The long arm of China is reaching Dutch research both in and on China, the Clingendael Institute and the Rathenau Institute recently stated. Resource asked Wageningen researchers how they experience this. The findings do not resonate with them: ‘I’ve never had the feeling that I’m being influenced or deceived’. China does keep an eye on its students, though, even in Wageningen.
The Wageningen economist Nico Heerink is keen to stamp out the idea that the Chinese government seeks to influence research in and on China, and that it discourages criticism. He emails us six recent publications on: the high rate of pesticide use in China, water scarcity and land degradation, the excessive confiscation of agricultural land for urban development, land conflicts, and the development of transgene Bt rice in China. These are all politically sensitive issues that Heerink has written about, often with a Chinese researcher as the lead author.
Heerink is responding to reports by the Clingendael Institute and the Rathenau Institute that came out last summer, both claiming that China exerts an influence on Dutch research in and on China. ‘Everything is political,’ stated Clingendael researcher Ingrid d’Hooghe. ‘Some subjects have to be avoided, the story has to be positive, and criticism is not welcome.’ She cited not just studies of the oppression of the Uighurs, but also research on labour conditions in factories. The Rathenau Institute reached a similar conclusion, but could not give any examples.
‘Not right at all’
The critical reports are part of a series of publications in the Dutch press about ‘the Chinese threat. China has put a million Uighurs in internment camps, seeks to silence opposition in Hong Kong, is accused of phone-tapping key Dutch politicians and of industrial espionage, and is thought to be gathering personal data through the 5G mobile network. What is more, China is said to be influencing research and students. Several members of the Dutch parliament have questioned whether we should continue to collaborate with China.
I’ve never had the feeling I’m being influenced or deceivedEvert Jacobsen, emeritus professor of Plant Breeding
But Heerink, who has been visiting China for a long time and even lived there for a few years, is adamant that he has not encountered any influencing of research on China’s part. ‘As far as my subject area is concerned, Clingendael’s and Rathenau’s findings are not right at all.’
The economist sees more of a cultural problem. ‘I work very closely with Chinese researchers, many of them Wageningen PhD graduates. They know the local policy and have access to the research data. And they evaluate that local policy in terms of “this is going well, that’s not going so well, and here’s what you could do to improve the situation.” That works fine: you should let your Chinese partner convey the message.’
What doesn’t go down well, says Heerink, is offering your own opinion on a political issue from your own Dutch or western perspective. Suggesting that China is destroying democracy in Hong Kong, for example, closes doors in China. ‘I assume that Clingendael talked mainly to Dutch political scientists for their report. Human Rights are a very sensitive topic in China.’
Other Wageningen scientists with long experience of working in China also say no one has tried to influence or obstruct their research there. ‘I’ve never had the feeling that I’m being influenced or deceived,’ says Evert Jacobsen, emeritus professor of Plant Breeding. ‘The Chinese have their own agenda. What is it? Developing their country.’
Research in the Wageningen domain – agriculture, food safety and quality, nature and environment, rural development – takes place with full transparency, and the results are published in scientific journals.
That is not necessarily the case with high-tech subjects such as chip technology and artificial intelligence. Is there any question of influence or espionage in this research field – for example, in relation to WUR’s Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge?
This competition, in which several international teams design autonomous greenhouses using sensors and artificial intelligence, is sponsored by Tencent, the Chinese Google. So it brings together WUR, sensitive technology and Chinese capital. How is that going?
‘The Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge is an open innovation project,’ says WUR organizer Silke Hemming. ‘We stimulate the sharing of knowledge among the participants. The teams develop algorithms, which are their property and they decide whether they want to share them with other participants and the public. You notice that some do so and others don’t. WUR collects data from our greenhouses during the competition, and we make it available to anyone after the competition is over. Tencent is the sponsor, and has the same access to the data as anyone else. There is never any interference or discussion about data.’
Tiny van Boekel, acting professor by special appointment of Dairy Science, has not encountered any political influencing or knowledge theft in China. Van Boekel is involved in the Sino-Dutch Dairy Development Centre (SDDDC), a collaboration between WUR and Chinese universities and dairy companies aiming to improve the Chinese dairy chain. This initiative was launched after China’s 2008 melamine crisis, when dairy companies contaminated baby formula with melamine.
You have to realize how deeply capitalist China isTiny van Boekel, acting professor by special appointment of Dairy Science
Van Boekel: ‘The dairy crisis was very openly discussed in China. The policymakers wanted to solve it. You have to realize how deeply capitalist China is: businesspeople could do what they like in those days, in a kind of wild west economy. Central government only started to impose rules later, to make companies take public health and the environment into consideration.
