Germany’s contentious China debate

Sascha Klotzbücher's picture

In an op-ed (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung F..A.Z., March 9), Sinology professors Bjoern Alpermann (University of Wuerzburg) and Gunter Schubert (University of Tuebingen) branded criticism of self-censorship and appeasement within German-language China studies toward the Chinese government as "crusaderism“. (

With ad hominem allegations rarely seen in German academic contexts, both authors called discussants of this academic discourse „moral crusaders“ (author's translation) and established China scholars were labelled as „new crusaders“ (author's translation). Alpermann and Schubert brushed away arguments by claiming that there is no evidence for a growing influence of China on German China studies.

Andreas Fulda (University of Nottingham), Mareike Ohlberg (German Marshall Fund), David Missal (Sinologist and Tibet Initiative), Horst Fabian (independent scholar), and Sascha Klotzbuecher (University of Goettingen) have replied with their own op-ed titled "Willing to compromise without limits?" (F.A.Z., March 16).

You can read the German version here (paywalled):  

Pre-print of the German version:


English  translation of the op-ed:

Willing to compromise without limits?


In view of Xi's policy of repression, China studies must rethink its role. Ignoring problems and stigmatizing critical voices are the wrong way to go. A reply to an op-ed by Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert.  


By Andreas Fulda, Mareike Ohlberg, David Missal, Horst Fabian and Sascha Klotzbücher.


Last week, sinology professors Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert branded the criticism of self-censorship and appeasement within German-language China studies toward the Chinese government that has flared up in recent years as "crusaderism" (F.A.Z., March 9). Critics of the conformist course, including authors of this article, were defamed as "moral crusaders" and stigmatized as defilers of their own nests. The authors brush away arguments by claiming that there is no evidence for a growing influence of China on German China studies.


The opposite is true: In the International Journal of Human Rights, Andreas Fulda and David Missal criticize on an empirical basis that "China research at German universities [is] highly dependent on 'questionable' funding and many of its China-related study programs could no longer be offered without financial support from the People's Republic of China." Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships. This thesis is based on more than a hundred requests to public authorities made by Missal under freedom of information laws, which can be viewed on the website There, it is documented that German universities receive several million euros from China every year without much effort, often several hundred thousand euros per university. Both the University of Würzburg and the University of Tübingen, where Alpermann and Schubert teach, have left the inquiries unanswered.


That the grants are not trivial sums becomes clear when one considers all the things that can and often are financed with them: Endowed professorships; research assistants for senior professors in the context of projects financed by the German side; financial project support at German universities, entire conferences at German universities or at least the travel expenses of the Chinese members; lectures, conference attendance and travel expenses of German university personnel in China; lectures applied for funding at a Confucius Institute and thus formally organized by it, including room rent and catering; sinological journals; subsidized teaching at sinology or Chinese studies courses by personnel sent from China, and much more.


Furthermore, Alpermann and Schubert doubt that German universities are dependent on Chinese donors. But even very small financial contributions lead to considerable dislocations. According to Freie Universität Berlin's (FU) vice president for international affairs, Verena Blechinger-Talcott, an endowed professorship at the FU is funded with 500,000 euros for five years from China, initially with Beijing as the judicial arbitration site. In a public hearing before the Berlin House of Representatives on May 17, 2021, Blechinger-Talcott stated for the record: "It was about a professorship for teaching Chinese ... for which we had and have no own funding possibilities in the budget of Freie Universität (authors' translation)." Berlin State Secretary Steffen Krach replied "that the FU is always in a position" to "finance this independently (authors' translation)."


As recently as September 2020, Duisburg-based China scholar Thomas Heberer argued at an expert discussion organized by the Left Party: "The only thing coming out of the Confucius Institute is language instruction in the master's program, because the university itself has no funds to hire additional teachers (authors' translation)." The Confucius Institutes and the professors of Chinese and East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen involved in it had hit the headlines in October 2021 after the presentation of a biography of Xi Jinping by journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges was initially canceled without comment at the behest of the Chinese Consul General in Düsseldorf. Neither the Confucius Institute nor the university, but only the publisher who had been disinvited, had publicized this self-censorship. The then Federal Minister of Education, Karliczek, then advised universities in a letter to the German Rectors' Conference to review their cooperation with the Confucius Institutes and to seek exchange with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service. Contrary to Alpermann and Schubert's assumption, there are indeed financial and institutional dependencies.


