not have that type of knowledge.

Federico: As a researcher and an academic, what is your opinion on the Confucius institute?

Dr. Casper Wits: I have never had anything to do with them and I’m not planning to either. I think that it’s important to realize that people make a mistake when they compare the Confucius Institutes with the German Goethe Institute for instance, which is only a cultural institution, not serving to promote government ideology. The Confucius Institute is something different. However, their actual influence should not be exaggerated. They are obviously controlled by the Chinese Government, therefore they are not really going to be very effective in influencing academic freedom in universities, it’s too obvious what they are doing. A bigger worry is Chinese influence in other aspects when it’s less obvious when scholars – even Western ones – have to practice self-censorship because of their collaboration with China. That’s the bigger problem. In a way, Confucius Institutes are like a lightning rod, getting all the attention, but we should look beyond it and look more critically at Chinese influence as a whole. At the same time, I think that it’s problematic that they organize cultural events that will never touch ‘critical’ topics, and I’m against that. However, their influence should not be exaggerated.

There was a report last year by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands about Chinese influence in higher education, and the report also identified that the biggest problem is self-censorship. If you want to access China as an academic, or access to research collaboration or research funding from China, it’s obvious that there are certain things that you cannot discuss, limiting your academic freedom.

Federico: So the Confucius Institute is just a small part of a wider issue?

Dr. Casper Wits: Yes, the wider problem is not even limited to education, the wider issue is that as a society we decided to make ourselves economically dependent on China to a certain extent, and that will always come with other kinds of influence as well. So we shouldn’t be surprised of Chinese influence on higher education: that’s what we have chosen as a society. Also, Confucius Institutes were useful to universities in a financial sense, as this society wants to invest less and less into university, into educating young people. I can see why [ Confucius Institute free programs ] were attractive for a long time. We should also look more critically at ourselves when discussing Chinese influence in higher education. If we don’t like it, we have to invest more money in academia.

Federico: In the meanwhile, in Groningen, students started a petition to end the university’s partnership with the Confucius Institute, while the head of the Groningen Confucius Institute dismissed such allegations as ‘fake news’, stating that ‘there is no evidence, just opinions’. Do you think that we still don’t have enough evidence to assess whether these accusations are valid?

Dr. Casper Wits: First of all, she is being paid for saying that. The tricky thing is that you never have evidence about these kinds of things. The issue in Groningen was that students from Hong Kong were feeling intimidated even by the fact that the Confucius Institute exists there. That already limits their academic freedom. In that sense, we should move the discussion beyond evidence of actual intimidation, which you can’t probably find, but it’s a larger question of creating a safe situation for students from China and Hong Kong to be critical at a western university, and that’s simply not possible if you have Chinese government institutions collaborating closely with that university.

Some time ago, I was asked by a friend: “What’s the point in being so interested in China? Since they are becoming such a strict dictatorship, shouldn’t we just stop being so interested in them?” Thanks to Casper’s words, I realized how the confrontation between Chinese and European systems and values can be a stimulus to reflect more about ourselves, both individually and collectively. How can the EU trade with China without receiving any form of influence in exchange? Isn’t trade a form of collaboration? It is safe to say that all of us are silently accepting the cooperation with China and other non-democratic regimes. As Casper said, the issue of Chinese soft power in dutch academia is just a small part of a wider problem. The problem is, that as a society, we decided to make ourselves economically dependent on China.  Personally, I hope that (future) confrontations with the contradictions implied by the EU-China trade will spark interest in critically rethinking our core values. This will hopefully allow us to assess whether the so-called ‘democratic’ countries are still committed to democratic values, and how to improve them. I think that understanding in-depth the dynamics behind the rise of China can help us to critically think about our own individual inner contradictions. Especially since these ultimately create a society in which it is bearable to collaborate with an oppressive regime, as long as violations of human rights are not happening in front of our eyes. 

Edited by Ricarda Bluemcke, artwork by Oscar Laviolette