The business world is not organized, it’s every man for himself. In the SDDDC we propose: collaborate within the dairy supply chain to make it productive, safe and climate-neutral. That doesn’t happen because the companies see each other as competitors. We have very open discussions about that.’
Collaboration between WUR and China started about 40 years ago. One of the pioneers was Wageningen emeritus professor of Plant Breeding Evert Jacobsen, who still distinctly remembers his first Chinese PhD student: Qu Dongyu. ‘I was his supervisor, but we didn’t make very good progress with the research. As the only Chinese person who spoke good English, Qu was sent all over the place by his boss, the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.’
In the end, Qu graduated within four years and went on to a brilliant career: he is now director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
There is never any interference or discussion of dataWageningen’s China researcher
We often fail to realize how fast China has evolved from a developing country into a global power, says Tiny van Boekel. He went to Beijing for the first time over 20 years ago. At that time, he saw vast numbers of cyclists in the Chinese capital and was a curiosity himself. When he visited again 10 years later, Beijing was congested with cars. All the Wageningen researchers who went to China were amazed by the fast development.
By now, travellers to China also note developments they don’t feel so positive about. Chinese government policy on ethnic minorities has changed. These minorities used to have autonomous status within China, and could maintain their own culture. Now they are required to fall in line with central government. At the same time, the anti-corruption policy has been sharpened up.
As a result, more corrupt directors have gone to prison, but sometimes ‘corruption’ appears to be an excuse to lock up political rivals or dissidents. Thirdly, the Chinese press has become less diverse and informative. English-language newspapers in China used to publish news about the country; now they mostly publish articles in praise of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
These developments do not affect Wageningen’s projects in China, however, which are about public goods such as food and infrastructure. Public debate and protests do sometimes occur in China, for example if the central government wants to build a high-speed railway line, or the local government wants to confiscate land to create new suburbs.
Sometimes citizens whose land has been confiscated are obstructed by local government and supported by central government, say Wageningen’s China researchers. The Beijing central government often wants to hear the different perspectives on regional policy issues.
But the Wageningen researchers also say that certain things are extremely sensitive. No open discussion is possible on any matter that gets too close to the central government – like the position of Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example. And calling China to account publicly is out of the question. National policy is sacred in China, says one regular visitor, and Chinese policy is based on non-interference. ‘So you mustn’t embarrass them with criticism, especially not in public. That means loss of face, which is a terrible thing in China.’
It is difficult to separate the current criticism of China from the technological war between the US and China, in which the US constantly seeks to reign in Chinese high-tech companies. In that setting, China is being portrayed in horrifying terms, says one experienced China researcher. ‘I have noticed that there is very little specific evidence about Chinese influence on research in the Clingendael study. We shouldn’t blow things out of proportion.’
WUR is working on guidelines for research in and with China, says rector Arthur Mol. ‘We’ve got to be realistic. We are doing research on nutrition, agriculture, nature and the environment – all public goods which you can discuss and publish about freely in China. But we mustn’t be naïve. We do want to be able to choose the Chinese partners we work with ourselves. If we embark on a project in the field of genome editing, for example, we should think carefully about ownership rights and which partners we choose. You have to be aware of the business, cultural and political interests at stake – but that is equally true of the US.’
Chinese surveillance in Wageningen
The Chinese government keeps an eye on its citizens, even outside China. So the Chinese embassy in The Hague has a list of all the Chinese students doing degrees or PhDs in Wageningen. Years ago, a Chinese PhD student who hadn’t registered with the embassy had great difficulty later in getting her PhD recognized in China. So everyone registers.
The Chinese embassy keeps in close contact with the Chinese Students’ Associations at Dutch university towns. It monitors, for example, whether Wageningen students on a Chinese grant make good use of their funding. The embassy also gives students money to organize cultural events, arranges flights for them, and provides support during the coronavirus crisis.
When China is criticized on politically sensitive subjects – an example was an opinion about Hong Kong expressed in Resource – the Chinese community goes into action. Chinese students email the editors to complain and the embassy is informed. As a result, Chinese students in Wageningen do not feel free to speak up on sensitive political issues. That at least is how westerners see the one-sided debate on these matters. ‘Most Chinese students are on a grant, and that comes with obligations,’ says one China researcher. In Chinese eyes, criticism of China is an insult, so your first reaction is to show your loyalty to China and reject foreign interference. ‘Some things are our business,’ says a Chinese WUR employee. ‘In China, if there is a row in a family, the neighbours are not allowed to get involved.’