China story: editorial accountability

This outcry calls for an explanation.

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.

Our evaluation

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.

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  1. 1. Regarding the issue of pictures, what we care about is not the picture itself, but the purpose of making the picture and the information it wants to convey. It’s clear that most people don’t agree with the message the picture is trying to convey. So can you please describe the content of the picture, explain the information you want to express, so that everyone can better understand the content you want to convey.
    2. About only four people being interviewed. You mentioned that some people dare not, so I would like to ask, are all other Chinese people afraid? Why have we not heard from you at all about our willingness to be interviewed? In addition, I am very concerned about your sample group. Can you explain more about the selection of interviewees? In addition, is it possible to publish the content of the interview so that everyone can better understand whether the information that the interviewee wants to express is accurately conveyed by you?
    3. About the research objects and research questions. For me, I can see from the title that the full text should pay more attention to individual Chinese students studying abroad, but why is it not the most discussed in the full text?
    4. If you really care about the Chinese students themselves, then to solve this matter requires the Chinese CSC and WUR to solve it together, rather than relying on Chinese students. Wur also has the responsibility and obligation to help every international student to work, study and live in WUR better. But obviously, that’s not the case. In this regard, what the University of Groningen has done can be used as a reference for wur changes. Instead of blindly criticizing and abusing China and Chinese students.
    5.In the end, through this article, I did not see any reflection and critical spirit from the editor on the comments of the article. They were more complaining about the problem of readers’ acceptance, without considering whether there was a problem with the logic and wording of the article. The full text is full of arrogance and prejudice, but please note that as a so-called best university, it is the most basic respect to treat every student who lives and works in wur with an open and equal attitude. Last but not the least, I would like to say that I am ashamed of myself for choosing to do my PhD at wur

  2. This response to the previous article’s critique is filled with arrogance, showing no remorse for the negative impact it has had on Chinese doctoral students. Instead, you resort to various forms of sophistry in an attempt to portray us as overly sensitive, which only further infuriates me. It’s quite apparent that Resource is far from being an objective and impartial journal. Instead, they camouflage their true intentions of marginalizing the Chinese Ph.D. community by pretending to be concerned about the income status of Chinese international students.

    As a member of CSC Ph.D. student, I felt deeply hurt after reading the previous article. During my one-and-a-half years at Wageningen University, I have experienced a lot of goodwill from both my supervisory team and my colleagues. They have never made me feel discriminated against or treated differently. However, your previous article clearly amplifies your preconceived biases, which are completely unfounded. The arrogance displayed in that article appears ludicrous and unreasonable to me. If you truly believe that Chinese Ph.D. students are too timid to express their opinions freely, do you also assume that the comments in this section are automatically controlled by the so-called “long arm of China”?

    We are no different from any other Ph.D. students at WUR, so please refrain from labeling us thoughtlessly. This platform is not your personal diary. As a journal, please uphold the fundamental standards of responsible journalism, including neutrality and objectivity, and write articles only based on facts rather than guesswork.

  3. Many supervisors of Chinese PhDs, including me, would have been glad to be interviewed and to be mentioned by name in the article. This would have avoided lots of mistakes and one-sided views. Why did Resource only interview people with no experience at all in supervising Chinese PhDs?

    I would have told the journalist that all my Chinese PhDs do pay bench fees, and that the claim that ‘An estimated 80 per cent of Chinese PhDs do not pay a bench fee, which means that WUR misses out on hundreds of revenue every month’ (on which a large part of the article is based) must be wrong and needs more investigation. And that the outcome of such an investigation needs to be compared with the percentage of other non-EU PhDs at WUR. I would also have told the journalist that there are simple methods for doing such an investigation.

    I would have told the journalist that I personally gain much new knowledge, obtain new insights, and learn about novel data collection and analysis methods when I am working together with (Chinese and non-Chinese) PhDs. That the research done by (Chinese and non-Chinese) PhDs contributes to the global advancement of science and often has practical relevance beyond their home countries. And that these gains may be used to justify the financial contributions of the Dutch government to PhD research at WUR done by (Chinese and non-Chinese) PhDs. And I would have explained that the Dutch financial contribution to PhD research is usually smaller than the sum of the (CSC) fellowships and the bench fees paid by Chinese (and other) PhDs.

    I would have told the journalist that data used in Marketing Science for research on Dutch companies are generally not freely available and that the claim that this is ‘an absolute no-go in the academic world’ is therefore not correct. And that more information on the ‘examples where data (in social science in particular) are not freely accessible’ would therefore be needed to judge to what extent they differ from cases in the Netherlands and other countries.

    I would have given lots of other relevant information for preparing a well-balanced article, and for avoiding that a whole group of international PhDs feels discriminated. But unfortunately, I was not interviewed. Nor were other supervisors of Chinese PhDs….

    1. Hi Nico, what would you have told the journalist if they raised the fact that hundreds of PhD’s earn less than minimum wage?

