“It’s wrong to talk to China at all costs”

Alicia Hennig, a German scholar who taught in China for several years, was interviewed by Deutsche Welle about her experiences at Chinese universities, the plight of foreign scholars in China, and the self-paralysis and self-censorship of German academia in the face of China.

In an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in early October, Alicia Hennig, an academic at Dresden University of Technology, talked about her restricted freedom of expression while doing research at a Chinese university, among other issues. In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, she further elaborated on the topic.

Deutsche Welle: You have a deep connection to China. Can you comment on your experience in China in general, and in the academic field in particular?

Alicia Hennig: I can say that China has been with me for 15 years. I think I would have had a better impression of China if I had stayed in business, as I did in my early internship years, because business is about pragmatism, problem-solving, and developmental dynamics, which China loves. Universities are a different story; Chinese universities are more bureaucratic. My impression of China has changed a lot since I started working in Chinese universities in 2015, and I have gained insight into this bureaucracy, which is very different from the business world in China. From that point on, I noticed more problems.

At first it was the textbooks. I couldn’t get a textbook for my “Philosophy of Economics” course because China had started to restrict the use of Western textbooks. …… I had to order books from overseas, and my university helped me at the time, but the books they ordered were also held up in customs.

There were other aspects, such as the strange rule that my Chinese colleagues were suddenly no longer allowed to teach foreign students, and that only foreigners could teach foreigners. I assume this was a directive from above and not a wish of the Chinese colleagues themselves, which also happened between 2015 and 2017.

Dr. Alicia Hennig, German scholar

Another thing that struck me was the requirement that all classrooms be equipped with cameras in the future, just as I was leaving China. I was away from China for nine months at that time, and when I started working at Southeast University in Nanjing in October 2018, the cameras were already installed. That was one reason why I didn’t want to continue teaching business ethics in China, it was too sensitive for me and human rights was a topic in that curriculum. I don’t want to teach in China anymore because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to have a real discussion in the classroom anymore.

Deutsche Welle: The topic of human rights activists and dissidents facing crackdowns in China is not new. But in recent years, it seems that foreign academics working in China have also been facing increasing pressure.

Alicia Hennig: That is true, and this pressure has really increased. Although it was not reflected in my academic publications – after all, my academic topic at the time was Daoist studies, so I was not restricted – I heard about it from another colleague who worked at another university and was much more involved, and got more information from his Chinese colleagues. What I also experienced myself was that in the humanities, organizing meetings with foreigners became extremely difficult because of the extremely strict censorship process and the need to ensure that the line was not crossed at all ideologically. I realized that it became very difficult to have an international discussion in China for the humanities.

Deutsche Welle: What do you think is causing this development, this tightening of the academic field?

Alicia Hennig: I’m not really sure. Ever since Xi Jinping declared that universities are the mouthpiece of the Party, they have to follow the guidelines of the Communist Party, and Chinese universities have always had Party branches. My sense here is that there is more monitoring and censorship of ideology, of what people say and do. My dean had also instructed me to delete certain comments, so I knew I was being monitored, including on social media. It certainly wasn’t the dean’s idea either, but a request from above. Because they wanted to know, what these foreigners were doing and wanted to make sure that these foreigners were not spreading sensitive content about China.

Deutsche Welle: But many German universities still want to strengthen and expand their cooperation with Chinese universities. You said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that often times the German side that wants to cooperate doesn’t know what awaits them.

Alicia Hennig: That’s true. It starts with many things in ordinary life. For example, how to work at a Chinese university, how the bureaucracy works, how to work individually with a particular Chinese scholar. I have tried to co-author scholarly works with Chinese scholars, and that doesn’t always work out because everyone has different requirements for what to publish. International journals require a much higher quality of work, which cannot be published quickly and has to be of a very high standard. I feel that the Chinese side doesn’t always see it this way and doesn’t necessarily put that much effort into it.

