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Van Engelshoven: ‘UG should sever ties with Confucius Institute’

Outgoing education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (D66) is advising the UG to sever its ties with the Confucius Institute. According to her, this will do away with the worries about potential infringement of academic freedom.

She writes this in response to parliamentary questions asked by the CDA. These questions, on the connection between the UG and the Chinese institute, arose after an article published by Follow the Money. The journalism platform wrote that lecturers at the Confucius Institute were being trained to provide ‘the right answers to difficult questions’.

Growing concerns

Concerns about the relationship between the UG and China rose this year. In February, worried Chinese students and university council party De Vrije Student created a petition asking the university to sever ties with the Confucius Institute. According to them, the institute’s relationship with the Chinese government was too intimate, posing a risk to academic freedom at the UG.

Research institute Clingendael issued a similar warning on Chinese interference in June of 2020: the embedding of Confucius Institutes in Dutch educational institutes would lead to China meddling in Dutch research. China’s lack of freedom would cause Dutch researcher to censor themselves.

In February of this year, the contract of professor of Chinese language and culture Oliver Moore became a topic of discussion, as it supposedly said that he wasn’t allowed to do anything that harmed the image of China.

Dutch intelligence services AIVD, MIVD, and NCTV published a report that same month, warning that China could potentially be spying on Dutch universities. 

Step further

This isn’t the first time that concerns about the institute have led to parliamentary questions.  Van Engelshoven replied cautiously to previous ones, saying she wanted to discuss the matter with the UG. She’s also spoken to the Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Maastricht, the only other Dutch university still in league with a Confucius Institute. 

Van Engelshoven said that these meetings showed ‘varying degrees of awareness concerning knowledge security’. While the educational institutes claim to be aware of the risks, ‘the awareness concerning knowledge security hasn’t permeated every layer of the organisation just yet’, she writes. 

In part because of the Clingendael report, she’s now advising the UG ‘sever its ties with the Confucius Institute’, in an effort to remove ‘any possible infringement of academic freedom or appearance thereof’.

Whether the UG will follow the advice remains unclear. So far, board president Jouke de Vries has always maintained that the ties to the Confucius Institute were no danger to academic freedom. He also said he couldn’t do anything until the Dutch government gave him a clear reason to do so.

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