VU pulls plug on Chinese-funded human rights centre

Research committee also appeals to other universities due to (lack of) academic freedom.
Chinees geld The lack of transparency about Chinese funding is one of the centre’s shortcomings. Photo Eric Prouzet via Unsplash

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) is to close the Cross-Cultural Human Rights Centre.  This centre came under scrutiny because it appeared to depend on funding from China.

The NOS revealed (this and all other links lead to Dutch content) in January that the centre was sponsored by a Chinese university.  Following this news, the VU halted its research activities pending an investigation into the centre’s independence.  That investigation has now been completed.  Rector magnificus Jeroen Geurts stresses that ‘no evidence was found of individuals having been bribed or of self-censorship under pressure from Chinese financiers’.


But the centre’s researchers are not off the hook entirely.  ‘With their publications and other public expressions, they lean towards political opinions voices by the Chinese president,’ the report states.  Moreover, there are ‘serious questions about the methodology’, and the researchers ‘make themselves vulnerable to political restraint, which threatens their independence’.  There was also a lack of transparency with regard to the funds from China.  According to the report, the centre should have more carefully considered the ‘implications’ of becoming dependent on a single party, the Chinese SWUPL university.

Staff members of the human rights centre deny the criticism.  They acknowledge that there are overlaps with the Chinese Communist Party, but that is ‘because the party has moved towards us, and not because we moved in its direction’.

Academic freedom

The report stresses that the conditions for academic freedom in China have worsened in recent years and that acknowledging this is important.  ‘This applies to collaborations with researchers in China, as well as to collaboration with Chinese researchers in the Netherlands.  Moreover, knowledge institutes should be more aware of possible restrictions of the freedoms of Chinese students in our country.’

The investigation committee calls on the ‘social responsibility’ of all Dutch universities and knowledge institutes ‘concerning collaboration with partners from countries where human rights are seriously violated’.  This applies ‘without a doubt to the way China treats the Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang province’.

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