University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


PhD student on controversial Chinese contract: »I feel completely free«

Research — The University of Copenhagen has halted the admission of Chinese PhD students after media revelations of Chinese regime loyalty contracts. Xin Qian — a PhD student with a loyalty contract — is upset about the decision.

In the historic premises of the Niels Bohr Institute on Blegdamsvej street, the Chinese PhD student Xin Qian often stands with his foreign colleagues in front of a whiteboard. Magic markers in hand, they try to solve long formulas that make the connection between gravity and quantum mechanics.

»We have a completely different approach to the formulas, but this is only a strength,« he says about the international collaboration at the famous department.

But a new decision from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) may mean that there will be fewer Chinese PhD students like Xin Qian in the future – and he is concerned about what the consequences may be for international collaboration.

Danish newspaper Information has recently revealed that UCPH has 139 Chinese PhD students who have signed contracts stipulating that they will serve the interests of their own domestic regime and that they will never participate in activities that are contrary to the Chinese authorities’ wishes. In response, UCPH has decided to halt the intake of new students who have signed the controversial contracts.

But this is a decision that frustrates Xin Qian.

»It’s good for everyone concerned when we exchange our ideas across the world in physics. That’s why I really hope that this decision will not get in the way of that,« he says.

Controversial contracts

Kim Brinckmann, deputy director at the University of Copenhagen, told Information that UCPH wants the enrolled students to complete their degree programme as already agreed.

»But while we are investigating this matter, it is only natural that we put further enrolment on hold,« he said.

The so-called CSC students have received a scholarship from the Chinese Scholarship Council to take their PhD degree abroad. In order to get the scholarship, however — and according to Information — you need to sign a contract that, on top of a loyalty to the regime requirement, also requires that students return directly to China after their studies.

No numbers are available for how many Chinese CSC students do not return home after graduation, but official data from the Chinese Ministry of Education shows that 80 per cent of Chinese students abroad between 2016 and 2019 returned to China. The contracts are also testimony to the fact that China has an interest in PhD students returning.

At the same time, the students appoint guarantors – typically family members – who have to repay a part of the scholarship if the students interrupt their PhD studies.

But these requirements do not deter Xin Qian. He was surprised when he found out that UCPH had suspended admissions.

»There is nothing that concerns me in this contract. I feel completely free here, and I have more concerns about how it will damage the exchange of ideas across the world, which is something that boosts science,« he says.

General patriotism

Despite the wording about being loyal to the regime, he says that he in no way feels constrained by the contract.

»I have understood it mostly as a general patriotism and not that I may not take a critical approach. I have certainly not thought about it as something that restricts my behaviour or freedom of speech. If I did, I would also have hesitated to do this interview,« he says.

In Xin Qian’s case, it is his sister and a fellow student from China who have signed as guarantors and are liable if he does not complete his PhD because his parents had difficulty with the digital signature. According to him, it is one third of the scholarship that would have to be repaid, and in his case that is about DKK 100,000. But it does not concern him.

»It’s not like my sister will go to prison or something. And I intend to complete the programme, so I do not worry about that part of the contract. I think it’s mostly part of the contract to avoid people cheating and getting the money from CSC without doing any research at all.«

The last clause in the contract that has been up for discussion is the requirement to return home after the programme. This does not worry him either.

»As I see it, China wants you to travel out into the world and get smarter, and then return and teach others what you have learnt.. But this is nothing worse than having to spend two years of my life back in my home province of Anhui, where I continue working, and then freely being able to travel out into the world again. It’s like a bridge across the world, where both countries get smarter.«

Xin Qian, who has also taken his master’s degree at the Niels Bohr Institute, says that he also plans to do a postdoc here when he has completed his PhD programme in two years time.

»You can apply for it, and it should be pretty easy to be allowed to do this, because it is probably in everyone’s interest that I become a physicist at an even higher level.«

Cross-disciplinary research

You can take a wider perspective on the interrupted collaboration, according to Xin Qian. And that is that everyone loses something on limiting international co-operation. In his daily life, the only Danes he works with are his supervisor and a postdoc – the others are Chinese, Austrians and Italians. And during his master’s degree, it was a Greek physicist, in particular, that he worked with. He sees the diverse backgrounds as a strength.

»When I, as a Chinese physicist, get together with Greek physicists and try to solve the same formula, we have completely different ways of thinking – and this elevates the level of science,« he says.

That is why he thinks it will harm everyone when UCPH now temporarily stops the intake of new CSC students. Because Chinese students get the chance to go out into the world and learn more, just as the world benefits from their different thinking approach.

»And it’s no secret that we Chinese are enormously hardworking, and this is something that is of benefit to the Niels Bohr Institute.«

The exchange of ideas across the world plays a central part in the Niels Bohr Institute’s history. The buildings on Blegdamsvej street became the focal point of international physics at the famous Copenhagen conferences from the late 1920s onwards – and the international research environment has existed since then.

READ MORE: The Niels Bohr Institute’s unique history

It was the history of the Niels Bohr Institute, and the high standards of research resulting from this tradition, that had Xin Qian applying to come to Copenhagen in the first place.

»Europe and the US are far more developed in terms of theoretical physics. I would not be able to reach the same level in China at all. It is partly a result of the international collaboration, and it is a shame if this is now made that little bit harder. I don’t think it either helps the Chinese students or science as a whole.«