Government investigates potential risk posed by Chinese PhD candidates

Chinese PhD candidates attending Dutch universities on a scholarship sometimes pass on sensitive information to China, according to various media reports. After months of delay, Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf announced he is is launching an investigation.

Replying to written questions from VVD MP Hatte van der Woude, Dijkgraaf said it is conceivable that China might be using the China Scholarship Council, which provides scholarships to Chinese PhD candidates, to acquire advanced knowledge and technology.


Chinese PhD candidates wishing to go abroad on a CSC scholarship must toe the communist party line and sign declarations of loyalty. This has caused disquiet in Europe.

In Germany, for example, Chinese PhD candidates are sometimes obliged to regularly document their academic progress and provide information on their academic colleagues at the university where they are doing their PhD to their embassy or consulate. Family members in China must be named as personal guarantors for every candidate for the duration of their PhD. They are liable for the costs if the candidate terminates the programme prematurely or their academic performance is inadequate. The amounts involved can be as high as 75 thousand euros.

It would indeed be ‘undesirable’ if this were also happening in the Netherlands, Dijkgraaf thinks, although he is unwilling to make any firm conclusions just yet. It took an unusually long time – several months – to receive a reply to the parliamentary questions.

While admitting that he has received indications of PhD candidates reporting to their embassy or consulate, he also added that ‘it is difficult to determine precisely how much influence the Chinese authorities exert on individual PhD candidates’. He said he had not heard that family members were required to act as personal guarantors for PhD candidates in the Netherlands.


Dijkgraaf has now announced that an investigation will be carried out into ‘the total number of PhD candidates on a CSC as well as the fields in which they are active in the Netherlands’. The investigation should also provide greater insight into ‘the type of contractual conditions’ under which the PhD candidates come to work in the Netherlands.

Furthermore, he intends to ask Universities of The Netherlands (UNL) whether stricter requirements should be imposed on international scholarship providers. Every university is currently undertaking a risk analysis of knowledge security, Dijkgraaf added, which also includes scholarship programmes and PhD candidates on scholarships.


He is anxious to stress the importance of being mindful of nuance: ‘Knowledge security risks rarely arise from a single factor alone, such as a loyalty statement.’ The ‘degree of access to sensitive knowledge’ and ‘the existence of financial and other ties to an institution and/or government or authority’ also play a role.

There could be a danger, for example, of Western scientific research being used to assist the Chinese military. For example, 93 PhD candidates came to the Netherlands to attend a university after completing a Master’s degree at a military college.

At the same time, the media is also focusing on the position of PhD candidates themselves. Their monthly grant is often too meagre to pay for living expenses. Critics believe that universities should provide them with more support.

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