Also if we talk about funding, there is the issue of corruption. I know from other colleagues that there are often cases where academic funding is lost because of corruption. In bureaucracies, corruption is still a big problem.

In the technical and natural sciences, today we also know that if there is collaborative research, it cannot be ruled out that the Chinese military will benefit from the success of that research. On this issue, we should also ask ourselves today ethically: “Am I responsible for my research when it is applied in this context? After all, there have been enough examples in the past. I think that here again we must make a distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities, which are still not the same. The humanities are ideologically very restricted; the natural sciences and technology cannot exclude military applications, which are two very different issues.

Deutsche Welle: You have also previously criticized the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for not doing enough.

Alicia Hennig: Yes. I have had very pleasant and mutually respectful cooperation with many Chinese universities, such as Nanjing University, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University. My position at Southeast University in Nanjing, however, went very poorly, and I have spoken with DAAD about this. For its part, Southeast University still owes me about 28,000 RMB for the conference, which is the cost of speaking at the international conference. And at the time I wasn’t paid very much …… I described these situations to DAAD and they listened to me, but I didn’t get the feeling that they were going to try to address these problems that foreign scholars were having at Chinese universities in a more systematic way. Even though many of us were experiencing problems – sometimes similar problems, sometimes different problems – I got the impression that DAAD did not want to really get involved.

Later, when I had bigger problems with this university in Nanjing – they fired me, even though my contract was supposed to extend until October – I didn’t go back to DAAD at all, but went straight to the German consulate for help, because I knew DAAD wouldn’t do anything.

Deutsche Welle: In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article, DAAD responded to your criticism by saying that China is still an important partner, presumably meaning “it’s better to keep the dialogue going”.

Alicia Hennig: I don’t think there is anything wrong in principle with this “keep the dialogue going” argument. I also think it’s important to engage with China in some way, rather than isolating ourselves from China. The point here is that China, the Chinese Communist Party itself, is pursuing a policy of blockade, and in many areas the Communist Party is now closing its doors to overseas. In principle, I do think dialogue is important, but I think it’s also important to be open and honest when talking about dialogue about the limits of dialogue and how to deal with those limits. I think that is often forgotten when people simply say “we have to not give up the dialogue with China”.

Deutsche Welle: And what would be your advice on how to engage with China and how to deal with these constraints?

Alicia Hennig: I also think it’s a difficult question and I don’t have a perfect solution yet. I don’t know if you’ve seen the article that Heberer and Ahlers published a while ago at Forschung & Lehre, about the different articulations and presentations of cooperation with China on an equal footing. I think we can stop fooling ourselves on the issue of “equal cooperation”. This is not possible under the current conditions. The question now is to what extent dialogue is possible under the present conditions. I don’t think it should be left to the individuals involved – Joy Zhang, a professor at the University of Kent in the UK, has made a similar statement that the state shouldn’t get involved, I don’t think so, it’s too fragmented and diffuse to start with individual cases and address them individually. Given that education is also a national task, as it is in Germany and China, solutions must be found at the national level. …… Germany could, for example, disclose how much money from China systematically goes to universities. This is important in order to be able to better assess the dialogue and is a basic prerequisite.

It is also important for the dialogue to talk about and to set uncrossable red lines, which are very important. I think that dialogue at all costs is the wrong approach.

Deutsche Welle: You just talked about the Chinese funding flow to German universities. Do you think that China has a direct influence on academic freedom in Germany, a claim that DAAD denied in a previous report?

Alicia Hennig: Of course it has an impact. …… I think that self-censorship (of German academics) on this issue is massive. It depends on the situation, on whether the person still has a research project with China – which is very common in sinology – and on whether the person will have to go to China again in the future, in which case the person will be extra careful when talking about (China) – assuming that he or she is still willing to open his or her mouth. This is a big problem. In light of this, we cannot say that Germany will not be affected, that German scholarship will not be affected; I think the opposite is true, and even DAAD will eventually realize this.