      1. Hi Hans,

        I would like to say something about PhD earnings. As I know, only a small portion of PhDs are full-time employees who can earn a decent salary. However, do you know WUR has so many sandwich PhDs, external PhDs? For sandwich PhDs, how much do they earn? The answer is less than 1000 euro per month, which is much less than PhD employees and CSC-funded PhDs. Should Resource publish an article to systematically discuss earnings of all varieties of PhDs?

        CSC-funded PhDs earn 1350 euro per month, as such, PhDs funded by Malaysian government earn the same. Why don’t you, Resource, and Graduate Schools speak up for them?

        1. Hi Caixia, I was not aware of the examples you mentioned: sandwich PhD’s and Malaysian government-funded PhD’s earning E1350,- p/m or even less. So yes, I would love to speak up for them and encourage Resource to do the same.

          My point is: it is unfair and unethically to have PhD’s working equally hard as their peers, but earning less than the minimum-wage set in law by the Dutch government. This holds true even when accounting for part-time or full-time positions.

          But what’s worst: WUR seems to have no qualms letting this situation continue. The rector l didn’t even adres this topic in his response to the article. Why doesn’t WUR at least top-up these PhD salaries to

        2. Hi Caixia, I was not aware of the examples you mentioned: sandwich PhD’s and Malaysian government-funded PhD’s earning E1350,- p/m or even less. So yes, I would love to speak up for them and encourage Resource to do the same.

          My point is: it is unfair and unethically to have PhD’s working equally hard as their peers, but earning less than the minimum-wage set in law by the Dutch government. This holds true even when accounting for part-time or full-time positions.

          But what’s worst: WUR seems to have no qualms letting this situation continue. The rector l didn’t even adres this topic in his response to the article.

      2. Hi Hans,
        I would have answered that WUR should consider ways to reduce the inequality in incomes between salaried PhDs and fellowship PhDs. Nobody will disagree that this issue needs more attention, I assume.

        1. Yes, indeed! Earning less than minimum wage is not the issue merely encountered by CSC-funded PhDs. The article published by Resource arbitrarily referred it to Chinese PhDs which is unfair. Resource may dig into PhD earnings WUR-wide, and a new article can be titled “We need to talk about WUR PhD earnings. There are more issues beyond CSC programme”.

      3. Exactly! Not only CSC funded PhDs, but also sandwich PhDs, external PhDs and etc., there are many other non-contract PhDs types from different countries in the world at WUR for many years!!!!!!!!!!!!

        So, please, if you want to talk about the financial issue, let’s talk about payment, funding and salary; if you want to talk about equality, let’s discuss about the huge difference of rights between contract-PhDs and non-contract PhDs; if you want to talk about CSC funded PhDs, go and talk to them, ask what kind of freedom, problems, rights, responsibilities and etc. do they have related to CSC funding…Again, the financial issue is faced by all non-contract PhDs who cannot even be a WUR council!!!!!

        It’s ridiculous to declare that WUR is losing a lot of money because CSC refuse to pay bench fee for CSC-funded PhDs. On the one hand, there should have been an agreement between WUR/ Dutch institute/ government about duties and rights before enrolling any PhDs. On the other hand, since PhDs are considered as employees in the Netherlands who are usually paid by the institute, WUR have been saving and reducing enormous expense by enrolling CSC or any other non-contract PhDs!!! I suppose any Dutch university have been clear about it for years.

        However, in the first article related to China, instead of raising awareness, it’s turned out to be more political and discriminative toward vulnerable CSC-funded Chinese PhDs, who need to work as hard and much, with less pay, pressure to graduate, far away from home in a cold, wet, distant foreign country. And when there is a problem, they are being played like a ball from both the student and employee affair offices, because they are neither students nor employees, which has been many years and known from the beginning.

        It’s said that people don’t really want to discuss but only talk for their own pre-conclusion, assumption and imagination under most circumstances. It’s just sad that a diverse, inclusive and international famous research institute like WUR have been ignoring all those problems related to non-contract PhDs, or not pushing enough to make it better after years. Worse still, many people even just turn an blind eye to let systematic discrimination go on.

        Unfortunately, I also heard several horrible racism and discrimination experience from Asian female PhDs at
        WUR. I don’t know if there is any relation, I have to say. And I am tired of saying it, because occupational social work (BMW) is not accessible to non-contract PhDs, there is no much social safety can do, and the majority of people in most chair groups and graduate schools didn’t even attend the mind-lab performance last year, either because they think it’s unnecessary or it’s just not important enough to make time for it. Let alone to take any actions such as participating by-stander training, or simply talk to and get to know their colleagues, either CSC-funded PhDs or any other non-contract PhDs, who have been in WUR for so many years, yet most people didn’t know they have been being underpaid, how surprising and interesting!

