Strict ban on China will cost us dearly in science

09 May 2023 - 09:00
Source: Doctor at the Beijing Perfect Family Hospital © REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Scientific decoupling of China will come at a cost, says Ingrid D’Hooghe, coordinator and senior researcher at the Clingendael China Centre. There are security risks, but China leads the field in many areas.

The Dutch intelligence services AIVD and MIVD recently identified China as the biggest threat to the Netherlands when it comes to stealing high-quality knowledge and technologies. These concerns are well-founded and deserve attention and action. But they also contribute to a development that should concern us equally: the trend towards decoupling from China. 

Universities and researchers find it difficult to gauge what can and cannot be done in the field of scientific cooperation. The academic environment in China has deteriorated further during the COVID years. Control by the Communist Party has become more forceful on all fronts, and Chinese policies raise ethical issues. This has led to universities and researchers avoiding cooperation, as revealed by a survey by newspaper Trouw last week.

International position

This trend can come at a considerable cost. The protection of scientific knowledge and integrity is necessary, but cutting our scientific links with China on a large scale will seriously damage our international position in technology and innovation. In addition, it will further restrict our understanding of developments in China, which is a key economic, political and scientific player that we cannot ignore. Now more than ever we need knowledge about and cooperation with China. Decoupling is therefore the worst of all options for scientific cooperation.

China is a scientific powerhouse and a leading player in many fields, such as biotechnology, 5G and 6G, nano-materials and electric batteries. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), China is even leading in 37 out of 44 key technologies. The Netherlands needs this knowledge from China. 

The Chinese government is the second largest investor in scientific research worldwide after the United States, and over 11 million students graduate from a Chinese university each year. As a result, China has a large reservoir of students and researchers in natural science, of which there is a shortage worldwide, including in the Netherlands. Ignoring or excluding these Chinese scientists means that we will increasingly come to lag behind in technological sectors. 

"According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), China is leading in 37 out of 44 key technologies"

It is clear that we need to protect against national and geopolitical risks in key technologies such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, missile technology and quantum mechanics. But many collaborative projects with China are not at all problematic but instead serve Dutch or global interests. Joint research in areas where China has a lot of knowledge and experience to offer, such as cancer treatment, personalised medicines and circular economy and sustainability, not only contributes to Dutch scientific progress but also to social welfare. In other areas, it is vital to bring together Chinese and Dutch high-quality knowledge to address global challenges on a large scale. Examples include the environment and food safety. 

Research cooperation and knowledge exchange with China also keeps alive the dialogue between Dutch and Chinese researchers. This dialogue is certainly subject to limitations due to the lack of academic freedom in China, but as mentioned above, it does help us understand developments in China. Although it may not be fashionable in times of surging geopolitical tensions, with doors slamming shut more quickly all the time, it is exactly for that reason particularly important to remain in dialogue through academic contacts. 

How can we ensure a healthy and mutually beneficial cooperation with minimal strategic, ethical and security risks? How do you do this with a ‘strategic competitor’ and ‘systemic rival’, as China has been designated by the European Union, with a country that has the ambition to become leading and self-sufficient in science? There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education, Culture and Science, D66) is talking about tailored strategies and following a narrow path between ‘two ditches’: that of naïve openness on the one hand and of closing down everything and suffocating on the other. This is beautifully said but difficult to do. There is a significant grey area where developments are moving so fast that what we consider safe today can contribute to military applications tomorrow. 


Major steps are now being taken on the safety side by managing the risks. The Netherlands leads Europe through the National Knowledge Security Guidelines, the Contact Point for Knowledge Security (where universities can pose their questions about the risks of specific cooperation projects) and a[id3]  Screening Knowledge Security Act [BE4] [id5] that is currently being prepared. This law aims to screen individuals who wish to carry out research in knowledge institutions in sensitive technology areas. Universities are now also working together on measures and on increasing awareness of the risks.

Such measures are necessary. But we also need to continue to offer opportunities for cooperation that is safe and fruitful. We need to focus on three things. First, the creation of financial distance from China. Research in the Netherlands should not be financed through Chinese government scholarship programmes that are subject to political conditions, but through equivalent financial contributions by all parties involved. In addition, practical measures should be put in place to ensure academic integrity and freedom in cooperation with China. There is still too little discussion about this at present. 

Finally, we need the political flexibility to view scientific cooperation with China not only through a geopolitical and ideological lens, but to also consider societal and personal well-being, as well as Dutch strategic interests in science, technology and innovation.

However complex it may be, we need scientific cooperation with China. Otherwise, the prospects for solving societal and global problems and for the Dutch leading position in science and technology may quickly take a turn for the worse.

This opinion by Ingrid D’Hooghe, coordinator and senior research fellow at the Clingendael China Centre, has previously been published in Dutch newspaper NRC on 5 May 2023.