Mareike Ohlberg, a staff member of the German Marshall Fund, is accused by the authors of serving and reinforcing a "China-critical narrative in the German and international media (authors' translation)" with her research. It is understandable that media coverage of China has become more critical independently of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the People's Republic in light of the People's Republic's regression to an autocratic leader state, the cultural genocide in Xinjiang, the suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the threatening military gestures toward Taiwan. Alpermann and Schubert, meanwhile, do not shy away from resorting to a popular motif of Chinese propaganda: Allegedly controlled by the United States, Western media paint as negative a picture of the People's Republic as possible. What they omit is how the Chinese government itself contributes to this image. The decoupling of the communication spheres between Europe and China is not, as the authors believe, attributable to the "'decoupling delusion' of a China-critical narrative of politically interested circles (authors' translation)," but rather the logical consequence of the "Great Firewall," with which the party-state shields the Chinese population from the outside world.


Naming the price of access


Alpermann and Schubert postulate three prerequisites for a proper engagement with China: "First, access to the country; second, the rejection of a 'moral aptitude test' for China researchers; and third, adherence to dialogue with Chinese universities (authors' translation)." All three points play an important role, but they must not lead to a situation in which China research is blindfolded and only studies what is tolerated by the Chinese side. This kind of research would make itself obsolete.


Sascha Klotzbücher has shown in his research that field research by foreign China scholars in the People's Republic of China takes place in a highly monitored, politically restricted field. The act of self-censorship associated with the inevitable "embeddedness" that is consciously or unconsciously demanded, especially upon entry, must be disclosed and methodologically anchored.


At no point do the authors refer to the self-critical discussion that has been going on for years, unfortunately only by a few, about the state of the discipline, the role of intellectuals in China, and the field approach of China studies. Instead, they argue for "creative research strategies (authors' translation)" and "tactical compromises in research design (authors' translation)" to maintain field access. What these trade-offs consist of, however, they do not elaborate. Here they miss the opportunity to provide examples of what compromises they themselves made and what they achieved as a result. Also missing is a reflection on what influence such trade-offs have on epistemological content and how this can be made clear methodologically. As Samantha Hoffman has shown in her doctoral dissertation on regime security, it is possible to conduct excellent China research from abroad without field access. Since it would have been impossible to conduct interviews with cadres on this topic, she relied on publicly available party documents. On this basis, she was able to outline the methods the Communist Party uses to defend its authority.


The value of interpersonal contacts between Chinese and Western academics is undeniable. However, the authors fail to note the extent to which the Communist Party hinders open exchanges between China and Germany. For example, Mimi Leung reports for University World News that it has "has greatly restricted the number of academics and researchers allowed to physically attend conferences overseas" and that "(the) rules have now been extended to online conferences." Participants, Leung added, "must undertake to keep secretsand not jeopardise the reputation of Chinese institutions." Professors at Chinese universities go to jail for critical blog posts or, like Xu Zhangrun, are banned from the university for his criticism of Xi's Corona crisis management. When Deng Xiangchao criticized Mao Zedong in 2017 for the millions of deaths caused by the "Great Leap Forward," he was promptly dismissed. In this respect, there are reasonable doubts about Alpermann and Schubert's general assertion that Chinese universities are places where "there are opportunities for critical debate with Western perspectives on China, and vice versa (authors' translation)."


China research in a dilemma


Of particular concern, however, is the authors' use of questionable crusador metaphors to devalue legitimate discourse about the self-understanding and norms of China studies. From their professorial pulpit fellow scholars and other professional participants in the discourse are dismiss as "new crusaders." With the attribute "moral" they try to neutralize their arguments as being alien to science. Neglecting relevant facts, they limit themselves to personal attacks. In doing so, they themselves leave the realm of academic discourse. Their polemical threats of exclusion are an obvious attempt to discipline the field of China studies.


Sinology, which originated as textual scholarship, has evolved into social scientific China studies in recent decades. Access to the field has been attained through intensively cultivated, often individual, partnerships and friendships. The desire to continue contact with China is understandable. At the same time, however, the space for free academia and cooperation is visibly narrowing there. Methodologically, this ambivalence catches Chinese studies unprepared. All of a sudden, they have to put their own sinological research position in the spotlight and justify it publicly.


This confronts them with a dilemma: cooperation with possibly bad compromises or free science in the service of truth? What consequences are to be drawn from this must urgently be discussed internally in academia and on a political level. At both levels, the goal must be to ensure academic standards: openness, authenticity, commitment to truth, the right of doubt and criticism.


Such criteria will be difficult to enforce if the willingness to compromise demanded by the totalitarian party-state is signaled in advance as the price of academic cooperation. It is quite astonishing how many German scholars of China do not question the official narrative in their choice of topics and methods. The situation resembles the schism between Putin-understanders and -critics in the Russia debate. For China studies not to become an end in itself, but to produce knowledge and benefits for society here as well as there, a paradigm shift is needed. An open debate without regard to sensitivities and well-trodden patterns of cooperation is overdue.


