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China Scholarship Council – prestigious or precarious?

“In order to implement the national strategy of building a talent superpower (人才强国) and rejuvenating the nation through science and education, and to meet the needs of the national talent training plans and career development (事业发展), Party A has accepted the application and agrees to sponsor Party B…”

One of Sweden’s foremost newspapers revealed in an investigation that some Chinese students were signing so-called "loyalty pledges" to the Chinese Communist Party. Photo: pixabay

In 2020, the University of North Texas abruptly ended its relationship with the CSC

This is how one China Scholarship Council’s agreement, according to a 2020 translation from Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology, begins. Students are required to sign this before they travel to take up their scholarship roles.

In 2023, however, universities in Sweden found the agreement wasn’t just about how they must study the major they originally selected and only stay for a certain amount of time.

One of Sweden’s foremost newspapers, revealed in an investigation that some Chinese students were signing so-called “loyalty pledges” to the Chinese Communist Party, and that guarantors – often the students’ parents – would face serious financial consequences if any parts of the deal were reneged upon.

Two universities – Lund and Uppsala – have already ceased their deals with the CSC, and the KTH is also negotiating with the nonprofit to get to the bottom of the allegations.

It’s not the first time that universities have cut ties with the CSC. In 2020, a scandal arose as the University of North Texas abruptly ended its relationship with the organisation, sending researchers home in the middle of a pandemic.

“UNT took this action based upon specific and credible information following detailed briefings from federal and local law enforcement,” the university’s VP for brand strategy Jim Berscheidt, said at the time.

“These are people doing research here internationally, and if we can just end their visas, what does that say about my status?”

The move spooked the university’s graduate student council, with one saying that no information was given about it until the last minute.

“There’s that thought of ‘these are people doing research here internationally, and if we can just end their visas, what does that say about my status as an international student?’” the council’s president Tiffany Miller said.

This occurred at a similar time as the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, under Donald Trump, released a staff report that alleged that the CSC “requires recipients to pledge allegiance to a Marxist-Leninist authoritarian regime”.

“The 2020 application guidelines for the three CSC programs surveyed in this staff report all insist that applicants ‘support the leadership of the Communist Party and the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics; love the motherland; have a sense of responsibility to serve the country, society, and the people; and to have a correct world view, outlook on life, and values system’,” the report read.

Stefan Östlund, VP for global relations at KTH – the institution reviewing its CSC involvement – explained to The PIE News that while “loyalty pledges” is strong wording, it’s not uncommon.

“It is not unusual that international scholarships come with specific requirements. In the case of China that typically means loyalty to the country.

“As we know, this is the agreement between the scholarship provider and the student. The student would never get this scholarship otherwise. There is a large number of CSC students all over the world at different universities in North America, Europe, and Asia,” Östlund said.

CSC students are all over the world, and while few and far between, incidents have occurred that have raised suspicion among universities and governments.

As recently as January 2023, a Chinese engineer who went to the US to study electrical engineering at Illinois University of Technology, was sentenced to eight years in prison for spying.

In addition, US-based dissident Jie Lijian cited some noticeably odd behaviour of Chinese students at USC after the Beijing Sitong Bridge protest in October, 2022, opposing the CCP rule in China.

Some posters put up by Chinese students supporting the protests were subsequently ripped down by other students, supposedly loyal to the Communist regime.

Lijian said the students even took “pride in being able to report the rebels” to Chinese police – so they could even risk arrest when returning to China.

The EUR in Rotterdam also released a statement ending its relationship with the CSC in August 2022, claiming it had identified language akin to swearing loyalty to the CCP and veiled threats of financial ruin for guarantors if students didn’t conduct themselves as seen fit by the regime.

Through translation, a 2022 dated page on the CSC’s website seems to confirm that this language is used in basic articles of agreement.

So, then, what about the countless universities across the world that have agreements with the organisation?

The PIE contacted a range of universities, whose websites demonstrate previous or active agreements with the CSC. Although an official list of the partner universities around the world is unavailable, only one Google search shows how many still have agreements.

“It is not unusual that international scholarships come with specific requirements”

From institutions in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US, only three wrote back – one from Canada, and two from Australia.

The Australian National University, who had a working agreement with the CSC up until May 2021, has said discussions are “currently underway about possible future arrangements” with the CSC, almost two years after the MoU expired.

“ANU has a robust process to prevent foreign interference, which includes a group of senior staff reviewing all potential partnerships. International partnerships cannot be entered into without this group’s approval,” a spokesperson told The PIE.

It was not confirmed whether these discussions have been happening for that period of time, or whether they have been restarted after a period.

The University of Melbourne towed a similar line. While it has an active agreement with the CSC, it said students must follow the institution’s student charter wherever they hail from. It also insisted that due diligence is undergone on “all of its scholarship programs”.

In the UK, the University of Reading also confirmed to The PIE that its agreement with the CSC was still active.

“We offer two joint PhD scholarships to CSC students each year and this is the same for 2023 entry,” the spokesperson elaborated.

Like ANU, the university assured that it offers “help and support to all international students on applying, funding and studying on their course”, as is appropriate to their “individual circumstances”, they said.

While universities were noticeably reluctant to offer more on their agreements with the CSC, with so many different universities across the globe there is clearly a benefit to both universities and students, with hundreds still travelling round the globe to study at institutions.

Whether some universities know what is being signed behind closed doors, however, is a question that remains unanswered.

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