The Politics of Studying Europe in China

This is part of our special feature on Europe-China Relations.


It is difficult to disregard the importance of the relationship between Europe and China. The European Union (EU) is China’s biggest trading partner and China is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States. In order to enhance and consolidate relations with China, the EU has provided considerable research funding to Chinese universities over the years. Such programs initially took the form of aid[1] and have latterly been enacted through the EU-China Innovation cooperation and the Jean Monnet programs. While this mirrors the transformation of China from an aid recipient to a global player in the world economy, it raises several important questions regarding science policy more generally and the study of Europe in particular: When are the benefits from scientific cooperation outweighed by losses in mid- to long-term scientific competitiveness or political power? Do prospective economic benefits of engaging with China always trump losses? How can a European global science policy be sensitive to political circumstances and not compromise fundamental values such as freedom of expression, while still reaping the benefits of scientific cooperation? Does the EU with its efforts of promoting European Studies gain a political advantage over China? In short, what are the politics of studying Europe in China?


The Authoritarian Challenge to Open Science

The European Commission champions the cause for open science, global scientific collaboration and the early sharing of research results, even at the “pre-publication” stage (as with the plans for a European Open Science Cloud).[2] In recent years, funding has been made available beyond Europe through EU programs such as TEMPUS, Asia-Link and the Jean Monnet programs. The spending of the European Union for research and teaching support in Chinese universities has reached millions of euros (Song, 2012). But the EU is not the only funding channel. The picture gets more convoluted if one includes research funding initiatives by European member and non-member states, their funding institutions and private actors in science advocacy.[3] Moreover, embassies and delegations often support local initiatives and divert further funds into the academic sphere.

Global scientific cooperation is frequently presented as the way of the future. In this connection, Wagner et al. (2015, 12) conceive of the possible “shifting of power to some ‘peripheral’ nodes,” but merely interpret it as a chance for a more “efficient collective search” and more productivity. Nations, they write, “must learn to manage and benefit from a network,” which “operate by reciprocity, exchange, incentives, trust, and openness” (ibid, 12). Yet, trust and openness, to say the least, are far from guaranteed conditions in scientific cooperation with authoritarian regimes, which is what the People’s Republic of China (PRC), by any measure, still is. There is an inherent ambiguity in scientific cooperation in such a setting, which framed as a question reads as follows: to what extent can the EU’s science policy be ‘open to the world’ when much of the world is less open and often constituted by authoritarian regimes?

In authoritarian regimes, one might find structures of knowledge production that resemble those in democratic countries: university institutes, think tanks or academies of social sciences. These are often points of contact for scientific cooperation, as is the case with the EU’s science policy regarding China. But the resemblance might be superficial. A quick glance at Vietnam, also (formally) a Communist country, helps express the underlying ambiguities when open science policies meet a more closed authoritarian context. Take the Institute for European Studies in Hanoi, Vietnam, which is very active in research and boasts a series of EU funded research projects. The goals listed on its homepage read much like those of any other centre for European Studies.[4] In stark contrast, the Institute’s function is described on the homepage of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences as “researching basic issues of social sciences for countries and organizations in Europe to provide scientific arguments for the Party and State” (italics authors emphasis).[5] The question is: why would European funders be interested in procuring “scientific arguments” to the Vietnamese Party-State? What do “scientific arguments” mean in this context?

Existing literature offers little guidance on this question. Two landmark publications exist today regarding European Studies in Asia – Chirathivat and Lassen (1999); Holland, Jora and Ryan (2008). These volumes are very useful resources, full of details and reports on specific historical experiences, best current practices and expected future trajectories. This and similar literature that is available shows a tendency to understand the topic of European Studies in Asia largely along the lines of best practices in higher education and Asia-Europe cooperation (Chirathivat and Lassen 1997, 8). Similarly, an interesting EU funded project at the Free University of Brussels that finished in 2018 focused on governance and academic leadership of Chinese and European Universities (LEAD).[6] This is undoubtedly a legitimate and important research focus, but it misses the political dimension. We believe that the political environment should be taken more seriously as a constitutive variable in the attempt to explain and understand the study of Europe in Asia.

We assert that there is an immobility of knowledge regarding the knowledge produced in Asia, which is rooted in the political environment within which researchers and universities operate (Weber and Tarlea, 2018). This knowledge does not easily become publicly available. The study of Europe in Asia is not merely an academic affair, but it involves a complex network of actors, interests and aims. This interplay of actors is perhaps more evident in authoritarian contexts (which explains the focus of our research agenda); but the tension exists to some extents and fashions in democracies too. This means that openness in science is not universally embraced around the world and that governments have incentives not to share their results. Analysing the study of Europe in China provides a text book example for this immobility of knowledge. Think tanks closely linked to different ministries and the Communist Party are important players in Chinese academia, including in European Studies. Their interest is to provide expertise to the government rather than disseminate knowledge more broadly. A good example is the Institute for European Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (Zhongguo Xiandai Guoji Guanxi Yanjiuyuan 中国现代国际关系研究院), which apparently is affiliated with the Ministry of State Security and under the supervision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.[7]


