Chinese scholarship PhD’s in Netherlands also report back to their embassy

Are Chinese PhD candidates obliged to report to their embassy? The minister is having that investigated. Sources tell Delta they have to, but do not always take it seriously.

Photo for illustration. The people in this photo do not appear in the story. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

Replying to written questions from VVD MP Hatte van der Woude, Dijkgraaf, the Minister of Education, said it is conceivable that China might be using the China Scholarship Council, which provides scholarships to Chinese PhD candidates, to acquire advanced knowledge and technology

To go abroad with a CSC scholarship, Chinese PhD candidates sign a contract in which they state that they support the views of the Communist Party. According to an American Government report in 2020, it is extremely hard to know if PhD candidates really are screened on these conditions.

Germany made it known last month that Chinese PhD candidates are sometimes required to regularly inform their embassy or consulate of their research progress. During their Doctoral Programme, the PhD candidate’s family act as guarantors. They are liable for the costs if the candidate terminates the programme prematurely or their academic performance is inadequate. The amounts involved can be as high as EUR 75,000.

It would indeed be ‘undesirable’ if this were also happening in the Netherlands, Dijkgraaf believes, although he is unwilling to state any firm conclusions just yet. He said he had not heard that family members were required to act as personal guarantors for PhD candidates in the Netherlands. While admitting that he has received indications of PhD candidates reporting to their embassy or consulate, he also added that “it is difficult to determine precisely how much influence the Chinese authorities exert on individual PhD candidates”.

Filling in research forms
Research by Delta shows that in the Netherlands too, PhD candidates must report to the Embassy. They are required to fill in a form about their research progress every month and mail it to the Embassy. Delta has been able to obtain the form. The Embassy asks the PhD candidates to fill in their personal details and to briefly summarise progress made on their research. The form also states that post doctoral researchers are required to do this too. The form needs to be signed once a year by the professor or supervisor at the university where the doctoral candidate is doing his/her research. Whether this is really done or not is not known.

‘Do you really think that the Embassy has the time to read through all our forms’

Several Chinese PhD candidates with whom Delta spoke said that they are not rigorous about meeting the reporting requirements. “There are currently about 2,000 Chinese PhD candidates in the Netherlands. Do you really think that the Embassy has the time to read through all our forms?”, answers one of them. Delta interviewed this PhD candidate anonymously.

Some of the PhD candidates also do not follow the requirement to work for a couple of years in China after obtaining their doctorate. “The CSC does not have the capacity to check if everyone really returns so some people take the chance and stay abroad,” another source told Delta.

Both Dutch and American research support this. Dutch researchers at the Leiden Asia Centre quantified that in 2017, 97% of the PhD candidates were not intending to return. Eramus Magazine had previously spoken to Chinese students about the loyalty to the Communist Party requirement. The students said that that requirement ‘is only symbolic’. 

According to experts, it is very hard to assess the degree to which Chinese PhD candidates must be loyal to the Communist Party. Researcher Remco Zwetsloot, one of the compilers of a report on CSC PhD candidates for the American Government, says “You can ask them, but it is unlikely that they will really share anything about it.” This also applies to journalists’ questions, says Zwetsloot. 

Dijkgraaf has now announced that an investigation will be carried out into “the total number of PhD candidates on a CSC as well as the fields in which they are active in the Netherlands. The investigation should also provide greater insight into “the type of contractual conditions under which the PhD candidates come to work in the Netherlands.

‘Security risks rarely arise from a single factor alone’

Furthermore, he intends to ask Universities of The Netherlands (UNL) whether stricter requirements should be imposed on international scholarship providers. Every university is currently undertaking a risk analysis of knowledge security, Dijkgraaf added, which also includes scholarship programmes and PhD candidates on scholarships.

He is anxious to stress the importance of being mindful of nuance: “Knowledge security risks rarely arise from a single factor alone, such as a loyalty statement. ” The “degree of access to sensitive knowledge” and “the existence of financial and other ties to an institution and/or government or authority” also play a role.

According to researcher Zwetsloot, the knowledge security issue is primarily concerned with the “small percentage of researchers who gain expertise in areas that are relevant to the Chinese army or for commercial purposes”. These PhD candidates may even be threatened, he says. “Even if this is only 5% to 10% of the PhD candidates, it is still a significant 5% to 10%.” Previous research by Delta showed that in the last few years PhD candidates with a CSC scholarship at TU Delft have carried out research into subjects like unmanned aircrafts (UAV’s) and artificial intelligence. They all came from military universities.

For this reason TU Delft has not accepted Chinese PhD candidates who come from military universities or who want to obtain a doctorate in ‘sensitive areas of research’. TU Delft also advises research groups not to accept Chinese PhD candidates that only do part of their Doctoral Programme in the Netherlands. This advice was shared with deans and faculty secretaries in October 2022 and was disseminated this month on an intranet page about knowledge security.   

At the same time, the media is also focusing on the position of PhD candidates themselves. Their monthly grant is often too meagre to pay for living expenses. Critics believe that universities should provide them with more support.

Delta, Annebelle de Bruijn/ HOP, Peer van Tetterode

News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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