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“We must not stigmatise Chinese students and PhD candidates”

“We must not stigmatise Chinese students and PhD candidates” “We must not stigmatise Chinese students and PhD candidates”


Li Guanzhou en Guo Haijun, website Tsinghua University in Beijing

Criticism towards China increases, but UM strengthens bonds

MAASTRICHT. Even though there is more and more criticism from – among others – the academic world regarding collaboration with China, Maastricht University strengthens its bonds and welcomes about seventy Chinese doctoral students with grants, 50 per cent more than last year. “You must not stigmatise them; you must work with them on the basis of mutual respect.”

Last year, 47 doctoral students with grants came from China to Maastricht, this year – registrations closed on 30 March – the UM is banking on seventy candidates. This growth has everything to do with the rising interest of Maastricht faculties, as well as young Chinese researchers, say President Martin Paul and professor Harry Steinbusch, chairman of the Maastricht China team. The faculties wrote no less than 220 research projects, a lot more than last year, and considerably more than the handful from seven years ago. In those days (2014), the UM entered into collaboration with the Chinese government’s Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC: see box 1) for the first time. It was the first Dutch university to do so.

The Chinese candidates choose a country and a project, and are then subjected to an interview procedure. Until recently, half of them (five thousand) chose the US and Australia, but since Trump’s political discord, an end has come to that. Other countries, including the Netherlands, are benefiting from that.

Getting something for nothing

The two feel that the growing interest by the faculties is not surprising. “They are really good people, graduates from a Chinese university that scores high in the Shanghai Ranking. You are bringing in quality, but also our ambassadors of tomorrow. Both in business and in diplomatic terms. Through them, our students and researchers will be able to attend a top university for training or research.” Steinbusch, professor of Cellular Neurosciences, has been working with scientists from China for years. He sees, among other things, great opportunities for medical research: “We like to work with large cohorts. They have those. And they like to work with us.”

Aside from that, the UM seems to be getting something for nothing, financially, with these PhD candidates. China pays the grant (1,350 euro per month) for four years, the UM offers free accommodation in the Guesthouse for the first year and provides the research facilities. If the PhD is a success, the university can expect a PhD bonus from the government of some 60 thousand euro. That is not profit, says Paul: “It’s a reimbursement afterwards for costs incurred.” The income and expenses are balanced, Steinbusch emphasises: “We are investing just as much money as China, in terms of supervision, congress visits and PhD costs. Everything is done on the basis of mutual trust.” Despite this, Chinese PhD students ‘cost’ a lot less than their Dutch counterparts who do not have a grant and just regular appointments.

Should the UM want this?

But do these advantages offset all the risks? Should the UM want such an influx of young researchers now that there has been increasing criticism against China? Whether it is about academic freedom (the chair of Chinese Language and Culture, Groningen: see box 2), censorship and influencing of employees and students (Confucius Institute Groningen: see box 2), human rights (Uighurs, Hongkong), or improper use of scientific knowledge (Delft University of Technology: see box 2).

“We are not doing business with the state,” was President Paul’s firm reaction, “but with the higher education institutes. Those universities are checked by the Dutch government and by the intelligence service AIVD. We, for example, will not do business with graduates from a military academy.” Also, Steinbusch adds: “Those are our research projects. And we select the candidates, using tools such as a checklist from the ministry. With every candidate (the Chinese graduate chooses a project from our list on the website) we have one or two extensive personal interviews. We look for people who will suit us, those who enter into discussion openly, speak fluent English, have research experience, with good grades and an interest in Problem-based Learning. We want young researchers who are not afraid to give their opinions and who are open to other views.”

But you never have one hundred per cent certainty, some say. Paul: “Research results can always be abused, but that also happens by non-Chinese citizens, by civilians from other totalitarian countries. We are vigilant, security of knowledge is important, but at the same time we want to be open to collaboration. We are looking for the right mix based on the Dutch government’s China strategy.”


Internationalisation organisation Nuffic’s departing director Freddy Weima is sympathetic to their views. In an interview published by Observant last week about the collaboration with countries such as Russia and China: “You can’t turn your back on those countries. You have to have knowledge about the Russian and Chinese language and culture, if only for the fact that those countries have a lot of influence on the world stage.” In answer to the question whether we should close our borders: “That is like breaking a walnut with a sledgehammer. You should remain alert, but there are about five thousand Chinese students in the Netherlands and you mustn’t act as if they are all malicious.”

Big brother

That latter comes from the heart for Steinbusch and Paul. “We mustn’t stigmatise the Chinese students,” they say. “We need to approach them with respect, based on equality.” As far as Steinbusch is concerned, that (in)famous Dutch pointed finger that gladly likes to point out others’ mistakes, is better tucked away. “We must not push our students into a corner. If they have just arrived in Maastricht, alone, without family, sometimes married, sometimes with children, and somebody starts on about the human rights of the Uighurs or the political situation in Hongkong, the first reaction is often: I am proud of my country. We force them into the role of defending their country. Put that pointed finger away, discussions will come about by themselves. I also speak about human rights in China, but always on the basis of equality.”

Martin Paul recognises the feeling: “I was a postdoc in the US, at the time when Germany was still divided into East and West. A professor spoke to me at the lab where I worked: ‘Where are you from?’ I said: Heidelberg, West Germany. To which he asked: ‘East and West: Who are the good guys? Who the bad guys?’ I felt attacked as a German. I did enter into a debate, I feel that you should approach each other with respect, which means that you start by having the will to listen to each other instead of immediately judging each other.”

