‘I could develop a long answer, but the short one is: expect the worst’, says Johan Lagerkvist, professor of Chinese Language and Culture in Stockholm. Lagerkvist does extensive research into internet freedom in China. ‘State security is as important in the People’s Republic of China as in other countries, but unlike elsewhere, regime security is all-important. Some ministries may assure you some things, other ministries you will never be in touch with, and they call the shots’, he says.
Free internet is one of the strict conditions set by the Ministry of Education and the University Council to allow the RUG branch campus in China.
‘Broadly promising a “free internet” in China that will be the same as in the Netherlands is not something I would do’, says Kevin Kinser, head of educational policy at Pennsylvania State University, and expert in the field of branch campuses. ‘No one really knows what China will allow in practice. They make exceptions and accommodations for foreign universities, but there is no set policy here’, he says.
‘I do know that China allowed open internet access for students at Wenzhou Kean university, but my understanding is they did it as an experiment to see what students would actually use it for. So it was open, but monitored by the government’, Kinser says.
Lagerkvist also thinks the Chinese government is always listening. ‘When I attended a conference at Harvard’s Shanghai Center we were told to restrict our sensitive research conversations to a seminar room, not at receptions or other occasions. Yet I doubt the seminar room was in any way a “secure” location, including the usage of digital communications. That said, unless some of your students and guest professors engage in “sensitive” issues and combine theory and activisms, it’s unlikely that they will stir official interest.’
Leiden researcher Rogier Creemers, who specialises in the Law and Governance of China, does not expect as many problems. ‘It looks like the Chinese government has already given its permission (for the private cable that bypasses government censure, ed.), since the existing infrastructure will be used. I have no experience with the data connections of other foreign universities in China’, he says.
The RUG wants to make use of an existing data connection between China and Europe that goes through Russia. ‘Through Russia? Are they out of their minds? The country with one of the best privacy laws in the world is dumb enough to propose using a route through Putin land?’, a senior IT expert at IBM, who wishes to remain anonymous, responds (IBM employees are not allowed to talk to the media, ed.). According to the security expert, it all revolves around who owns the fibreglass connection. ‘BT? ATT? SingTel? The Chinese government?’
Louwarnoud van der Duim at the RUG’s IT department refuses to address that question. In earlier UK articles, Van der Duim has indicated that the data connection to Yantai can be tapped. ‘You never know who’s watching. But honestly that’s nothing new. The same can be said about all the internet traffic in the Netherlands, or anywhere in the world’, he said earlier. But the RUG has not made public who owns the data connections.
Wiretapping the cable is next to impossible, the IBM employee says. But they can install workarounds – so-called points of presence – that can reroute the connections through other routers or servers. ‘It means they can examine everything if they set their mind to it.’
The fibreglass connection might be more secure, or less susceptible to government restrictions, says Kinser. ‘But I think that when it comes to China, there are no guarantees. The key is that branch campus leaders need to understand what their red line is in terms of censorship. Because censorship will exist in some form.’