How do we stop treating China as a taboo?

It’s only been a few years since the UG embraced China. But ever since ‘Yantai’ was shot down, every effort has been made to painstakingly avoid a connection with the country, master student Daan Kingma has noticed. He thinks this is the wrong strategy.

Judging by global university rankings, the future of academia lies in China. Large universities such as Tsinghua, Beijing, and Fudan, just to name a few, dominate the World University Ranking 2023.

Not surprisingly, many prestigious universities such as NYU, Duke, and Oxford have close ties to Chinese universities and research institutes.

What’s the UG’s relationship with China like? A close reading of the strategic plan Making Connections reveals that the university painstakingly avoids mentioning any links to China.

What a change from 2016, when Oliver Moore was recruited as professor of Chinese language and culture, since ‘East Asia and China play an increasingly larger role in higher education and the business world’. It was proudly announced that the UG was going to be the second Dutch university to have a Chinese bachelor programme.

The Strategic Plan ‘Making Connections’ painstakingly avoids mentioning any links to China

Seven years later, that bachelor programme still hasn’t materialised. It’s not surprising, considering all the China-related incidents of the past few years.

First, the Yantai debacle is still fresh in people’s memories. The plans for this UG branch campus in China were cancelled in 2018 because the university council did not support them. The relationship between the UG and the Groningen Confucius Institute (GCI), which is connected to the Chinese government, has also come under fire more than once over the past few years.

Finally, in 2021, it turned out that the Groningen professorship in Chinese language and culture was partially funded by the GCI and that there initially had been a clause that said the professor wasn’t allowed to hurt China’s image (the GCI is no longer financially involved).

It’s a shame that these controversies have contributed to the UG not growing into an international knowledge centre about China. After all, there is a great demand for expertise on China in the academic community, the government, and the business world.

Just like in 2016, collaboration with East Asia and China is essential if the UG wants to be an international player. So how do we stop treating China as a taboo?

We can avoid the naiveté that led to the Yantai debacle by using a check list on how to best collaborate

First, the UG will have to develop a clear vision on how to create a breeding ground to study and research Chinese language and culture. A Chinese bachelor or even master programmes (like the ones in Leiden) aren’t an option without significant structural investments.

One option would be to recruit more China experts, who could help enhance existing study programmes with a diverse range of courses or provide a boost to the Centre for East Asian Studies. Second, we need to talk about the future of current (the Tsinghua-Groningen research centre/Dutch Studies Centre Shanghai) and future partnerships with China.

We need to make sure we avoid the naiveté that led to the Yantai debacle, for instance by using a check list on how to best work with Chinese universities and other research institutes. Obviously, safeguarding academic freedom and knowledge security, as well as preventing government interference, must be a priority.

If we don’t break the taboo on China, the promise the UG’s Strategic Plan makes – Making Connections – will remain unfulfilled.

Daan Kingma is a master student of Chinese in Leiden and a student of legal research in Groningen.



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