Prestigious scholarship for Onno de Wal: ‘I’m not going to preach about Western values in Beijing’

Sixth-year international relations student Onno de Wal (23) is the first UG student to be granted the prestigious Schwarzmann Scholars scholarship, which will allow him to study in Beijing for a year alongside 150 other students from all over the world. Five questions on what he expects from this experience.

Congratulations, Onno! Why did you decide to apply for the scholarship? 

‘It was always a dream of mine to be able to do my master’s degree abroad. I find China to be a fascinating country with a rich history, a completely different political system, and a huge economy that has a massive influence on a global scale. The problem I was facing until now, was that the costs for doing a master in Asia were too high for me. So it’s an incredible opportunity that I can be enrolled in one of the most prestigious programmes in the world, while simultaneously not having to pay anything for it.’

This programme is meant to be an exchange of cultures as well as ideas on topics such as economics and politics. What experience do you think you will bring to the table?

‘Well obviously me being a Westerner, I will bring a lot of the culture and way of life that we are used to. Generally, I’m very much interested in having an open discussion in which I would like to represent the individualistic, liberal, and capitalist values that I am used to. I’m actually quite curious to see how Chinese students will react to my world views, and I’m also curious to hear their perspectives.’

‘For example, from an economical point of view, I think there’s a lot of practical concerns that still need to be sorted out. Think about trade relations: we’ve allowed China to invest quite a lot in Western countries in the past, but at the same time, it’s still quite difficult for Western companies to invest to the same degree in China. So the playing field isn’t fully level yet.’

How do you plan to handle the differences between the Chinese, Western and other worldviews? 

‘I think those views will clash at some point, but I also think everyone is open for discussion. I’m already in a group chat with people from the programme and we’ve already had some of these honest conversations.’ 

‘Usually I notice that people from the West focus on the things that they think China is doing wrong from a political, social, or economic point of view. On their part, people from China and other parts of the world, like Africa and Latin America, will ask critical questions in return. What I noticed from all the conversations I’ve had so far, also including Chinese students, is that they’re very willing to discuss things.’

‘I am sure my fellow students are willing to listen, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they will agree with me. Because if I would expect that, I would assume that I’m always right, and I don’t think that’s true. It’s really an exchange of ideas. They do live in a different culture, a different society, which might not place the same values on the same things that we do.’

This scholarship is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). How do you feel about that? 

‘It’s not just a CCP initiative, to be clear. The scholarship was set up by an American foundation and is supported by universities like Harvard and Oxford. But I think that if you want to set up a degree programme in China, you have to work with the Chinese government, since the system there works differently than in the Netherlands. The public and private sectors are a lot more intertwined, so you can’t really escape the ties to the CCP. I think the only other option would be for me not to go there at all, which I don’t think would be a good idea.’

‘Regardless of the differences between the West and China, I do think both sides should interact. I haven’t heard about any controversies surrounding the programme. I just think it’s a very nice opportunity to experience China.’

You’re affiliated with SOG, a student party in the university council, which has been critical of Chinese involvement in Dutch academic institutions and particularly the UG. What is your personal view on that?

‘Well, first of all, I have to mention that I’m no longer a member of SOG. I have an advisory role at the moment – which I will give up once I leave Groningen – and I do not represent the whole of SOG. I do consider myself to be a classic liberal from a political point of view, which means my views on academic freedom are in line with SOG. Obviously academic freedom at our university is very important both to me and to SOG.’

‘The decision to shut down the Confucius Institute was made by a previous faction which I was not a part of. I believe that you can be strict and have certain expectations when you are at home, in your own country, at your own university, but when you go somewhere else, you are a guest there and therefore you have to accept and stay open to the values and culture of the country you are visiting.’ 

‘I’m not planning to go to China in order to preach about Western values. I need some level of pragmatism. Yes, there have been problems in the past. Yes, there are two different political systems. But is that a reason to isolate ourselves from China? I don’t think so. Academic exchange in this case could serve as one of the few bridges for cooperation, and without it there will only be even more animosity and tensions in the future.’



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