Defending academic freedom needs decisive political leadership | #cybersecurity | #conferences


The debacle surrounding Christian Democrat Armin Laschet’s performance in the elections marks a turning point in German politics. Coalition talks are now well under way. They point to a new government that is likely to adopt a more assertive approach towards China. Such a stance will also have repercussions for Germany’s science policy.

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

The managing director of the Centre for Liberal Modernity Ralf Fücks has called it an opportunity to promote ecological and social liberal 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 FDP formulated 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.

The security experts Bastian Giegerich and Maximilian Terhalle have pointed out: “Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has not formulated a conceptually coherent answer to Germany’s security policy challenges.”

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing German Minister of Defence, has publicly acknowledged that Germany needs to transform its strategic culture and has highlighted the difficulties to “change well-practised, beloved and comfortable thought patterns and behaviours”.


The urgency to act becomes clearer when considering the challenge of autocracies to liberal democracies. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers independent academia at home and abroad a threat to continued one-party rule.

Since 2012, General Secretary Xi Jinping has established a personalised dictatorship. Document No 9 declared universal values a taboo topic. This illiberal party edict from 2013 “bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi”. It ushered in an entire suite of state security legislation.

In 2019 freedom of thought was removed from charters at Chinese universities. Chinese intellectuals critical of the regime were made redundant, deprived of their pensions or sentenced to life in prison.

The Xi regime is now making it difficult for Chinese scientists to participate in international conferences. Even participation in online events has to be approved in a complex process. Participating Chinese academics are prohibited from making public statements which might “jeopardise the reputation of Chinese institutions”.

Under the conditions of such strictly enforced censorship, an open-ended intercultural dialogue with China is no longer possible. Meanwhile, western China experts who are critical of the CCP and its policies are either harassed or blacklisted. CCP sanctions against the European China scholars Bjorn Jerden, Adrian Zenz and Jo Smith Finley as well as the Berlin-based think-tank Merics from March 2021, are a case in point.

The CCP continues to divide the world into friends and enemies. Its rule by fear aims to instil self-censorship. Western scholars who are willing to pay tribute to the speech codes of the CCP leadership are rewarded with access to state-sanctioned cooperation partners.

The Australian think tank ASPI has underlined that the CCP also “uses talent-recruitment programmes to gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means”.

Under the CCP’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy there is a danger that dual use technology developed at Western universities is transferred from Chinese research partners to the People’s Liberation Army.

A funding review

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

The German Rectors’ Conference could only muster a collection of more than 100 leading questions addressing challenges in Sino-German academic cooperation. Soon thereafter the German Academic Exchange published a “No red lines” policy in which it formulated its own 88 leading questions.

Merely raising questions will not be enough to resist political censorship, reduce self-censorship and prevent intellectual property theft.

It is heartening 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 recognise the problem of party and state-funded Confucius Institutes at German universities.

But for the BMBF to invest a mere €24 million (US$28 million) is unlikely to prompt universities to emancipate themselves from cash injections from China. And many German federal state universities are currently excluded from Freedom of Information legislation.

In order to better defend academic freedom, the new German government should consider conducting a review of third party funding. By now one in four posts at German universities are funded by third parties. Precarious working conditions undermine the morale of young academics. Financial dependency on third party funding undercuts 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 programmes on strategic studies. It should engage in a dialogue with the German Research Foundation, which currently holds a near monopolistic position in supporting research on international relations.

The Foundation could play a pivotal role in providing greater funding support aimed at applied research which strengthens democratic deterrence vis-à-vis autocratic regimes.

In parallel, a whole-of-government task force should be established at the German Chancellory. It could involve representatives from the Ministry for 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 should develop strategies to prevent industry co-option, intellectual property theft, cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.

A funding review coupled with the proposed task force would go a long way in dissuading 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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