Main building of the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) Campus at Amstelveenseweg, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
© 2016 Ger Bosma/Alamy Stock Photo
The Vrije Universiteit (Free University) of Amsterdam, which describes itself as “encouraging … broader minds,” is the latest academic institution to be embarrassed over problematic funding from the Chinese government.
Media reported this week that the Free University had accepted funding between 2018 and 2020 from the Southwest University of Politics and Law in Chongqing, China. Universities in China are tightly controlled by a government notoriously hostile to academic freedom at home and abroad.
In democracies, universities remain vulnerable to Beijing’s global campaign to undermine human rights. The funding to the Free University supported its “Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre,” which has articulated views strikingly similar to those of the Chinese government. For instance, several center employees denied that the Chinese government was oppressing Uyghurs, despite overwhelming evidence that Uyghurs are being targeted for crimes against humanity.
Free University authorities have now said they will return some and possibly all of the funding, and the “shocked” Dutch education minister is urging universities to be aware of these kinds of risks. The Inspectorate of Education appears reluctant to pursue a broader investigation, stating that “No other signals about Chinese influence are known to the inspectorate.”
The Inspectorate of Education would be wise to do more homework in this area. In a decade of documenting Chinese government threats to academic freedom around the world, Human Rights Watch has found threats at universities from Australia to the United States, and proposed a code of conduct to help mitigate these risks. One key step: universities should publicly disclose all direct and indirect Chinese government funding and a list of projects and exchanges with Chinese government counterparts on an annual basis.
In showing its permeability to Chinese government influence, the Free University shouldn’t limit its response simply to returning the funding. It should urgently assess whether students and scholars of and from China on its campus are subjected to harassment or surveillance – a problem well-documented in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. University leadership and scholars should assess whether censorship and self-censorship have eroded the curriculum or classroom debate.
The Free University should also join forces with counterparts across Europe – from Berlin to Cambridge to Budapest – who have faced similar problems, and agree to share information and adopt common standards with the goal of collectively resisting Beijing’s efforts to curtail academic freedom. The list of potential participants – supposedly “free” universities – is disturbingly long.