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Are Polish Universities Really Victims of a Chinese Influence Campaign?

The Chinese Influence Campaign can allegedly play a dangerous role at certain Central European universities, as stated in the article ‘Countering China’s Influence Campaigns at European Universities’, (...) However, the text does ignore Poland, the country with the largest number of universities and students in the region. And we argue, the situation is much more complex.

Instytut Boyma 04.05.2020

The Chinese Influence Campaign can allegedly play a dangerous role at certain Central European universities, as stated in the article ‘Countering China’s Influence Campaigns at European Universities’, which describes examples from Hungary and the Czech Republic. We do not have enough data to draw any definite conclusion on the situation in these countries. However, the text does ignore Poland, the country with the largest number of universities and students in the region. And we argue, the situation is much more complex.

The main argument of the above-mentioned essay is that Central and Eastern EU member states are in general vulnerable to Chinese influences given the financial constraints at even the leading universities. But overall, the situation is quite varied and Poland’s long term free-spirited path might be just a case in point. Thus, one shouldn’t extrapolate this condition on a regional scale of Central Eastern European countries.

Firstly, Poland co-finances programs related to teaching and conducting research. We have presently not found enough evidence leading to a conclusion that the freedom of speech and scientific independence is being compromised by the Chinese side. On the contrary, Polish academic institutions are funding research projects related to facilitating research at various institutions in Asia and language courses, not only for the academic staff, but also for graduate and undergraduate students.

Secondly, mainland China is not the only Chinese partner, as many academic institutions are building successful cooperation with Taiwan or Hong Kong. Drawing on our personal experience and existing data we can state that Chinese studies at leading Polish academic institutions fulfill the criteria of open scientific debate and free teaching, engaging counterparts from mainland China, Taiwan and other cultures and states in the region. In this sense the statement that Polish scholars are vulnerable to Chinese influences seems exaggerated.

Thirdly, students of Sinologies and regional studies dedicated to Asia (including China) have a possibility to confront their views with scholars from different parts of the world. Moreover, Polish universities proved to be independent actors in the sphere of their internalization, recognizing their own agency and maturity to build sustainable relations with foreign institutions, including partners coming from China.

International cooperation at the academic level aims at supporting research and teaching as well as allowing all partners to present their standpoints by entering into a free debate. The article presents several good practices and solutions. They are preventing China’s isolation on the one hand and they animate dialogue and exchange between various parties on the other hand.

Polish universities vs. Beijing – Taipei

Let us start from the moment you begin your adventure with Chinese studies. When you commence Sinology studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw, which has a long Sinological tradition dating back to 1932, you are taught simplified and traditional characters throughout the entire undergraduate program. Courses are taught by both instructors from Taiwan as well as mainland China, and two course books are given. The students are obliged to study from the Taiwanese handbooks for three years, as well as from Chinese mainland textbooks recommended by Hanban – a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Students associations at the Faculty of Oriental Studies have been organizing both a Taiwan day, as well as promoting initiatives dedicated to mainland China for many years. Students are accustomed to discussing even the most controversial topics, as e. g. relations between Taipei and Beijing, freely and openly. In order to acquire proficiency in Chinese, they are encouraged to apply for scholarships from Taiwan, mainland China, as well as from Polish funds. However, as my fellow students emphasized, choosing a scholarship from mainland China doesn’t automatically mean adhering to Chinese values.

Sinology at the University of Warsaw tackles a variety of issues, including history, politics and culture, however its main core is related to: modern language, classical Chinese (guwen), philosophy and literature. On top of that, all classes on politics, history, philosophy and art history are taught by Polish professors only. The university maintains Tibetan studies independent from Chinese studies (both integrated into the Faculty of Oriental Studies) and did not open a Confucius Institute despite initial arrangements. In May 2018 the vice-rector of the university participated in celebrations highlighting the 120th anniversary of Peking University, 6 month later he visited Taipei to attend a conference marking the 90th anniversary of National Taiwan University.

Chinese Studies at Jagiellonian University may also pose an interesting case, since the Sinology department for years employed only Taiwanese language teachers. Since the academic year 2019/2020 a language teacher from mainland China is employed at the Sinology department. The Institute of the Middle and Far East Studies, which also offers Chinese language courses and employs Taiwanese and Chinese mainland teachers, and Confucius Institute are also present at the University. Moreover, since 2011 at least the Taiwan Studies Center has been operating in at the Institute of the Middle and Far East, and it is currently co-financed by the Taiwanese Ministry of Education (between 2011-2014 by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy). One of its key aims is enhancing Taiwan Studies at the Jagiellonian University and promoting Taiwan’s culture. A lecturer from the Institute of the Middle and Far East Studies confirmed that during his 12 years of studies and work at the institute, no reported Chinese influence campaign has been revealed. On the contrary, there was an attempt to stop a presentation during an Asian conference on comfort women by South Korea. Ultimately the presentation was moved to the final part of the conference. It is also worth noting that many years ago there were some attempts from the Chinese side to put pressure on the cooperation with Taiwan, as one of the heads from the Institute of the Middle and Far East Studies revealed to me during a conversation. However, no such attempts from the Chinese side have been confirmed or observed for more than 10 years. On the other hand, one of the heads also revealed that in the past Taipei did not avoid pressure attempts amid cooperation of the institute with Beijing. Ultimately, many universities and institutes find themselves wavering between the two.

