VU center for uncritical towards China, but ‘no employees bought’

There was no evidence of ‘buying’ opinions or self-censorship. Nevertheless, an external committee researching the Intercultural Center for Human Rights (CCHRC) at the VU University in Amsterdam is handing down harsh sentences. Employees at the center were uncritical of China, their research method was questionable, according to the committee, and the university had “not thought enough” about the risks of funding. The university decided on Monday to close the center immediately.

That decision comes six months after the CCHRC was discredited. The center, which was founded in 2017 with about eight employees, wanted to expand the discussion on human rights with input from non-Western countries. NOS revealed in January that the center had been fully funded by a Chinese university for three years as of 2018. It received between 250,000 and 300,000 euros annually from Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing. The activities were stopped after the news. VU asked a committee to investigate the suspicion of political influence.

The committee, led by Leiden’s former principal Carel Stolker, now concludes that there is no indication that employees can be ‘bought’. However, they were “uncritical” of China. The committee also has serious reservations about the research method, and the university was not transparent enough about the funding of the center, which the board had agreed to. The vehicle unit acknowledges that it has been ‘insufficiently aware’. The revelation has contributed to “accelerated awareness” of the unilateral funding, the university said.

Also read this article: ‘Uyghur tribunal’: China commits genocide

‘Villains close by’

Academic cooperation with China is widespread but sensitive due to the Chinese state’s authoritarian oversight of civilians and the persecution of the Uighur minority. Until recently, according to the committee, there was ‘hardly any reluctance’ to cooperate with Chinese partners in the Netherlands.

The Committee notes that the staff of the VU Center are ‘sincere’ in their ‘mission’ for human rights. But they are “close” to statements by Chinese President Xi Jinping and thus make themselves vulnerable to “political frameworks”. A researcher called reports of the persecution of Uighurs in China “rumors” and wrote on LinkedIn: “Xinjiang is simply beautiful: beautiful people, breathtaking nature and good food. And no forced labor, no genocide or what lies the Western media brings . ”

The committee also has “serious reservations” about the center’s research method, known as the ‘receptor approach’. It emphasizes working from local cultural traditions and social institutions rather than human rights that are ‘dictated’ from above.

According to the committee, the approach turned out to be ‘normally problematic’, methods were not or hardly justified and led to ‘picking cherries from different cultural views and practices ”. The students stated that they “find it interesting to get in touch with ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ perspectives on human rights”.

Pointing the finger at the Chinese government does not work there

Tom Black director of China Center

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Universal human rights have been widely embraced since their formulation by the UN in 1948, but have also been criticized for expressing too much ‘Western’ values. Publications from employees of the VU Center refer to the ‘violation of the Western monopoly’ on human rights and to the work on a ‘southern human rights model’.

This also has a political side in the Netherlands. The then Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal presented the receptor approach to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 as part of Dutch policy to promote human rights without violating local conditions. Amnesty International and other organizations were critical of it, notes the Stolker Committee, as well as the House of Representatives. A review from 2019 found that the approach “no demonstrable added value” and according to the ministry rather contributed to “a discourse that goes against the human rights agenda”.

Director Tom Zwart from the closed center accepts VU’s decision. He is “happy” to find that no purchased statements were found, he says. Zwart denies that the investigation is indefensible. “Apparently they want us to point the finger at the Chinese government. But it does not work there. ” Zwart stresses that funding “is a matter for the VU” and says he will not ask for Chinese money elsewhere for a restart of the center. He distances himself from an employee’s statements about the Uighurs. “Of course, it is true that they are being persecuted there. That opinion was not in line with the Center’s policy. ”

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