Andreas Fulda is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.


Mareike Ohlberg is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. 


David Missal is a sinologist and human rights activist with the Tibet Initiative Germany.


Horst Fabian conducts research on Cuba and the PRC and works as a citizen diplomat to promote cooperative civil society relations between Europe and China.


Sascha Klotzbücher is the Acting Chair of Society and Economics of Modern China at the East Asian Seminar of the University of Göttingen.


This text appeared in the March 16, 2022 print edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.) in Forschung und Lehre.






Dear all,

Since it is always important to hear the arguments of both sides, and for the sake of completeness, here is the link to an English translation of the original FAZ op-ed text by Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert: ,

and to parts of a debate enfolding afterwards on LinkedIn, including another response by B. Alpermann and G. Schubert: .  

Best regards,
Anna Ahlers

Thanks to Professor Ahlers for providing the links.

For those who have not been following, the full debate is very much worth checking out.

I would like to second Thomas DuBois's recommendation to follow (and contribute to) this debate. Beyond the German specifics (which, for instance, involve constitutional law aspects not applicable elsewhere), it deals with an issue that is relevant to China scholars anywhere: Can China scholars be trusted to conduct research in and on China involving cooperation with Chinese partners in a politically and ethically responsible manner? Or do dependencies (e.g., financial or visa-related) created by cooperation with Chinese colleagues and institutions disqualify them from making that judgment call and require regulation of China-related research by Western governments, funding agencies, and university administrations?

This affects everyone outside of the PRC engaged in any kind of scientific cooperation with PRC-based institutions: scholars in the humanities as well the social and natural sciences, engineering and industry-supported research, universities that maintain branch campuses, research centres, or study-abroad programmes in the PRC, etc.

Similar issues are probably already being debated in other national academic communities; connecting these debates might be mutually enlightening for all.

Philip Clart
Leipzig University, Germany

On Thursday, 24 March Professor Schubert asked me via LinkedIn to provide more specific information about my work on financial dependencies in the British higher education sector. Please find below my reply from Friday, 25 March 2022 (translated from German with the help of DeepL):

"Gunter Schubert

I have summarized my experiences in the UK in an article for APuZ:

Fulda (2021), Preserving Science Autonomy. China and science in the UK, February 12, 2021, From Politics and Contemporary History.

I am also a member of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG).

We have developed a Model Code of Conduct for UK universities.

I have also advised the University of Nottingham, Universities UK, the Foreign Affairs Committee, APPG Hong Kong, and the Cabinet Office on reducing institutional and financial dependencies from China.

As you can see, we have been advocating for greater transparency and accountability in higher education here in the UK for some time."

Translated with (free version)

In a LinkedIn post from Friday, 25 March Professor Alpermann raised the issue of financial dependencies on China in British higher education. He argued that funding from China to German universities can only be measured in the thousandths. Even with unreported contributions he suggested that they unlikely make up more than 0,6% of the total amount of public funding for German universities (32,7 billion Euro). Please find below my response from Friday, 25 March (translated from German with the help of DeepL).

"Björn Alpermann

In my opinion, third-party funding plays an (overly) important role in the UK as well as in Germany. 

Matthias Becker has shown in an article for Deutschlandfunk Kultur that basic funding is not always sufficient for research. 

And it is idle to compare the percentage of funding from China with the total amount of public funding to German universities. Measured against Germany's gross domestic product (GDP) of 3,570.6 billion (2021), the 32.7 billion in spending on German universities that you cite is also only less than 1% of GDP. Such comparisons are naturally lopsided. 

From the perspective of individual scientists and their research institutes-especially in the humanities and social sciences-annual project funds of 100,000 euros and more already represent a lot of money. German universities should therefore also create transparency in the field of sinology and social science research on China."

Translated with (free version)

Since Dr. Andreas Fulda posted his reply to Björn Alpermann’s LinkedIn comment regarding "Chinese money at German universities" ( it might be useful to get a bit of context.