Confucius Institutes and 17+1

The network of Confucius Institutes is quite developed in Poland, as the institutes operate in Kraków, Poznań, Opole, Gdańsk, Wrocław, and Warsaw (the Confucius Institute operates next to the Warsaw University of Technology). Teachers from mainland China do not conduct lectures on politics, history or social sciences at universities. Amid the rumors and controversies Confucius Institutes raise abroad, their activities are usually strongly monitored by academic institutions and think tanks, i.e. by the Polish Institute of International Affairs, which emphasizes that they do not provide a free platform for debates. Overall, the Confucius Institutes in Poland are mostly focused on offering affordable Chinese courses, business courses related to Chinese culture and different types of workshops i.e. calligraphy. They also organize exams, competitions and celebrations of Chinese traditional festivals.

Some analysts claimed that the 17+1 platform will lead to a closer cooperation between Chinese and Polish universities, however the platform did not exert a remarkable influence on the Chinese Studies academic environment in Poland. Examples from Polish Chinese Studies do not confirm any remarkable changes in the sphere of student exchanges. The fact that certain students, PhD candidates, academic staff go to China under different Chinese umbrella programs (Including the Belt and Road Initiative), doesn’t mean that they adhere to Chinese values and worldviews.

Student associations and academic centers 

Principally, Sinologies are one of the most competitive courses to get into at Polish universities, as prospective students are interested in the rise of China and its consequences for the global world. Overall, the demanding levels of studies indicate that only ambitious students graduate and many of them simultaneously pursue a second degree in Law, International Relations, Economy, Sociology or Cultural Studies. Students who are willing to explore China organize grassroots exchange initiatives like the Warsaw Beijing Forum at the University of Warsaw. Its partner is China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, a prestigious academic institution well connected to the government. Another initiative is the CEPD: Chinese -European Partnership for Development, which cooperates with academic institutions from Hong Kong. Both initiatives are partially funded by Polish universities, private companies and corporations, and partially by Chinese partners. They pose a very good opportunity for both sides to explore Polish, European and Chinese educational standards and exchange worldviews. In the long run, they might also contribute to a wider perspective of the Chinese young generation.

Organizing debates with analysts and scholars from various backgrounds holding contradictory views might be the best practice. Let’s take a closer look at an example, an event held jointly by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Boym Institute and the Polish Research Centre for Law and Economy of China in 2019 at the University of Warsaw. The program was jointly set up by Polish and Chinese partners, without an attempt to interfere in the program on the part of Beijing. The list of Chinese speakers was selected in cooperation with the Polish side, and the Polish organizers were given full freedom in choosing speakers from the Polish side. Therefore, Polish speakers who tend to have a critical stance on Chinese initiatives in Europe (including the Centre for Eastern Studies from Warsaw) were invited to the conference to present their standpoints alongside Chinese panelists. Agreeing on sharing events and conferences with the Chinese partners shouldn’t assume attempts to hijack the narration on China. In this way a substantial dialogue can be achieved, and Chinese partners can also profit from an open discussion. Overall, it is crucial not to discriminate Chinese scholars merely on the basis of their origin. Although during international conferences Chinese scholars rarely present a view opposing the official line of the government, dynamic academic dialogue on Asia cannot be built without engaging China. Individually, Chinese scholars employed in public academic institutions might share quite various opinions, some of them also critical towards governmental positions.

Do Polish universities need Chinese funds?

On the global level anxiety grows amid Chinese entities funding different type of activities at the world’s best universities, i.e. the London School of Economics. The rise of China is an important global phenomena, however its scope of influence doesn’t affect Poland on a large scale. Warsaw is still on the periphery of Chinese investments compared to Western European countries like the UK, Germany or France. Generally, one can claim that in comparison to British and American education institutions, Polish universities are underfunded, however the situation is improving fairly quickly, also thanks to the European Union funds. The National Science Center (NCN Narodowe Centrum Nauki) and universities with the help of programs like the ones funded by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA)offer large grants for research in all disciplines. The National Science Center is also engaged in funding bilateral projects with the National Natural Science Foundation of China for Sino-Polish teams of scientists called Sheng 1, Sheng 2, Sheng 3. These funds are co-financed by China and are dedicated to projects related to natural sciences, technical engineering and social sciences.

However, there is no reason why research dedicated to China should be prioritized to other regions of the world like Russia, Central Asia, Latin America or Southeast Asia. The Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange with the help of EU funds, gives out generous funds to conduct research and pursue language courses in Asia. At the University of Warsaw, the PROM project was coordinated by the Polish Research Centre for Law and Economy of China. A student could obtain a generous grant in the amount of EUR 4,000 for a monthly stay in a chosen Asian country to pursue fieldwork or take a language course. A short report was written about the advantages and disadvantages of conducting research at the Institute of Philosophy at CASS in 2019, where examples of good cooperation, as well as the possibility of holding free seminars were given.

