A globe with the country China.
(Photo: CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash)

Dutch higher education does not necessarily have to refuse Chinese funding, Minister Dijkgraaf thinks. The institutions must, however, ‘be wary of the dangers and risks’.

Lees in het Nederlands

Coalition party VVD asked the minister written questions following the controversy surrounding the Human Rights Centre at VU Amsterdam, of which the Dutch broadcaster NOS revealed in January that it was financed by China. “Professors affiliated with the centre regularly defend China's human rights policy,” wrote NOS.Is not such funding inappropriate?, the VVD wants to know, because doesn’t it undermine Dutch human rights policy?

According to Dijkgraaf it is not all black and white, it has emerged this week. “In general, institutions must be wary of the dangers and risks associated with financial dependence”, he writes. “Precisely because of the possible undermining of academic core values (academic freedom and scientific integrity) that can stem from it.” Concrete risks are not the only concern. “Academic freedom must always be safeguarded; even the appearance of curtailment of that freedom is undesirable.”

Making your own decisions
But Chinese funding is not always a problem, he believes. Institutions must remain alert, but in his view that should not lead to “arbitrary exclusion, imputation or discrimination”. The institutions must make their own decisions, following the Nationale Leidraad Kennisveiligheid (national guide for knowledge security).

‘Active and critical debate on human rights welcome’

Human rights are also discussed in this guide. It deals with something that the NOS also described in a later article: the ‘soft power’ with which China tries to polish its bad human rights image in the West. The guide states that ‘some state actors employ means to influence the way they are perceived and understood internationally’. Knowledge institutions can then be targeted for influencing ‘opinions and publications’ on ‘unwelcome topics (such as human rights violations)’.

Academic freedom
Nevertheless, Dijkgraaf does not believe that Dutch human rights policy is undermined if a human rights institute such as that of the VU University advocates the Chinese vision of human rights. That vision means that the rights of the individual are not leading, but the rights of society as a whole. This can mean, for example, that economic development is paramount.

Although the Netherlands has ‘a clear and transparent human rights policy and welcomes an active and critical debate on this important topic’, Dijkgraaf says. “In the context of academic freedom, researchers are free to adopt a position that differs from Dutch government policy. That is what distinguishes us from more restrictive countries.” But you have to be transparent about “possible dependencies” when investigating human rights. “Especially with regard to funding by parties that are themselves a subject of concern in this area.”

HOP, Bas Belleman/Delta, Saskia Bonger
Photo: Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst on Flickr - no changes made