  4. Hallo, Editors of Resource, many thanks for your detailed explanation. After carefully reading your reactions and comments given below, I’d like to raise some points that are still vague to me for further discussion:

    1. In Motive, You mentioned “We confirmed (the financial plight of PhD students with a CSC grant) with multiple Chinese PhD students “, however, how much does “multiple” mean? Are those Chinese PhD students supported by CSC (I assumed they are not)? As Chinese students supported by CSC, neither I nor many of my colleagues did not receive a serious survey about our “financial plight”. As you said, “The seed for this article was planted last fall”, I guess that you could have also planned a wider survey to conclude.

    2. In Reservations, “The editors interviewed several involved parties, who had reservations….the CSC refused to pay bench fees”. I was confused about “those involved parties”. Are they from WUR? Do they “have” many PhD students supported by CSC but they are not so happy because the bench fee was not paid? But if they knew this situation? OR, “those involved parties” do not have any CSC PhD students (and will never have) because they thought CSC refused to pay? I’d appreciate it if you could make it clear.

    3. In Illustration: Personally, I was indeed offended by the illustration. I think a good illustration could convey all the correct information without any words to explain. However, what I saw in your illustration was “the butt of a creature with a Chinese flag surrounded by a group of people discussing and laughing”. The author explained that it means “‘China is the elephant in the room”, but why the “elephant” is incomplete? I never saw an alive elephant lying like that with his head hidden. What are those people laughing at? I love elephants, personally, for their cooperation, piety, gentleness, and temperance. There are many other ways to show “an elephant in the room”, but this painting conveys a lot of uncomfortable ambiguity.

    Thanks for your time and kind regards

  5. I won’t say the storm abated. This explanation will probably trigger another wave.
    I do appreciate the explanation but it doesn’t help to explain your one-side story with saying more people stand behind your argument points. To me it sounds like there maybe a institutional bias towards to the topic if the people who stand for this article are well trained and have high social status.
    I also question the interview with these four Chinese PhD students. Have the interviews been conducted in a neutral way or it was just to confirm the perceptions.
    Maybe it will help to organise some real conversations.

  6. Resource pouring oil on the fire and hiding behind the claim of journalistic freedom. This says it all really:

    “There is a marked difference between what the editors intended to convey through the article and its effect on some of our readers.”

    I.e. it’s YOUR fault Chinese students that you were offended, don’t you see? That’s the sentiment carried through this article (“we enlightened people of Europe are not offended by such cartoons, so it’s not our fault if you are”?).

    Anyone with the smallest grasp of the history of anti-Asian/anti-Chinese racism, Orientalism, eurocentrism etc can immediately see what was wrong with the initial article and this latest justificatory effort. Shoddy journalistic standards, and really makes one despair for the hopes of decolonisation at WUR.

  7. I would love to see more diversity in the resource team – even just more actual WUR students in the writing and editing team could add more voices, catch such things in dance, and make the resource feel more as a information source for WUR people vs of the WUR

  8. This editorial accountability does not convince me. It is good to be critical but not to be biased. Personally I think the article is more biased than critical. Not much new facts are provided (for instance on the student numbers and financial part), but the way it is presented, the cartoon, the wide selection of unrelated aspects (nearly all with a negative connotation) and the fact that Chinese community or their collaborators were not specifically ask to respond, suggest poor judgement and poor journalism. Text fragments like foot soldiers and misuse of funding suggest a war or criminal activities. I think this is clearly out of place and should have corrected in the editorial accountability. Apparently, admitting you are wrong is not a typical Dutch attribute and perhaps the editorial board of Resources should diversify.

    1. Even this editorial accountability uses biased and suggestive statements. In the second sentence, it suggests that the number of positive and negative responses was more or less balanced. In fact, the article was applauded in only a small number of reactions, while the large majority of respondents (not just ‘others’) criticized its one-sidedness, stigmatization, and overt discrimination. It also states that the rector was shown the article before it was published and that the rector criticized the publication after it was published. This suggests that the rector changed his mind after the article was published, which is probably not the reality.

  9. It saddens me to be pursuing a PhD at an institution that associates with a magazine promoting sinophobia. I implore you to remove the article from your website. Please retract it from Resource, and please apologise to the community and students who felt hurt by the racist tone in some passages. Then, we can move on, and hopefully, time will heal the discomfort brought by this unfortunate piece of writing.

  10. The original article does make some valid points, but should have focussed on the systemic issues and reflect on our role as university: why does the WUR not look more critically at the role they play in benefitting of scholarship students for research that they otherwise couldn’t fund? Or the role perhaps of the Chinese government.

    But what is definitely unacceptable is discrimination of all the Chinese PhD students, by characterising as if they are not individuals. (e.g. taken from the original article: “I am wondering how long Wageningen is going to carry on hosting a very large group of students and PhD candidates who lack academic and social freedom. Who are scared and can’t speak out.”)
    This is low.
    And not apologizing for the parts that are discriminatory in this editorial shows that we have a long way to go here at the university.