Aside from that, it is important that the newcomers integrate well. Steinbusch: “We have a buddy system and join every Chinese PhD candidate with a student from another country. We have an active introduction programme and for the first year they live in the Guesthouse. Spread out, not all Chinese sharing the same corridor. They become acquainted with various cultures. And there are discussions about all kinds of subjects.” Neither he nor Paul is present at those discussions. Paul: “It is not a case of big brother is watching you.”

Loyalty to the state

Right, so treat each other with respect, nobody can have anything against that. But then there is another matter: a graduate will only receive a CSC grant if it is clear that he or she, but also his or her family members, swears allegiance to the communist party and the Chinese state. Steinbusch, with a common-sense attitude: “The students who come to us, study at a top-quality institute. If you manage to get in there, you know for sure that your parents have a connection to the party, otherwise you don’t end up there. No matter how brilliant you are.”

It is good that this group comes to Maastricht and is immersed in “our society and culture,” Paul feels. “Their outlook will be broadened because of it. The same applies, for example, to students from Saudi Arabia. I recently met a Saudi Arabian graduate of medicine. ‘It was the best experience ever, I learned so much in Maastricht’, he said. Of course, there is a lot of political discussion, but it is important that governments hold those discussions and that it doesn’t happen at the expense of these young people.”

Asian hate

A last point. Racism is out of the question, the two emphasise. They refer to the Asian hate that has surfaced since the COVID-19 pandemic and that has made the Chinese hesitant to travel abroad. Steinbusch knows that there have been internal questions in Maastricht concerning the arrival of such a large group of PhD candidates. That’s okay, but he has also noticed Asian hate within the university walls. That shouldn’t be allowed.

The Netherlands popular with Chinese students: in seventh place worldwide

(box 1)
The Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) of the Chinese government sends ten thousand graduates a year abroad for PhD research. They receive a four-year grant; those who come to the Netherlands get 1,350 euro a month from the CSC.

Until recently (read: in the pre-Trump era), five thousand of them would go to the USA and Australia, but because of the political discord an end has come to that. Other countries, including the Netherlands, have benefited from that.

Dutch higher education has a “very good reputation” in China, says Harry Steinbusch, who has many contacts in Asia and who for years has worked together with researchers from countries such as China and Japan. The Netherlands appeals to the students and is in seventh place of most popular countries. In first place is the United Kingdom, followed by Australia and New Zeeland.

In the Netherlands, Wageningen takes the lead, followed by Delft, Amsterdam (UvA), Groningen, and Maastricht in fifth place.


More and more concerns about collaborating with China, an incomplete overview

(box 2)

The University of Groningen has recently decided to no longer allow the chair Chinese Language and Culture to be partly financed by the umbrella organisation of the Chinese Confucius institutes, Hanban. The professor – the contract stated – should refrain from harming China’s reputation. That is incompatible with academic freedom and scientific integrity.

There are about five hundred Confucius institutes worldwide. Their aim is to promote the language and culture of the People’s Republic of China and improve China’s image. In the Netherlands, there is a Confucius institute in Groningen and one in Maastricht (the latter has a connection with Zuyd Hogeschool, not with the UM). Leiden discontinued the co-operation in 2019 because “the institute’s activities no longer fit in with the China strategy of the UL”. In Groningen, it recently appeared in the news again, there was mention of censorship and influencing of employees and students. Also, Chinese students who were not connected to the institute could end up in trouble if they carried out research into sensitive subjects such as the political situation in Hongkong or the repression of an Islamic minority, the Uighurs.

The Amsterdam universities – UvA and VU – have been working together with tech giant Huawei since 2020. The Chinese company has invested 3.5 million in an artificial intelligence lab. The House of Representatives has asked questions about this, not in the least because Huawei is under fire worldwide because of possible state espionage.

Delta, the independent medium of TU Delft, published a series of articles about the collaboration between Delft and Chinese universities last month. Important message: PhD students and guest researchers from the Chinese military academy NUDT did or do research into radar technology, quantum computers, models for war simulations, in short, all kinds of subjects that could have both civil and military applications.

A recent scientific research carried out in Leiden, showed that the Chinese communist party is trying to get a grip on fellow countrymen who live elsewhere, including the Netherlands. Researcher Frank Pieke in de Volkskrant at the end of March 2021: “Beijing expects the Chinese, whether they have Dutch nationality or are here temporarily for a study or work, that they are loyal and that they endorse the viewpoints underlying Chinese policies.”

The House of Representatives feels that China is committing genocide of the Uighurs. One of the submitters of the motion, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma (D66) is no longer allowed to enter the country. China is curbing democracy in Hongkong and is expanding its power step by step.




2021-04-13: Shenghua Zong
I am from China and now am a postdoc in the UM. It is indeed a valuable studying experience.

Glad to see that the leaders in UM hold an positive opinion on the phenomenon and also has their own insights in the current critisms.

I was moved by the sentence: "We shouldn't corner our students. When they have just arrived in Maastricht, alone, without family, sometimes married, sometimes with children, and someone starts talking about the human rights...".
It is the very turth of what I was facing during my study here. I totally agree that it is alwasys important to communicate with respect and equlity.

Another point I want to add is that, these yound talent students are not only gaining knowleages from Netherlands, but also are contributaing to their academic areas, together with their supervisors and colleagues from Netherlands or the other countries of the world. And this is really what I, as a researcher, am proud of!

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