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Aarhus University to investigate Chinese students’ contracts after the discovery of “loyalty pledges to the regime”

Aarhus University has accepted Chinese PhD students who are financially supported by the Chinese Scholarship Council since 2009. Illustration: Anders Traerup

46 Chinese PhD students of engineering and natural sciences at Aarhus University are now being investigated to determine whether they have made a loyalty pledge to the Chinese Communist Party.

This comes after the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter discovered that Chinese PhD students and visiting researchers at Swedish universities sent via the Chinese state-funded program Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) had signed a secret contract.

The contract requires the students to “remain loyal to the leadership of the Communist Party”, “serve the interests of the regime”, and “never participate in activities that go against the will of the authorities”, according to Dagens Nyheter.

Should they violate the legally binding contract, which is unclear in terms of what qualifies as a violation, there is a risk of the regime financially sanctioning their family members in China.

Contracts with unknown content

Aarhus University cannot confirm that their Chinese PhD students have not signed similar contracts.

"No, we can’t. We don’t know what those contracts contain because it’s a contract the students enter into with CSC,” says David Lundbek Egholm, vice-dean of Aarhus University’s Faculty of Natural Sciences.

“Aarhus University doesn’t participate in the contract. We only get a confirmation that they have been awarded the CSC’s scholarship, so we can see that the funding is in place. And it’s one page in English.”

The discovery that some students have allegedly had to sign contracts that expose them to personal pressure comes as a surprise to him.

“It’s worrying if we are a part of a game that puts Chinese citizens in a tough spot in relation to their state. If we unknowingly contribute to some young Chinese citizens walking into a trap and making themselves vulnerable in relation to their own homeland,” he says.

Reluctant to treat all Chinese citizens as suspects

Aarhus University is now ready to investigate the conditions surrounding the Chinese scholarship to determine whether the students have signed similar contracts to those in Sweden.

"I want to know what the contracts they sign contain. And then we have to evaluate whether we should follow the example of our Swedish colleagues (and stop taking new CSC students, ed.),” David Lundbek Egholm says.

He elaborates that it is not new for the university that a number of precautions must be taken when it comes to Chinese citizens.

“We are not naive. We know that there could be a risk of espionage, although we have not had any such cases. We are cautious and keep a critical eye on it, but it’s important to say that we are also reluctant to treat all Chinese nationals as suspects. They are a part of our community and excellent PhD students,” he points out.

Since 2009, Aarhus University has 84 Chinese students who came through the controversial Chinese program. In total, AU currently has 730 active PhD students.

No access to “dual-use” projects

Since 2009, Aalborg University has also welcomed Chinese PhD students with a scholarship from CSC.

They currently have 12 such students spread across the Technical Faculty of IT and Design as well as the Faculty of Engineering and Science. In the past three years, they have had 58 Chinese students.

The university states that it is not aware of any allegiance and loyalty pledges in the PhD students’ contracts. However, all Chinese citizens go through a background check, and they are not allowed to take part in projects that include so-called “dual-use” technology, i.e. anything that can be used for military purposes.

Aalborg University has previously been at the centre of a number of cases regarding collaboration with Chinese researchers.

Politiken has described a number of such situations, including two PhD students hiding their connections to the Chinese military while they were associated with Aalborg University.
In another case, researchers from Aalborg University had collaborated with Chinese video surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision on the development of an algorithm that could potentially be misused for mass surveillance.

No new contracts after 2021

The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) does not have an overview of how long CSC-funded PhD students have been at the university, as there has never been an institutional agreement, and the students have therefore entered into contracts with a counsellor themselves.

However, DTU states that we are talking about “a number of years”, and when the number was at its peak, this could include up to 30 students per year.

They can also not confirm that none of those students have signed contracts similar to those discovered in Sweden.

DTU stopped entering into new agreements via the Chinese program at the end of 2021, partly because the Chinese scholarship is not large enough to cover all costs of a stay in Denmark.

In addition, the contract required the students to return home immediately after completing their education.

Ongoing dialogue about openness

It was precisely the requirement to return home and the financial challenges due to the Chinese scholarship being insufficient to finance an education in Denmark that were the topic of discussion at Universities Denmark, organization of Danish universities focused on cooperation and protecting the universities’ interests.

In a written comment, CEO of Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard states that they are not familiar with the specific cases in Sweden, nor are they aware of similar ones in Denmark.

“But the conditions described in the article (from Dagens Nyheter, ed.) are, of course, worrying. That’s why openness and transparency about the conditions on which the PhD students are in Denmark is also something we focus on in the dialogue with CSC,” Jesper Langergaard says.

He insists that it is difficult to determine the concrete implications of the formulation “never participate in activities that go against the will of the authorities”.

“It is clear that cooperation with China, for example, in the political and security situation we are in requires us to think carefully—and be aware of what the knowledge that is produced can also be used for. The universities cooperate with the intelligence services and other authorities on this,” he writes.

Cooperation entails a difficult dilemma

In May 2022, the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science issued a report on guidelines for international research and innovation cooperation prepared by the URIS committee.

One of its conclusions was that there is a need for a stricter approach to research collaboration with, among others, China.

According to the report, China has prioritized research and innovation cooperation, which has, for example, resulted in support for talent programs and researcher and student exchanges “with, among other things, a view to espionage, exertion of influence, and illegal procurement activities”.

At the same time, there is an intelligence act that obliges private and state-owned Chinese actors to cooperate with the Chinese intelligence authorities.

“(...) Chinese research institutions (and individual researchers) are therefore essentially not independent of the state, which can create challenges related to academic freedom as well as research ethics and research integrity,” the report reads.

However, the report also points out that China has a world-class research environment and that cooperation with China is in demand and beneficial for research institutions and companies in Denmark.

“It is a fundamental dilemma: Danish-Chinese research and innovation cooperation on the one hand benefits Danish research and innovation as well as competitiveness, while on the other hand it contributes to strengthening Chinese research capacity in sensitive technology areas,” it reads.