A recent Czech university scandal has alerted the public to the use of soft politics by the Chinese government and the vulnerability of academic institutions to foreign influence.
Prague’s Charles University has recently been shaken by a scandal over secret Chinese payments to four of its faculty members.
The university fired Milos Balaban, the head of its Centre for Security Policy (SBP) and two other members of social sciences faculty, after finding out that they had created a private company under the name of SBP. The Chinese embassy was found to have been paying for conferences co-organised by the university centre, according to the Financial Times.
The Czech news outlet Aktualne revealed that the payments reached several companies owned by Mr Balaban and other faculty members.
Since 2012 Beijing has been seeking closer relations with Eastern and Central European countries. Czech President Miloš Zeman declared that he hoped to make his country “an unsinkable aircraft-carrier of Chinese investment expansion” in Europe.
When Prague’s policy shifted, Chinese giant conglomerate CEFC flooded Czech property assets with $1bn and several Czech politicians became advisors and lobbyists for CEFC, including two former Prime Ministers – Stefan Füle and Jakub Kulhanek. In return Czech consumer group Home Credit built a successful business in China.
Nevertheless, last month, the rector of Charles University, Tomas Zima, abandoned a proposed sponsorship agreement with the company as a result of students and academics raising concern over the alleged restrictions on criticism of Beijing.
The example of SBP has raised questions about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could further influence academia through close relations with politicians and businesses.
While there is no evidence that Mr Balaban lobbied for China, having denied that the SBP had “any evident exposure to Chinese influence”, the Czech domestic intelligence has noted that the seminars organised usually ignored risks posed by China and Russia.
Once they can influence the next generation of academics, they can secure the pro-CCP interpretation of everything
– Jakub Riman
Recently the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (UK) voiced their concerns over Chinese interference in UK universities, however, interference here is not as explicit as in the Czech Republic or other Central and Eastern European countries, such as Latvia and Lithuania.
Lithuanian Secret Intelligence has highlighted the increasing aggressiveness of Chinese agencies and stated that where numbers of Chinese students are relatively small, Confucius Institutes (CI) are being used to create a positive image of China, altering views on Tibet and Taiwan for example. In turn, some institutions and academics feel the need to self-censor.
A Latvian news outlet Re: Baltica, when examining CI, noted that they are not as independent as previously thought and hugely rely on subsidies from Hanban – a non-profit government organisation under China’s Education Ministry.
It was uncovered that the CI provides its teachers with answers to questions that should be avoided. Teachers also pledge not to “damage the national interests of China” and they cannot be practitioners of spiritual practices banned in China.
Some politicians suggested re-evaluating CI since its ties with ideological wing and the creation of a very positive image of CCP among academics and students do not match the belief in free academia.
On the other hand, heads of CI and China study centres point out the impossibility of teaching the Chinese language to a sufficient level without the help of Chinese money, meaning some universities are simply not in a position to reject the funding.
Since 2014, 24 universities around the world have closed their CI and universities including 10 in the USA and some at the Universities of Stockholm and Lyon. As it was previously discussed by the Boar, the University of Warwick does not have a CI, however, it is gradually strengthening its ties with Chinese universities.