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Dutch government refuses ‘blacklist’ of Chinese universities 

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It is not unlikely that knowledge gained in Delft by Chinese researchers will be used by the Chinese army, according to recent articles published in university magazine Delta. Despite this risk, the Dutch government is not interested in adopting stringent screening procedures and blacklists. Rather, it plans to stick to its current plans to achieve more ‘knowledge security’.

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Is Delft University of Technology inadvertently helping the Chinese army by cooperating with Chinese PhD students? According to a series of research stories published by Delta, this appears to be a valid concern.

This discovery is merely the latest addition to a list of concerns Dutch politicians have about cooperation with China in the field of education and research. The House of Representatives had previously voiced its worries about the role of the Confucius Institutes and a major research project carried out in cooperation with tech giant Huawei.

Opportunities and risks
Political party PVV, who fears a “Chinese invasion” in Delft, demanded more answers. They believe a screening process is in order for “all future and currently present Chinese researchers”, as well as a “blacklist” of Chinese institutions that the Netherlands should refuse to cooperate with.

But the government has no plans to go down that road. The law provides no basis for such a screening, according to (link in Dutch) the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, in a letter written on behalf of the government. She states that such measures would be at odds with the principle of non-discrimination.

As she often does in answering Parliamentary Questions about China, van Engelshoven emphasised the high level of autonomy enjoyed by Dutch institutions, meaning that it is entirely up to them to decide who to work with, as long as they carefully consider the opportunities and risks associated with each cooperation.

Seven Sons
This does not mean, of course, that the government is not concerned about Chinese spies. The fact that Chinese PhD students and researchers have links to the army may not be against the law, “but there may still be risks to national security”.

The government believes this risk is particularly high for cooperation with a group known in China as the ‘Seven Sons of National Defence’: seven major institutes with close ties to the military and specialising in fields such as aerospace and armaments. According to the Minister, in addition to Delft University of Technology, the University of Groningen, Eindhoven University of Technology and the University of Twente are also cooperating with the Seven Sons.

Country-neutral approach
The government does not rule out that cooperation with China “may have led to an undesirable transfer of technology in certain situations”. Since last year, the government has been working on a number of plans to ensure more ‘knowledge security’ in higher education and research.

For example, an inventory will be performed to gain more insight into which areas of expertise should be scrutinised more closely in light of national security. The government is also working with institutions to reach ‘administrative agreements’ on their safety policy.

It should be noted that the government does not want to focus on one specific country. In her letter, the minister emphasises about five times that this is a “country-neutral” approach. The House of Representatives can expect to hear more on the topic in the autumn.

How many Chinese PhD students and researchers are actually currently employed by Dutch institutions? The Minister writes that no such figures are available, although universities are currently working on a nationwide registration system for PhD students. However, data about nationality will not be included for privacy reasons.

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