In November 2021 Andreas Fulda and David Missal were invited to a roundtable discussion on alleged pernicious influences by China in German universities and Chinese studies more generally at the annual ASC conference (Association for Social Science Research on China – a sub-division of the German Association of Asian Studies, DGA). In particular, we discussed the then-recently published article:
Andreas Fulda & David Missal (2021): Mitigating threats to academic freedom in Germany: the role of the state, universities, learned societies and China, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1989412

In this text the authors make far-reaching claims about how much German universities are, in their view, overly reliant on “questionable third party funding” including from Chinese sources. Inter alia, they write: “This [increasing reliance on industry and other third-party funding] is all the more a problem since by now one in four posts at German universities are funded by third parties.” (p.5).
Here, they mix up – whether deliberately or unintentionally – several unrelated things. Yes, there is a great number of research positions in German universities that are being paid for by third parties. Yet, the great majority of these are funded by public money – disbursed by DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and others. In fact, the share of industry / private funding for universities has declined over the recent past. In 2009 it stood at 22.9 percent, ten years later in 2019 at only 17.2 percent. Presenting all third-party funded research positions as instances of “questionable” financial influences greatly distorts the picture. However, this is a constant trait in Dr. Fulda’s argumentation: Presenting figures and claiming influence without delivering any empirical evidence for how such influence might have played out. We find this unconvincing.

Something else is wrong in this image: The authors claim: “Yet in the wake of the Bologna process German universities were subject to cost-cutting measures and increasingly fierce inter-university competition.” (p.5). While competition per se may not be such a bad thing, the authors do not get their facts straight. In the year 2000, when the Bologna process began, German HE institutions spent an accumulated 33.7 billion DM, in 2020 the figure was 32.7 billion EUR – nearly double the earlier figure given the difference in currencies! In the years 2010 to 2019 alone public funding for German HE climbed by 46.2 percent (BLK-Bildungsfinanzbericht 2000/2001, 83; Statistisches Bundesamt, Bildungsfinanzbericht 2020, 55). Of course, many academics in Germany are still complaining about lack of funds and losing out on lucrative funding (“Exzellenzinitiative”), and one may find a lot to criticize regarding these trends. But the sheer numbers do not bear out the bold – though unsubstantiated – portrayal of German HE being bled out financially.

A last example for where Andreas and David’s text does not stand up to scrutiny: In the section on “suspicious party-state funding” they write – again without providing anything in terms of reference or evidence: “Many degree programmes at German universities could not be offered without funding from PRC entities.” (p.8). We sincerely doubt that and would love to see evidence for this bold claim. None has been provided so far.

It was this article, along with a companion piece ( that stimulated us to respond in our FAZ op-ed “An argument against moral crusading” (English version: We think that when the political stakes are high, we need to be all the more accurate in adhering to academic standards in making arguments and presenting data to support them. Yet, Andreas Fulda et al. have not come up with any additional evidence to back up their claims but simply chose to ignore our criticism of their flawed argument. That’s why we have come to believe that Dr. Fulda et al. are on a mission to evoke the impression of problematic, if not unacceptable Chinese influence at German universities. Yet. everything they present does not stand the test of academic scrutiny.

In the debate now ensuing via the German daily FAZ and on social media this trend continues. In their reply in the pages of FAZ (English version posted in this thread earlier) they write:
“Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships. This thesis is based on more than a hundred requests to public authorities made by Missal under freedom of information laws, which can be viewed on the website There, it is documented that German universities receive several million euros from China every year without much effort, often several hundred thousand euros per university. Both the University of Würzburg and the University of Tübingen, where Alpermann and Schubert teach, have left the inquiries unanswered.”

Leaving aside for the moment, that the authors apparently try to suggest that we somehow colluded in masking the sinister financing of our institutions by Chinese sources (which is utter nonsense), the fact of the matter is that David Missal’s request was only answered in a substantial way by less than ten universities. By our count there are six universities listed on his website that did provide concrete data on Chinese financing, the majority of them either declined to answer outright or stated plainly that there was no Chinese financing at their institutions. While Fulda et al. point at “more than a hundred requests” their effective sample is much smaller. This is exactly the type of half-truths and suggestive language that is typical for Fulda’s writings in particular.

Finally, coming to the sums involved. David Missal’s research – expanded to include open-source information on university co-operations with China – shows that “at least 1.9 million Euro per year on average” can be documented to flow from China into German higher education. In Björn Alpermann’s LinkedIn post he pointed out that this is equivalent to 0.06 permille (!) of official budgetary outlays by German governments at all levels for the university sector. Even if we assumed – hypothetically – that there is an extraordinary amount of undocumented financing, let’s say equivalent to one hundred times the documented funds, then this would still amount to just 0.6 percent of German higher education funding. This leads us to conclude that Fulda et al.’s claim “Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships.” is unsubstantiated. There is nothing “massive” going on here. One may, of course, question the wisdom of some cooperative arrangements. But we need to keep a sense of the proportions of the problem at hand and not engage in fear-mongering.

We share Dr. Fulda’s request for more transparency of third party funding at German universities - not only with respect to China, by the way. However, this is rather a technical problem as we understand it. To insinuate, again without any evidence, that German universities would withhold those figures for avoiding to be exposed as politically leaning to China, is itself highly problematic.

Björn Alpermann
Gunter Schubert