The Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter has obtained evidence of letters being written by Chinese doctoral students before their entry into Sweden apparently “swearing loyalty” to the ruling Communist party in their home country, among other agreements.
The regime requires that they also must “serve the interests of the regime” and “never participate in ‘activities’ that go against the will of the authorities”, the report said.
In addition, the agreement states that there is a possibility that if they go against what is written in the letters, or if their education is “interrupted” their families in China could end up being in financial debt to the state.
The newspaper mentioned the Karolinska Institute, Lund University, Uppsala University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm – and said it had identified at least 30 students who went through the Chinese Scholarship Council stream and had signed these agreements.
“This is exactly how dictatorships work”
The CSC is run by China’s education ministry, and promotes international academic exchange with universities across the world – hundreds of Chinese students go through it every year to destinations in the US, UK, Sweden and others.
“What really worried me was that there is also a wording that the student’s guarantor, who is usually a close relative, cannot leave the country for an extended period as long as the student is staying abroad,” said David Gisselsson Nord, vice dean for internationalisation at Lund University’s medical department.
“This is exactly how dictatorships work, that the family is held hostage in the home country. It is unpleasant,” he continued.
The first alarm bells rang when a student enrolled at Lund University began struggling with his exams and coursework, and was advised not to continue with his course.
“The student then became worried and said the decision would mean big problems for his family in China,” Nord recalled – namely, a letter signed by his relatives stating that they would be liable for damages if he didn’t finish his studies.
“We were surprised, because we had never heard of such a contract,” he added.
However, Nord said that it was only when another student enrolled and they asked to check their documents that they found the letters in question.
This caused other universities to begin looking into student contracts. The Karolinska Institute, one of Sweden’s top research universities which regularly receives over 30 students a year through collaboration with the CSC – also picked up on the possibility of the existence of the letters.
“There are uncertainties, for example what is meant by going against the interests of the Chinese state,” said Bob Harris, VC for research studies at the Karolinska Institute.
“We had never heard of such a contract”
“For the time being we have decided not to admit more research students via CSC,” he continued.
Speaking to The PIE News, Harris elaborated on what had been said in the DN report – he insisted that while the essence of the letters has been put into DN’s findings, it is not the “exact wording” of the documents.
“The reality is that we know that CSC beneficiaries (students and researchers) have already signed this document.
“As a consequence, we have informed all hosts of CSC beneficiaries of the existence of the contract and its potential consequences for the individuals concerned, as well as the actions we are taking internally (negotiating with CSC),” Harris said.
“It is our responsibility to inform all concerned, and leadership at all central and departmental levels has received the same explanatory information. We expect all students and staff at our university should have the possibility for good experiences during their time with us, irrespective of their funding source, and as such we reminded all hosts to be caring and diligent to follow the progress of the CSC beneficiaries, but just as we say to all our staff,” he continued.
Stefan Östlund, vice rector for international relations at the Royal Institute of Technology – locally known as KTH – has refuted the allegations, saying there has been “no evidence” of the letters.
“We are in talks with Karolinska and CSC about these letters, but in all the years that we have had CSC students, we have never heard or received signals that students would have been harmed because of these letters,” he told DN when approached.
He continued that he couldn’t be “100% sure”, but staff at the university who speak Chinese have “never picked up signals” of any wrongdoing of that kind.
Asked regarding the line in the letters signalling students should not “act in the interest of the state”, Östlund was clear that it was a cultural message and was “nothing strange”.
“I interpret it as that they should behave and do well when they are abroad. Most scholarship organisations have letters like this,” he said.
Despite KTH not pausing its program application portal – which is still available – Uppsala University and Lund have said they will be concluding any involvement with the CSC.
While both Nord and Harris said they are “not critical of the students”, as the students they have worked with have always been “pleasant and well-educated”, Nord conceded there was too much pressure within the letters and it wasn’t in line with Sweden’s Higher Education Ordinance.
Harris told DN that they have been negotiating on the subject since May 2022, but a decision still has not been made.
“In our negotiations we are first and foremostly focused on understanding what the text means – what would constitute a breach of the contract and who would judge that to be the case,” he further elaborated to The PIE.
“Our focus here has been on getting agreement that it is Swedish cultural norms that should prevail for CSC beneficiaries attending our university in Sweden. In Sweden, the right to freedom of expression is the norm,” he added.
Östlund said that people must “know what China is like” as a country on the world stage, but that all countries want their students to represent them well and behave appropriately.
He insisted that despite the allegation that the letters do not conform to the students’ right to freedom of expression, KTH “understands the problem” and now has a dialogue with the CSC.
“We cooperate with many countries that have different rules and a different culture than our own, and then there is often a balancing act,” he added.