TU Delft on China: ‘Not naive, but not paranoid either’

TU Delft is keen to further professionalise the existing partnership with four Chinese universities. At the same time the Dutch government warns of espionage. Is there a link?

Rob Mudde: “The closer you come to applications that can be used directly by the military, the more care you need to take with all countries outside the EU and NATO.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

For many years now, TU Delft has been involved in joint research centres with four Chinese universities (see text box below), and China remains a ‘priority location’ for TU Delft as described in the Global Engagement Framework 2018-2024. This has resulted in a plan to offer the ‘TU Delft ambassador’ in China additional support.

Executive Board member Rob Mudde explains what is envisioned and responds to the government’s policy paper on China, in which the Rutte III cabinet echoed previous General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) warnings about “the undesirable transfer of knowledge and technology [i.e. espionage], safeguarding academic freedom and a balance of reciprocal mobility”. Mudde is unequivocal: “The government needs to determine clear and manageable frameworks. Preferably in consultation with us”.

Have the warnings about espionage and knowledge leaks played a role in the decision to increase the support in China?
“That is not why we set this up, but it is connected. China is no longer a developing country. It is an extremely attractive academic partner. A lot is happening in the country, they have great ambitions, lots of money for science and talented people. The times when China came here to grab and copy are behind us.”

Why is the additional manpower required?
“We need to professionalise. China is far away and has a different culture. There will still be just one TU Delft ambassador for China, but they will be joined by an account manager, who will primarily do a lot of travelling. Each of the four institutes has different regulations. It’ll be good for one of us to know the right people in each place, how things are done there, the funds which are available, and how you can give shape to the partnership.”

The awareness that countries can have hidden agendas already exists

How do you arm yourself against espionage?
“It’s ultimately down to the researchers working in high-risk areas. They are a lot more alert than others, they’ve grown up with it. I understand it when people point out that knowledge can be used for other things than it was originally intended for. You need to consider that dual use, but not get too hung up on it. How far should you go? If you teach someone to read and write, they can also use their newfound skills to do bad things. Nobody, though, wants us to simply stop teaching people to read. The awareness that countries can have hidden agendas already exists. Developing a feeling for this, knowing what to look out for and what not to do: these are dilemmas. It may, for example, be a good idea to check someone’s background and prior education properly.
Science is open, and that guiding principle is there for good reason: if you get the chance, you collaborate with the best researchers in your field. The closer you come to applications that can be used directly by the military, the more care you need to take with every country outside the EU and NATO.”

For the time being, the Dutch government is leaving it to the universities to navigate their way between opportunities and risks. Is that sufficiently clear, or does TU Delft need clearer policy?
“The government needs to determine frameworks, because they are currently not sufficiently clear. Preferably in consultation with us. We need to work together to determine which fields present a risk. If you fail to sufficiently manage this, you run into problems as all sorts of rewarding collaborations are no longer possible.

For instance, we are working with China on the Wadden research. Hydrodynamics is sure to play a role in this research, as it does in rocket technology. It would be naive to think that you could randomly apply whatever expertise you have on hydrodynamics directly to space travel.”

Are there fields in which you are already being more cautious?
“Of course. Elements of aerospace travel technology, for example, can be applied more directly. You need to be vigilant around this. We already are, in light of the recently revised North Korea regulations, but naturally not only when it comes to students from North Korea, China or Pakistan. If you single out a field in this way, it is logical that you make everyone jump through the same hoops. That is a second reason for clearly defining high-risk areas, otherwise it will become impossible for the government to grant visas.”

The government policy paper also addresses safeguarding academic freedom. Is that going well?
“Academic freedom is really positive. Talking from experience, I can say that it is very open indeed.”

So why the warnings?
“We mustn’t be naive. China remains a rival. Countries like China have a reputation for not taking intellectual property rights very seriously. As long as all that we do together can be published as open access, you remove part of the problem.”

How do you avoid Chinese students or staff feeling like they are under suspicion?
“By not getting caught up in needless mistrust. Why are they here? Because they are really good academics who want world-class education. This is an enterprise that helps young people progress. If I look at the individual, it makes no difference to me whether they come from China or from Indonesia. Each of our students is just that, one of our students.”

And what about staff?
“During their appointment, you consider all the potential risks. We must not be naive, but not paranoid either. We want to play a role on the world stage, because we want to attract the most talented students, doctoral candidates and post-docs. Then it simply comes down to numbers: one in six people is Chinese. It is hardly surprising that there are so many Chinese students and staff working in the Netherlands.”

In China, there’s lots of money available for research. That is another benefit for TU Delft.
“They’re rolling in it. In a world where research funding appears to be getting more scarce, this is of importance to us. And working with an institute such as ours can benefit China, as such a collaboration can improve their prospects.”

I heard that TU Delft is inundated with enquiries from Chinese universities keen to collaborate.
“China needs to secure a position within 20 years that it took us centuries to achieve. I understand why China send lots of students abroad and wants to collaborate. You cannot set up a university just like that: you need properly educated people.”

I also heard that TU Delft hardly ever accepts these advances.
“No, it’s not in our interest. There needs to be an academic foundation on the shop floor. We would only accept an offer from an institution in the top 100. Why would we collaborate with a university ranked 950th? You could make a case for that if it were a developing country, but that is down to China now.”

How many universities does TU Delft turn down a year?
“Per year? Per week! We’re close to the top-50 universities in the world. People notice that, so you are approached by universities from all over the world. China is big, so you get more enquiries from there than from Luxembourg; but we also receive enquiries from the countries around Russia, Latin and Central America. We briefly check each enquiry out of courtesy, but we have to exercise restraint. We have hundreds, perhaps a few thousand memoranda on collaboration, large and small. If you aren’t careful, it starts to take over. You need to select your partners with care.”

The four TU Delft joint research centres in China are:

  • The Beijing Research Centre, in collaboration with the Institute of Semiconductor/Chinese Academy of Science, working on Solid State Lighting;
  • The Research Centre in collaboration with Wuhan University, working on geo-information;
  • The Research Centre in collaboration with the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou, working on sustainable and smart urban systems and associated infrastructure;
  • The Research Centre in collaboration with Hohai University, working on research in the water sector.
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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