This blogpost argues that Chinese influence on Swiss Universities is smaller than commonly believed. The author argues we should differentiate between the experience of indirect effects from domestic regulations by a geopolitical giant and actual influence operations. A strong political reaction due to inaccurate analyses risks unnecessary confrontation and diplomatic damage. The blog is based on the findings of the author’s master thesis, which relies on many anonymized interviews as sources. For more information, please contact the author directly.
By Felipe Fischer
China’s global influence operations have drawn more attention in recent years. One interesting target of those efforts is academia, as influence operations on universities have been observed in many countries like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. Several Swiss newspapers and even the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service claimed it is happening in Switzerland too. This seemed especially credible since a recent paper demonstrated how the CCP influences “society and economic and political circles in Switzerland”. To find out more about these claims, I performed an exploratory study of China’s involvement in Swiss higher education through the theoretical perspective of discourse power. In other words, I tried to understand 1) if and how Chinese actors are trying to influence the narrative on China in Swiss academic institutions and 2) how strongly involved China is in academic fields that are vulnerable to be influenced by narratives (i.e. social sciences and humanities). In this article I will briefly present my preliminary findings and provide some policy recommendations.
- In quantitative terms (including number of collaborations, co-publications, exchange students, mobility partnerships) Chinese involvement in Swiss universities is only moderate. Despite the PRC being present in most Swiss universities, they are far less involved than in other Western countries and not significantly more than in other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea (e.g. China ranks only 16th of all SNSF-funded collaborations and the great majority is in “hard” sciences).
- There is no evidence of Chinese universities pushing for a China-friendly discourse in Swiss academia. No systematic features of China’s global influence operations (e.g. pro-activeness and co-optation) have been detected. Even party-members, among Chinese university delegations on visits, did not intervene in discussions. Instead, I observed a different pattern. The Chinese government set conditions of what their researchers could and could not do when collaborating with Swiss research institutions (e.g. limited data exchange). Thus, Chinese scholars became more reluctant to cooperate and were sometimes restricted to do so. The only discursive efforts I observed from Chinese universities were not targeting the Swiss discourse, but China’s itself. In the case of propaganda / external publicity activities, Swiss academic actors or institutions were instrumentalized for China’s domestic propaganda. Overall, these cases illustrate how the PRC is mainly focusing on protecting its domestic discourse from possible foreign influence, rather than trying to influence the discourse in Switzerland. Hence, what we experience in Swiss academia is an indirect consequence of China’s increasing ideological control on its domestic discourse. Its ideological strictness on universities is affecting the international partners they cooperate with – especially with the ongoing internationalization and global power shift.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that two cases of self-censorship have been observed (of which one is publicly known). However, they could not be traced back to PRC involvement. Rather, I think them to be individual decisions by Swiss actors that fear the PRC’s position of strength and rule of sanctions.
- The main actors pushing a China-friendly discourse in Switzerland are the Chinese embassy and its consulate. They conduct co-optation and propaganda activities to promote their discourse. Furthermore, they fend off critical voices by marking their presence and preventing potentially critical voices from accessing China. But there is no evidence of sanctions against individuals or institutions for criticizing the PRC.
What does this mean for Swiss foreign policy? (Policy recommendations):
- Do not overestimate China’s weight and influence. Protective measures (e.g. funding or investment prohibition) against China can lead to a strong economic backlash, especially for Switzerland which cannot rely on the support of the European Union. If a protective measure should be introduced, do not mention China specifically – a strategy Japan pursues successfully.
- Do not judge China’s actions too quickly. We need to understand China’s system and its interest first, before taking action. Just because a Chinese national rule affects cooperation with Swiss universities does not mean that the PRC directly conducts influence in Switzerland. Moreover, China’s priorities lie in China itself. Its actions are first and foremost directed towards a domestic audience. The key question to be tackled here is how to cooperate with China, without (subtly) submitting to its rules and values.
- Save resources and focus on the right actors. Party-cadres in university delegations and Chinese scholars do not seem to be the main driver of the PRC’s discursive efforts. According to my research even the Confucius Institute does not seem to be a Chinese propaganda organ (although academically restricted by Chinese law due to its funding). The important actors that truly push for a China-friendly discourse are the Chinese consulate and embassy.
Image credits: Annie Spratt on Unsplash