Danish ‘paradigm shift’ on China ‘should not create hostility’

Experts say getting into line with more vigilant Western approach must not mean ‘blind action that destroys cooperation’

June 1, 2022
Suspicious man in an office

Danish academics have warned that the country’s “paradigm shift” in international cooperation must not lead to hostilities with challenging partners such as China.

A government-appointed committee of universities and funders spent two years developing national guidelines on international cooperation, recommending that institutions identify and protect their critical research, understand their collaboration partners better, and do more to protect their systems, staff and students.

David Lassen, pro rector for research at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the research policy committee of the national rectors’ conference, Universities Denmark, served on the committee.

He agreed that by following through on the report universities in Denmark would be fundamentally changing their approach.

“The ‘paradigm shift’ is to consider what kind of institutions do you cooperate with, from which countries, and have that reflection; rather than going to pretty much any project with whomever would like to work with you,” he said.

Professor Lassen said the “most important part” of producing the recommendations had been universities sharing stories of collaboration troubles. “Universities went into this a little bit more sceptical than they came out of it,” he said.

While the Danish guidelines are country-neutral, an increasingly cautious approach to Chinese collaboration gained more impetus in May with the publication of a joint investigation into links between Europe and Chinese military universities.

The China Science Investigation found 2,994 European research collaborations involving the Chinese military, a phenomenon that has grown in the last decade.

The Danish report warned that uncritical relations with Chinese partners could hurt collaboration with countries such as the US and with domestic industry.

“For too long, universities were pretty negligent of who they cooperate with,” said Elena Meyer-Clement, a Chinese studies professor at the University of Copenhagen who helps steer its interdisciplinary Asian Dynamics Initiative.

But she warned that changes must not “create a hostile atmosphere in the field of higher education” or allow “blind action that destroys cooperation and establishes new animosities”.

Ari Kokko, a Sweden-based researcher who studies Chinese innovation at Copenhagen Business School, said the shift was remarkable for Denmark, which has had friendly relations with China in the past.

“I hope there will not be more top-down control,” he said. “It would be somewhat of a paradox if the response to too much state control on the Chinese side turns out to be more heavy-handed state control on the European side.”

The Danish guidelines are heavily influenced by exercises elsewhere in the west, citing similar work by the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the German Rectors’ Conference and Universities UK, among others.


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