A leading German university has been plunged into scandal after it emerged that it had signed a contract binding it to abide by Chinese law while accepting hundreds of thousands of euros from China to set up a professorship to establish a Chinese teacher training programme.
German lawmakers have criticised the Free University of Berlin (FU) over the terms, which critics fear give the Chinese government leverage to prevent teaching about subjects such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet. The contract, obtained by the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, allows the Chinese side to reduce or halt funding if any element of the programme contravenes Chinese law.
Other clauses also place FU at the mercy of political pressure from China, argue critics. Each year, Hanban — the agency that runs controversial Confucius Institutes in Western universities and is the contractual partner of FU — is allowed to revoke the agreement at its discretion, according to Tagesspiegel. If FU wants to end the agreement, however, the conditions are more onerous.
Pressure had been growing on FU even before these latest revelations. On January 20, a group of FU alumni signed a joint letter expressing grave concerns about the university’s academic independence. This arrangement is “untenable”, says the letter because it means that it is impossible to rule out Chinese Communist Party influence over teaching content at FU. One signatory, David Missal, a Sinologist expelled from China in 2018, says the only acceptable way forward now is to cancel the contract.
Critics have also voiced concerns about the language FU has used to defend the agreement. In a response to Tagesspiegel, the university said that forbidden topics in China, such as the “incidents of 1989”, would still be included in teaching. Some considered such terms to be an overly detached and neutral way of describing the killing of demonstrators.