AU stops admitting PhD students from China who have signed allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party

PhD students from China can no longer get a place at Aarhus University if they are supported by the state-funded Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC). This follows reports from several media sources that CSC students are made to sign contracts in which they pledge allegiance to the Chinese regime and promise to follow instructions issued by the Chinese embassy.

Photo: Colourbox

AU will no longer welcome students from China whose place at the university is financed by the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC).

This decision was reached by the senior management team at its meeting on 8 March, according to the record of decisions made that day. At the meeting, it was also decided that current CSC scholars at AU would be able to complete their PhD. This applies to 46 students, 33 of whom are enrolled at Technical Sciences. CSC students who have already received an offer from AU but not yet begun their PhD will also be allowed to take their PhD at the university.

In February this year, AU suspended admission of PhD students on CSC contracts in order to investigate whether these students were subject to unreasonable contractual terms.

This issue was brought to public attention when the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported in January that a PhD student at Lund University had been required to sign a CSC contract in which he pledged allegiance to the Chinese regime and provided guarantors in China who would be sanctioned financially in the event of a breach of contact.

The German media platform Correctiv and radio station Deutsche Welle have seen CSC contracts for students attending universities in Germany. Among other things, these students had to sign to say they would not participate in activities that could “compromise the interests of the mother country” and that they would be in “regular contact” with the local Chinese embassy. The contract also stipulated that they must return to China after their PhD and that the terms of the CSC contract only expired after two years of having returned home.

More recently, the head of counterintelligence at the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, Anders Henriksen, warned against these contracts in the Danish newspaper Politiken.

“CSC scholars in Denmark are particularly vulnerable to being pressured to conduct activities on behalf of the Chinese state”, Anders Henriksen claims.

Vice-dean at TECH: We’re adopting a belt and braces approach

Technical Sciences is home to 33 of the 46 CSC students at AU, and Vice-dean for Research Brian Vinter explains that the faculty has not reviewed all the PhD students’ contracts. As such, he is unable to conclude that CSC scholars at Aarhus University have signed a declaration of loyalty to the Chinese regime. On the other hand, on the basis of the investigation conducted by the faculty, he has no reason to believe that “the contracts our students are on should differ from those” that have been described in the media.

Based on an overall assessment of the case, the senior management team has now decided to stop admitting students on CSC contracts completely, Brian Vinter explains, as an expression of the university’s wish to adopt a “belt and braces approach and not take any risks”.

“The senior management team has made a decision based on an overall assessment of the case and is saying: We cannot condone having CSC students at AU. And this is primarily related to the students’ personal freedom and in particular their freedom to conduct research,” he says.

Brian Vinter does not wish to identify specific sections in CSC contracts that he believes are problematic. But he does mention that there is “very great concern” that the PhD students are obliged to return to China after their PhD. In his opinion, this poses limitations on their freedom of research.

He believes AU is right to allow current CSC students to complete their PhD at the university and to still admit students who have already received offers but will only begin in the summer. According to Brian Vinter, AU’s approach to the problem is to protect the students from China.

“We are committed to upholding the freedom of research terms in their Danish contracts. Everything we are doing is to protect the PhD students. If we throw them out of Denmark with only half a degree, we will be doing the opposite. So we haven’t terminated contracts with the CSC students who are already here, but we have stopped admitting students on CSC contracts.”

What do you think about the fact that you are still admitting CSC students who haven’t yet begun at the university, even though you’re no longer accepting CSC applications?

“If these students have received advanced approval, we will honour the agreement we have made. It is exactly the same (for the students who are already at the university, ed.). We would be putting these students in a very, very difficult position if we withdrew our offer. They may have already resigned from their current position, booked flights and found a place to live in Aarhus. We need to treat people decently,” says Brian Vinter.

Vice-dean: This has nothing to do with security policy

At Danish Universities, PhD projects are agreed in advance and students can then apply for them. As such, it is not up to AU to decide who may and may not apply for a PhD project, underlines Brian Vinter.

Students on CSC contracts may therefore still apply for PhD projects at AU in the future, but because AU believes that the restrictions placed on the freedom of research in CSC contracts undermine the university’s values, in reality, this will mean that PhD students will no longer be admitted through the CSC programme.

“This is based on our concern for the CSC students’ personal circumstances and freedom of research in general. It has nothing to do with security policy. A Chinese citizen is still welcome to apply for a publicly advertised PhD position at AU and be awarded a PhD degree – just not on a CSC contract,” says Brian Vinter, who has not received any instructions from the Danish Security and Intelligence Service.

He stresses that Tech conducts background checks on students who come to Demark with scholarships from certain countries, but that this has nothing to do with CSC contracts. It relates instead to the current security policy situation and a report by the Committee on Guidelines for International Research and Innovation Collaboration, which is part of the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

PhD supervisors at Technical Sciences are currently in contact with CSC students who may be affected by AU’s decision, explains Brian Vinter.

Chinese embassy: Malicious distortion

According to Politiken, there are at least 239 CSC scholars from China enrolled at Danish universities. 139 at the University of Copenhagen, 46 at Aarhus University, 44 at the Technical University of Denmark, 7 at the University of Southern Denmark, and 3 at Roskilde University, one of whom is a visiting scholar. Copenhagen Business School and Aalborg University don’t have any CSC scholars, they told the newspaper.

AU is currently investigating whether there are any visiting scholars at the university who are financed by the CSC, according to the record of decisions from 8 March.

The Chinese embassy in Denmark has told Politiken that reports from Dagens Nyheter, Correctiv and Deutsche Welle are “nothing other than a malicious distortion of the content of an agreement in order to politicise and stigmatise normal teaching and research collaboration between China and other countries”.