The article ‘We need to talk about China’ published by Resource last week led to quite a number of reactions. Some applauded the fact that the article addressed critical notes within the organisation regarding collaboration with China, while others accused the editors of Sinophobia and racism. Rector Arthur Mol also criticised the publication.
The editors have read all the reactions on the (internal and external) platforms to which we have access. There is a marked difference between what the editors intended to convey through the article and its effect on some of our readers. That outcry calls for an explanation. Here it is.
The seed for this article was planted last fall when the editors received word about a critical evaluation report on the partnership with China by the directors of the Wageningen Graduate Schools. Almost all of WUR’s PhD students are members of these graduate schools, and the schools support both the PhD candidate and their supervisors. Moreover, graduate schools monitor PhD supervision and conditions.
If the directors have reservations about the collaboration with China, this news is relevant to the WUR community. As WUR’s journalistic platform, the editors investigated the issue. Initially, through informal channels, due to the sensitive nature of the topic. After a while, the editors managed to get their hands on the report. And the information was correct: the evaluation was critical.
At around the same time, the editors were informed about the financial plight of PhD students with a CSC grant. We confirmed this information with multiple Chinese PhD students (also see the paragraph under the subheading “Illustration”).
The journalists continued to dig. The editors interviewed several involved parties, who had reservations about more issues related to collaboration with Chinese governmental agencies. For example, the fact that the CSC refused to pay bench fees. Moreover, the evaluation lists examples where data (in social science research in particular) are not freely accessible, an absolute no-go in the academic world. The report also raised concerns about the lack of freedom among Chinese PhD students.
Not everyone wanted to or dared contribute to the article. But four people we interviewed (one of which preferred to remain anonymous) provided the piece with a sufficiently solid journalistic foundation. Prior to publication, the article was screened for factual errors by those interviewed. Furthermore, due to its sensitive nature, rector Artur Mol and WUR’s spokespersons were shown the article before it was published.
Now that the storm has somewhat abated, we stand by the publication of this story. The article addresses issues that are relevant to the WUR community. However, in hindsight, the Resource editorial team realised that not all of the editorial choices were equally fortunate. Social media channels, intranet and our website show that the conversation focuses mainly on Resource and not on the issues put forward in the article. Some readers feel that certain phrases are stigmatising; for example, the sentence in the introduction which reads, ‘There are more issues with the Chinese.’
Some readers were offended by the illustration. In the Netherlands, a cartoon such as this may be normal, but not in other countries, they criticised. We were also told that ‘you talk about us, and not with us’. That is only partly true, as we interviewed Chinese PhD students about the CSC, albeit off the record as per their request. The reservations voiced by the graduate schools were not discussed with those we interviewed since the reservations relate to the PhD students, but rather to the shape and conditions of the collaboration with China. Finally, we are aware of the fact that the topics covered are significant and multi-faceted.
But here, too: those wishing to discuss the article with us, or respond by letter, is welcome to do so, and that may, in turn, lead to an article in Resource.