China Power | Society | East Asia

Countering China’s Influence Campaigns at European Universities

Central and Eastern EU member states are in general vulnerable given the financial constraints at even the leading universities.

By Ivana Karásková for
Countering China’s Influence Campaigns at European Universities
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

China’s efforts to manipulate academic discourse in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) cannot be easily discerned, yet there are examples that indicates the risks are real. The case of the Czech-Chinese research center that was established at the Czech Republic’s most prestigious Charles University constitutes a prime and one of the few publicly known examples of Chinese direct influence in CEE academia.

The center (discontinued after the issue was uncovered by media) had its activities, including its annual China-focused conferences, co-funded by China’s embassy. The format, a “balanced” composition of speakers — half of whom were provided by the Chinese embassy — and the thematic profile of conferences strongly indicate a decidedly China-friendly position. Czech researchers at the center (no longer employees of the university) also secretly billed the Chinese embassy for teaching a course on the Belt and Road Initiative, and selected prospective students who were later invited to China under the Bridge for the Future program, a scheme which brings together youth from Central and Eastern Europe and China.

Another case, involving the China-CEE Institute in Budapest, can serve as another example of China’s direct insertion into academic discourse. The outputs of the institute, China’s first think tank in Europe, include articles, calls for studies on China’s image (research results allegedly had to be translated into Chinese), and other elements that bring the institute close to becoming a direct tool of local (and possibly regional) Chinese propaganda.

In Central and Eastern Europe, no official state response has so far been adopted — perhaps because the scope and impact of China’s possible academic influence has been perceived as limited. Chinese universities and Chinese students are generally still regarded as a typical, unproblematic component of academic internationalization and international exchange, as well as an additional source of finances via tuition fees. Until recently universities seemed rather oblivious to the risks associated with cooperation with some Chinese entities, including establishing and outsourcing teaching to China’s Confucius Institutes. Also the local Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) seemed content to limit their activities to screening patriotic movies and organizing Chinese New Year celebrations. However, the number of Chinese students in the region has been on the rise, thanks to new cooperation opportunities provided under the umbrella of the 17+1 platform, thus we can hypothesize an increase in influence-seeking activities.

The Central and Eastern European countries have the luxury of designing their response toward China’s (and, for that matter, other authoritarian government’s) influence in academia at a time when precedents from other countries are well-documented and some of the counter-policies have been already tested. What measures should the EU, national states in CEE, and universities in the region adopt?

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The most obvious, yet most challenging, measure lies in providing sufficient funding for China expertise from non-Chinese (EU, national state, or private) sources. In Central and Eastern Europe, universities, including the leading ones, as the case of Czech-Chinese center illustrates, are seriously underfunded. While this is a general problem, dedicated action aimed at establishing sufficient and stable EU support for China scholars could help alleviate the perceived problem quickly and at a relatively modest cost. Establishing an EU-funded system of “China chairs,” focusing on academic excellence but also including the obligation of public outreach, would ensure the presence of a strong, independent Europe-wide academic voice, qualified to discuss China with the heft and impact of dedicated experts who are not dependent on Beijing’s goodwill. The painful experience of China-funded research and teaching in universities in the United States and Australia can serve as a timely warning in this regard.

The Central and Eastern EU member states are in general vulnerable given the financial constraints at even the leading universities. Moreover, across the region China studies as a field was largely abandoned during the Communist era; modern China studies programs were either founded after 1989 or still focus on traditional domains of literature and language instead of current China affairs. Moreover as members of the 17+1, the universities in CEE are in the spotlight of their Chinese counterparts as a number of instruments on different levels were established by the Chinese side to increase bilateral academic cooperation. The primary goal of a dedicated funding drive should be to ensure plurality of opinion and freedom of its expression, thus preventing Beijing from become the only (or even principal) sponsor of academic research, writing, and teaching on China affairs.

The EU has spent the last half-decade facing Russian propaganda and disinformation; while the results are far from perfect, the overall awareness of the problem has definitely been raised. China should be treated in a similar way, where and when necessary (and proportionately, as it is in a different position vis-à-vis the EU than Russia is, and the tools of China’s influence are more limited).

Third, more cooperation and coordination is needed in European countries on the issue of China’s influence. The EU should create and support an EU-wide mechanism, similar to the existing China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) platform, which will enable exchanges of information and sharing best practices among China experts and facilitate the flow of expertise between experts and practitioners.

Finally, while there is a strong interest in maintaining and developing cultural and academic cooperation with China, European universities should introduce due diligence before dealing with certain Chinese entities. For example, there is less risk in the Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language and culture, but they should not be used as a handy outsourcing tool for teaching about Chinese politics, society, and so on. The refusal to do so hinges, as mentioned above, on the universities’ ability to find other funding for these activities.

The autonomy of the universities, including their freedom to search for research partners and foreign sources of funding, should not be limited. On the other hand, universities should learn to act more responsibly, transparently, and cautiously. In any case, the measures envisaged and mentioned above should not lead to an increase in the influence of the state on university grounds. The actions undertaken should strengthen the resilience of universities and other academic institutions against risks and threats, the intensity of which is likely to increase with the rising power of China and the assertive behavior of other undemocratic actors.

Ivana Karásková, Ph.D., is a China Research Fellow and a founder and lead coordinator of projects ChinfluenCE and CHOICE at the Association for International Affairs (AMO). She lectures on China’s foreign policy and EU-China relations at Charles University in Prague.