On 19 January, the Dutch public broadcaster NOS broadcasts the message ‘China finances research into human rights at VU’, which leads to sensationalism in the media. Almost immediately, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) temporarily closes its human rights center and sets up the Stolker inquiry committee. On 11 July, based on the conclusions of this committee’s report, the center will be closed.
How it started
In the reports from NOS, a television company that is largely financed by the Dutch government, one can read that VU academics are ‘researching human rights with the help of money from a Chinese university’. And that this is ‘as evidenced by documents in the hands of NOS’.
‘Financing = communist influence’
The media reports that professors in Cross Cultural Human Rights Center (CCHRC), at VU University Amsterdam ‘regularly argue for an alternative vision of human rights, also when it comes to China’. Such a thing is obviously unacceptable. The article refers to the former Minister of Education, Van Engelshoven (D66), who was concerned about ‘Chinese interference in Dutch higher education’ when it became known that ‘a professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Groningen belonged to an organization linked to the Chinese government’. Decisive evidence of the creeping influence of China? At least in the eyes of some journalists and the experts they consult, including Rob De Wijk, ‘defense expert’ and director of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). After all, according to these ‘objective observers’, it is crystal clear: ‘universities in China are closely linked to the political regime (sic), the Communist Party’.
And then: Xinjiang
The other and perhaps most important themes in the wave of suspicious ‘questions’ and criticism that subsequently flooded the VU are of course the ‘human rights situation in China’ and more specifically the ‘human rights violations in Xinjiang’. Prominent academics at CCHRC have dared to downplay or challenge the stories of Xinjiang. For this they are pointed out by the media and other academics who believe that ‘the mass incarceration and other human rights violations in Xinjiang, .. have been documented since 2017’. Referring to Amnesty International and according to a statement by a member of UN Human Rights Panel, but further evidence is redundant, thanks to years of propaganda about this in the western media. And of course the NOS journalists and their sources are careful not to make the same mistake as the professors at the human rights center: to justify China.
After the investigation was completed on July 11 Vrije University Amsterdam Which one the cross-cultural human rights center (CCHRC), the center of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which researched human rights, will be closed’. To this decision of Board of Directors added that it was taken ‘together with the faculties involved and in coordination with the center based on the findings of the Stolker Committee, which was asked to investigate the centre.’
Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts acts as spokesperson for the executive board and states:
The Stolker committee was ‘critical’ of the soundness of the centre’s research and of the possible vulnerability to political influence and the scientific methods used. The members also believed that there has been ‘insufficient openness and transparency about the way the center is funded’. The chancellor promises on behalf of the college that in the future the university will “take a more critical look at the risks of single funding” (which here was provided by a Chinese partner).
‘The committee found no evidence that individual researchers had their views ‘bought’ or that self-censorship had taken place under pressure from Chinese financiers.’ ..
In the text we also find the following statement
Specifically, it concerns Chinese partners, and more specifically the decision is:
‘How Dutch universities can cooperate with ‘unfree countries’ and how we make ourselves less vulnerable as knowledge institutions is currently the subject of national debate. It is not without reason that we are already working with the national Knowledge Security Guidelines, which will now be introduced at an accelerated pace’.
“in terms of human rights, no funding from China will be used in the future”.
The committee also mentions the statements of a staff member regarding the position of the Uyghurs. She admits: these statements are made in a non-scientific context and therefore fall under freedom of expression. However, VU distances itself from the statements. The rector finds it necessary to add ‘own statements’ to this: ‘Tolerating or even denying the situation of the Uyghur Muslims is particularly inappropriate’.
The circle of the free West is complete
Then NOS gets a compliment: ‘The NOS research has contributed to an accelerated awareness of the risks surrounding the unilateral funding of the centre. The journalistic critical assessment of what has happened around the center confirms the value of an independent and free press, which (..) holds up a mirror to us in politics, but certainly also in science’.
The Stolker Committee’s report is available in its entirety, also in English, together with the report from the Free University. However, reactions from employees and former employees of the center are also published at the bottom of the statement, and that is only fair. The signatories are Sousan Bouzidi, Wim Janse, Peter Peverelli, Cong-rui Qiao, Hafsa Zamour, Nisrine Zibouh and Tom Zwart. They oppose the Stolker Committee’s views and offer mainly scientific criticism of its working method. Their defense is definitely worth studying. Some notable quotes from the reaction of these employees and former employees of the center should not be missed here:
‘In an investigation of possible political influence on science, it is wiser to disregard political views’.
‘We have started a pilot with the Chinese Muslim community to strengthen Muslim rights and ensure that the repressive counter-terrorism policy is replaced by an alternative based on community-government co-creation. Our working method fits well with the Chinese academic tradition, as Chinese scientists have stated several times. Some of them have also been heard by the Commission, but their input has not been included in the report.’
“In this report, the Commission is trying to put so-called ‘universalism’ back on the map. This presupposes that the liberal conception of human rights has a hierarchically higher place than other human rights recognition theories, especially those from the Global South. That assumption is not based on a scientific basis, but on the dominant position of the North in relation to the South.’
What does the Chinese partner mean?
The Chinese support provider and sister institution of CCHRC, the The Human Rights Institute at the South West University of Politics and Law (SWUPL) has not yet published his opinion. She will undoubtedly see the closure of the Center ‘due to academic freedom’ as a violation of academic freedom. After all, according to a growing number of Chinese academics, this freedom also includes freedom from prejudice against certain research methodologies. They will therefore probably also regret the boycott of human rights research based on views other than those prevailing in the West.
Among the Chinese, there is a long-standing, widespread view of the world as an open and diversified place. In our time, they see the coexistence of different cultures growing stronger. The Chinese are more likely to look for what countries have in common while preserving and respecting the differences. There is interest in and knowledge of other cultures in broad sections of the population, more so than in some Western countries. The government strongly encourages this way of being open, combined with attachment to one’s own values. This is one of the reasons why China today prefers cooperation to conflict. But the penchant for interference, bitter constant criticism and seeking and provoking conflict dominates in Western countries today and extends to all strata of society. This mentality can now also be found or demanded among Western academics. It is in this context that we must place the decision from VU University Amsterdam.
Sources: For more information, we refer readers to the comprehensive online press release VU closes human rights center after external investigation and to the articles behind the hyperlinks in it. The statement from CCHRC staff member Peter Peverelli can be found in a separate comment.