Defending academic freedom requires decisive political leadership



The debacle surrounding Christian Democrat Armin Laschet’s election performance marks a turning point in German politics. Coalition talks are now well advanced. They are pointing the finger at a new government that will likely take a more assertive approach towards China. Such a position will also have repercussions on German science policy.

In the recent federal elections, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) made significant gains among young Germans. They can now play kingmakers when it comes to the new government. It is widely accepted that the Greens and the FDP will enter into a so-called “traffic light” coalition with the other winner of the election, the Social Democrat (SPD) Olaf Scholz.

The director general of the Center for Liberal Modernity Ralf Fücks called it an opportunity to promote liberal ecological and social reforms.

The election result also has the potential to upend Angela Merkel’s mercantilist policy towards China. In June 2021, two prominent German politicians from the Greens and the FDP made nine bipartisan recommendations on how to work with China as a systemic rival. Such calls for greater assertiveness are a direct challenge to Merkel’s pessimistic worldview.

Security experts Bastian Giegerich and Maximilian Terhalle stressed: “Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has not formulated a conceptually coherent response to the challenges of Germany’s security policy.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing German Minister of Defense, publicly acknowledged that Germany must transform its strategic culture and underlined the difficulties in “changing the ways of thinking and behavior well practiced, loved and comfortable”.


The urgency to act becomes clearer when we consider the challenge from autocracies to liberal democracies. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views independent universities at home and abroad as a threat to the maintenance of the one-party regime.

Since 2012, Secretary General Xi Jinping has established a personalized dictatorship. Document # 9 declared universal values ​​a taboo subject. This 2013 illiberal party edict “bears Xi’s unmistakable imprimatur”. He inaugurated a whole series of state security laws.

In 2019, freedom of thought was removed from the charters of Chinese universities. Chinese intellectuals critical of the regime have been fired, deprived of their pensions or sentenced to life in prison.

The Xi regime now makes it difficult for Chinese scientists to participate in international conferences. Even participation in online events has to be approved as part of a complex process. Participating Chinese academics are prohibited from making public statements that could “jeopardize the reputation of Chinese institutions.”

Under the conditions of such strictly enforced censorship, an open intercultural dialogue with China is no longer possible. Meanwhile, Western Chinese experts who criticize the CCP and its policies are either harassed or blacklisted. The CCP’s sanctions against European Chinese academics Bjorn Jerden, Adrian Zenz and Jo Smith Finley as well as the Berlin-based think tank Merics from March 2021, are one example.

The CCP continues to divide the world into friends and enemies. His reign through fear aims to establish self-censorship. Western scholars who are ready to pay homage to the codes of speech of the CCP leadership are rewarded with access to state-sanctioned cooperative partners.

Australian think tank ASPI pointed out that the CCP “also uses talent recruitment programs to obtain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means.”

As part of the CCP’s military-civilian fusion strategy, there is a danger that dual-use technology developed in Western universities will be transferred from Chinese research partners to the People’s Liberation Army.

A funding review

Measures to reduce interference from autocratic regimes have so far been insufficient.

The German Rectors’ Conference was only able to put together a collection of over 100 leading questions on the challenges of Sino-German university cooperation. Shortly thereafter, the German Academic Exchange published a “No Red Lines” policy in which it formulated its own 88 guiding questions.

Raising issues will not be enough to resist political censorship, reduce self-censorship and prevent intellectual property theft.

It is encouraging that Anja Karliczek, the outgoing Federal Minister of Education and Research (BMBF), has called for more independent research on China. She was also the first to publicly acknowledge the problem of party and state funded Confucius Institutes at German universities.

But that the BMBF only invests 24 million euros ($ 28 million) will probably not encourage universities to free themselves from injections of money from China. And many German federal universities are currently excluded from freedom of information legislation.

In order to better defend academic freedom, Germany’s new government should consider reviewing third-party funding. Today, one in four positions in German universities is funded by third parties. Precarious working conditions undermine the morale of young academics. Financial dependence on third party funding undermines academic autonomy.

Without stricter transparency and accountability requirements, German universities are unlikely to engage in reputation management and ethical due diligence.

The BMBF could also investigate why German universities have so far failed to establish degree programs in strategic studies. It should initiate a dialogue with the German Research Foundation, which currently holds a near-monopoly position in supporting research on international relations.

The Foundation could play a central role in providing increased financial support for applied research that strengthens democratic deterrence vis à vis autocratic regimes.

At the same time, a whole-of-government working group should be created at the German Chancellery. It could involve representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education and Research, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the Federation of German Industries as well as other key stakeholders.

In addition to protecting academic freedom, the task force is expected to develop strategies to prevent industry co-optation, intellectual property theft, cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.

A review of the funding associated with the proposed task force would go a long way in deterring autocratic regimes from attempting to undermine academic freedom in Germany.

Andreas Fulda is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents.


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