Op-ed in German Tagesspiegel: Cooperation with autocracies: doors are closing quietly

Sascha Klotzbücher Discussion

This a translation of the German-language opinion-editorial by Andreas Fulda and Sascha Klotzbücher, originally published in Der Tagesspiegel on Friday, 7 October 2022, 12:59. Read the German original version "Kooperation mit Autokratien: Still und heimlich schließen sich die Türen" here

Cooperation with autocracies: doors are closing quietly

The German-Chinese dialogue of scholars needs continuity, but also transparent rules. A guest contribution.


How should German academia deal with autocracies? In March 2022, Peter-André Alt, President of the German Rectors' Conference, spoke of "frustrating realities" and a "learning process within academia" with regard to Russia and China. The "change ... towards a critical realism" makes visible a dilemma in German China studies.

There is a broad consensus among academics that a horizontal and open-ended exchange with China is desirable. However, the Xi regime is now exerting massive influence on the choice of topics and research in the arts and humanities and social sciences according to the principle of "carrot and stick".

In their 2021 book "Chinese Influence Operations" Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Vilmer have described how the Communist Party, through its united front abroad, seeks to "control research published about China". What is the impact of political pressure on existing research and cooperation patterns and what conclusions can be drawn from this?

The three incriminated Ts

Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen (the three Ts) have always been politically sensitive issues. Meanwhile, Western field researchers can no longer visit minority areas. In 2021, there was a scandal.

Employees at the Mercator Institute in Berlin, Adrian Zenz and other European academics were sanctioned for their China research which is critical of the regime. Zenz had previously virtually single-handedly exposed the re-education camps with official documents and data via the internet. His publications were prominently cited in the latest UN report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

With the sanctions, on the other hand, the Party's message was unmistakable: in the Sino-German dialogue, such voices are unwanted. Admittedly, 80 academics teaching at German universities expressed solidarity with their sanctioned colleagues in an open letter. But Zenz has not yet been able to give a lecture at any Sinology institute except at the University of Göttingen. This shows what effect the stigma imposed by Beijing can have.


Abroad - a distant dream


Doors are also closing for others: Chinese researchers can no longer participate in congresses abroad, or can only do so with great difficulty. Outspoken professors from Chinese universities are fired on flimsy grounds. Others, like the Uyghur anthropologist Rahule Dawut or the economist Ilham Tohti, disappear in prison.


In Germany, too, Chinese academics are ordered home by the Consulate, as was the case in 2014 at the Confucius Institute at the University of Hamburg when a lecture on Tiananmen was not politically desired. Cooperation and discussion in certain research areas thus becomes incalculable and dangerous, if not necessarily for us, then for the researchers sent from China and on Chinese terms.

China studies would be well suited to contribute their knowledge on how to walk this tightrope between cooperation and self-censorship. Instead, one is methodologically overburdened with the task of reflecting on their own positionality as observers and cooperation partners.

Audience with Xi

Censorship and political intervention, e.g. at the Confucius Institutes in Hamburg or in Duisburg, were not disclosed but hastily deleted. Transparency in decision-making and funding was never achieved, secrecy is still part of the contracts.

In March 2014 and during an invitation to Berlin with colleagues from Hanban, the internationally active cultural organisation of the People's Republic, Sinology professors unexpectedly found themselves in an audience with Xi Jinping.

Only one day later, this meeting was propagandistically announced in the Communist Party's People's Daily, which quoted professors as advisors for more Chinese soft power. In the picture, Xi is in the middle from the front, the German delegation is just barely in the picture with its back to the camera.

Footage of this very unequal relationship was exploited for another three years in a Communist Party propaganda film, edited as a devout submission to Xi Jinping. Cooperation, as Ralph Weber recently pointed out, always carries the danger of co-optation.

Cooperation with "official China" can certainly be worthwhile: Access to data, resources and teaching and research staff beckons. But access to these resources required undocumented compromises that quickly turn pragmatic scientists into accomplices.

Dialogue with censorship is an absurdity

Established China scholars would like to continue the collaborative structures they have built up over the years in a repressive environment just as before. But without measures to include sanctioned members of our research community and to deliberately promote research on censored topics, this will no longer work in the future. Dialogue under conditions of censorship and self-censorship does not deserve its name.

Existing partner models must be made transparent. Cooperation among politically pre-selected topics and scholars and exclusion of regime critics is in line with Communist Party policy, but not in the enlightened German interest. Instead, we need cooperation and dialogue structures that reverse exclusions and denials.

Neither a Chinese partner nor field research can be decisive for science funding in the future. Such criteria would result in cooperation projects that would inevitably comply with Beijing's demands. Whoever and whatever is stigmatised by the party would thus also be excluded from access to resources in Germany.

More support should be given to decentralised and thematically oriented research institutes that bring together China-related theory and practice. In the future, it will be a matter of bringing together different academic and non-academic, theoretical, linguistic and practical China expertise, with Chinese participation, but transparently and inclusively.

In the Tagesspiegel of 8 August 2022, Nadine Godehardt and Björn Alpermann painted the horror scenario of impending "cooperation bans" on the wall. The problem here: Neither in politics nor in academia such demands are being made.

Endure difficult questions

Sinology and sociological empirical China studies must be able to withstand difficult questions, even about cooperation that seem to work from the inside: The cooperation that has been built up in this field in particular is long-term, many friendships and partnerships have emerged from it, and a lot of money and time has been invested.

The Communist Party has always been about expanding influence and cooperating with people outside the party by "solv[eing] their problems", Xi Jinping said in 2015. However, to forget the context of origin and the goal of this aid and cooperation would be fatal and, from a sinological perspective, simply unprofessional.

Indeed, he added: "this friendship is subordinate to the Party's friendship with them [...] we should make a large number of sincere friends for the Party."