UU professor under fire after decision from Vrije Universiteit about China

Tom Zwart op Chinese TV. Source: NOS

The Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre, which is affiliated with VU, received money from a Chinese university to conduct research on human rights. That was revealed last week in documents requested by the NOS (report in Dutch). The annual amounts involved were between 250,000 and 300,000 euros.

Connected to the regime
The news caused a fuss because universities in China are closely connected to the political regime. As a result, experts seriously questioned the independence of the research centre.

The suspicion was fed by the fact that staff members of the Amsterdam research centre have publicly defended Chinese human rights policy. There are comments on the centre's website stating that the discrimination of Uyghurs in China is not as bad as it seems. Additionally, VU teacher Peter Peverelli denied in an interview with university paper Ad Valvas that the regime suppresses the Uyghurs.

Tom Zwart, professor of Human Rights at UU, works part-time at VU and is the director of the centre. The NOS report shows a fragment in which Zwart says on Chinese television: “We should not leave it to politicians, especially Western politicians, to decide what we should think about human rights.”

The professor reacted to the report saying that the research centre is certainly working for the Uyghurs to have a better position, in addition to starting a conversation about it in China. “We are scientists who play a role in the academic debate in China. In this way, we have influence.” In an interview with DUB in 2016 (available only in Dutch), Zwart said of human rights in China: “I always tell the Chinese that I don’t share their values from my own tradition, but I do understand the tradition in which they are standing and the way they are dealing with these rights.” According to him, the fact that the website of the centre contains so many comments condoning Chinese oppression is freedom of speech.

Unwanted influence
VU states on its website that it is "understandable" that doubts have arisen about the independence of the research in question. The university calls “even ‘the semblance’ of dependence unacceptable”. That's why Chinese subsidy will be cut short and returned. The university also intends to examine whether the independence of the research has been safeguarded on all fronts.

Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf states on Twitter:  “Sensible that the VU is taking action.” According to him, it is “important that knowledge institutions stay alert about risks of unwanted influence. Especially regarding human rights.”

Asked by DUB to react on the news, Utrecht University says that professor Tom Zwart, just like all other employees, has the academic freedom to conduct his research and report it in publications and media. However, the research has to be independent, of course. The university has taken note of VU's decision and says it will monitor the results of VU's investigation into the independence of the centre's research.

Academic freedom has often been the subject of conversation with regards to partnerships with China. Last year, former minister of education Ingrid van Engelshoven advised universities to cut ties with the Chinese Confucius Institutes.