Still, it remains crucial to hold a critical position to the alleged propaganda program spread by illiberal political systems at European Universities, and China is not an isolated case. This challenge should be attributed not only to mainland China, but respectively to other states, i.e. Iran, Russia or Saudi Arabia. However, a policy of isolation in the global realm of internationalized academia might not be the best answer, as some of these countries play an important role in international institutions shaping the world we live in. Students, as well as academia, must be prepared to deal with ambivalent situations, challenging decision making processes, and ways of obtaining compromise.

Polish institutions funding scholarships for the Chinese students

The scholarship program works both ways, as students from Asia (including China) can benefit from the PROM Program as well. PhD candidates, as well as associate professors from Asian countries are welcome to apply for a scholarship and conduct their research in Poland. These financial circumstances are providing a perfect opportunity for the Chinese academic staff to gather knowledge on the region.

An assumption also exists that the Polish universities could be influenced by money streams stemming from tuition fees paid by Chinese students, as may be the case in Austrialia. However, although Polish universities prioritize internationalization and strive to attract more students from all over the world, tuition fees from the Chinese students have never been a substantial part of their budgets.

The University of Łódź and the Center for Asian Affairs attached to this university might be just another case in point, as each year it organizes a summer school for Chinese students in Poland. Since 2017 the program “Understanding Poland: Economy, Society and Science” has gathered more than 512 participants from 17 universities in China, including the following leading universities: Sichuan University, Jinan University, Guilin University of Technology, Nankai University, Shanghai University and Zhengzhou University. The program is partially funded by the University of Łódź and its commercial partners, and by the Chinese students themselves, as they pay the cost of the flight tickets and a tuition fee for the University of Łódź.

How to build sustainable relations with the Chinese academic institutions?

In conclusion, the alleged Chinese influence campaign in Central and Eastern Europe should not be interpreted as a tendency, but rather be treated as individual cases. Assertiveness is important and building dialogue does not mean accepting political values of foreign scholars. The fact that universities organize collaborative events and conferences with academic and research institutions from the PRC doesn’t mean that the academic staff adheres to the standpoints of the guests. It can rather be a sign of their strength, confidence and agency in building connections. However, all such cooperation exchanges with foreign entities are already very closely monitored in Poland. A case in point might be the investigation into student exchange between Beijing Sport University and the Academic Sport Association connected to the School of Physical Education in Gdańsk under the Belt and Road umbrella. Bribes were allegedly being taken by the Polish side to facilitate the arrival of Chinese students to Poland, however the enquiry is still underway.

In the long run, the ‘Pjongjangization’ of the PRC might not be the best answer to the global challenges related to the growing influence of Beijing on the international arena and within international organizations. Assertiveness, remaining open for discussion, inviting scholars from various backgrounds holding contradictory opinions might be the best solutions to this challenge. It’s also important to engage in dialogue and cooperation with Chinese counterparts not only from mainland China, but adequately from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Ideally, building Chinese studies programs should proceed with the help of Taiwanese (or Hong Kongese) and China mainland scholars, just like it is conducted at the University of Warsaw. Isolation has never been an answer to current events and challenges related to international affairs and dangers posed to the freedom of speech.

World’s academic institutions should be confident and self-sufficient enough, in order to reject any attempts to hijack the narration to the interest of illiberal states. The problem might also just be greed, as many top world level universities with huge budgets like Harvard and Yale enriched themselves with generous amounts of money from suspicious sources. As the BBC reports, in the US, the Department of Education said it had uncovered more than USD 6.6bn in previously unreported gifts from countries including: Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, the money issue in the academia might be more of a universal global challenge.

For the region it would be a good solution not to ban the Chinese funds on a national level, but to provide stable alternative sources of income for scientific institutions and think tanks, both at the level of the EU and in partnership with democratic Asian counterparts. The best way to counter influences is to provide an attractive alternative, both in content and funding.

I would like to thank Paulina Uznańska, Krzysztof M Zalewski, Michał Lubina and Adrian Brona for their contribution to the article. 

Patrycja Pendrakowska

Analityk ds. polityki Chin, Tajwanu, Hong Kongu i innowacji. Doktorantka w Instytucie Filozofii UW. Ukończyła sinologię, etnologię, Kolegium MISH (filozofię), prawo finansowe i socjologię na UW, którą studiowała również na Ludwig-Maximilians Universität w Monachium. W latach 2017-2019 prezes Centrum Studiów Polska-Azja. Na przełomie 2016/2017 roku pracowała w Centrum Badań nad Bezpieczeństwem Akademii Sztuki Wojennej. Była wolontariuszka w dziale misji PAH.  W 2011 roku badała problemy migracji w Nepalu, w Institute of Integrated Development Studies w Katmandu.

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