European Studies with Chinese Characteristics

European Studies as an academic discipline comes in different colours today. In Asia, where the effects of European colonialism continue to be felt and remembered, a broader understanding of European Studies (including the study of European languages, history, philosophy, and cultures) continues to be operative in many places. In China, however, the emphasis is largely on EU Studies. Today, a diverse landscape of European studies exists in China: several professional associations and societies,[8] a host of publications and research outlets and at least two dozen Institutes and Centres for European Studies all around the country.[9]

Historically, European Studies in China have been intimately linked with the beginning of Western European integration processes and hark back to the 1950s, when government entities started producing analyses, and to the 1960s, when areas were established and distributed among the universities (Western Europe becoming the precinct of Fudan University and Eastern Europe, together with the Soviet Union, was the responsibility of Renmin University, see Huang 2017). Zhao Chen (2016, 75–79), associate professor and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, distinguishes three stages in EU political studies in China: (1) the stage of tracking European integration (1960s–1990s), in which Marxist methodologies dominated and the process of unification was situated in a longer historical perspective, (2) the stage of introducing and digesting Western European integration theory thoroughly (1990s–2010), when European studies became more social scientific absorbing theoretical work coming out of the United States and Europe (also in the form of Chinese translations), but also seeking to produce research that reflected “[China’s] national conditions and cultural foundations” (benguo guoqing he wenhua jichu 本国国情和文化基础) (Zhao, 2016 77); (3) the stage of EU studies becoming more practically oriented (from 2010), on the basis of interviews, statistics and other ways of collecting first-hand materials. Zhao (2016, 79) mentions the increasing demand of the government and enterprises of China to learn more about the European Union and to produce research that can better serve “the government’s immediate needs” (zhengfu de jishi xuyao 政府的即时需要).

The Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which was founded in May 1981, publishes the Chinese Journal of European Studies (Ouzhou yanjiu 欧洲研究), the most prominent Chinese journal in the field of European studies. We interviewed scholars active in the institute. Our interviewees were well versed regarding the professional standards in the social sciences in Europe, but their own practices, it seemed, differed. Indeed, the journal published most of its articles through commissioned research, whose focus and methodology were decided in the CASS main office. The customary bottom-up approach of academic journals in Europe and the United States, in which research outlets are strongly dependent on the types of submissions that the journal receives, did not seem to be the dominant practice. Interestingly though, the Journal of Common Market Studies, was considered as a benchmark for quality and topics covered (interview U4, 2017). The findings of Cong Cao, a researcher of Chinese science, suggest that this situation is not in any way specific to CASS, but a more general phenomenon, as the gap between the values and practices of modern science, on the one hand, and those of science in China, on the other hand, is still considerable (Cao, 2014).

Our primary data is confirmed by an article in 2008, in which Guenter Heiduk (2008, 52) mentions that “the Chinese approach towards European Studies is mainly an instrumental one: European Studies are exploited to solve Chinese problems.” A good example for this was given in one of our interviews, where studying the European transition from the planned to the market economy was highlighted as a major current interest in European Studies in China (interview U1, 2017). “[T]he educational sector,” Heiduk (2008, 53) writes, has the “the function of indoctrinating the government’s ideology.” He has also aptly perceived that instead of universities, “newly established government-dependent institutions have been given the task of delivering information about foreign countries.” Heiduk (2008, 53) offers a reason for that when writing that analyzing “‘western’ economic growth, social welfare and individual freedoms” in the more public arenas of universities, “could have led to discontent towards the government’s policy.” The transfer from knowledge produced in universities, which in some cases are “also ‘outposts’ of ministries” (Heiduk 2008, 53, fn. 1), to that in think tanks has been roundly confirmed by interviews conducted in China in 2017 (Interviews U1–U4, 2017). In recent years, and certainly with Xi Jinping’s publicized demand to strengthen think tanks with Chinese characteristics, China’s scientific and political environment has become more closed.


Facing the Challenge: What Should Europe Do?

“China is by far the most active Asian country in the field of EU studies,” as emphasized by Yang (2016, 302), who measures this in terms of activities in the Jean Monnet (JM) Programme funded by the European Commission for scholars who pursue research and teaching in the field of European Studies. The JM program has been very active in China. Between 2014 and 2017, two JM modules have been awarded, 9 JM Chairs, two centres of excellence and three projects.[10] Sichuan University has been particularly active, having a JM Centre of Excellence awarded in 2011 and renewed in 2016. This large project involves 25 JM Chair-holders and 6 JM projects dealing with a diverse set of topics, from the European debt crisis, to the migrant crisis and Ukraine. Similarly, Fudan University is involved in a Jean Monnet Network with other universities from India, Japan and South Korea.[11] But as one of our interviewees suggests, the attractiveness of European funding has decreased in recent years, since the funding has stopped being in form of aid (interview U4, 2017).

In this vein, Yang (2015, 2016) argues that scholars of European Studies in China can be considered proxies for EU public diplomacy. In other words, the study and research of Europe abroad can be an effective tool for the EU to improve its external perception. Indeed, this can even permeate domestic politics: Jean Monnet Chairs funded through the EU in China have been teaching in Party schools as well (Yang 2015, 620). This way, the EU can promote its normative power (Manners, 2002); or, alternatively, the fact that the same scholars are involved in European studies and in Party schools can mean that the EU and its funding are effectively instrumentalized or even played by the Chinese side.

To further point towards the complexity of the relationship between funders and recipients, there have also been conflicts regarding the many Centers for European Studies, which the EU co-sponsored repeatedly during limited time periods. These conflicts showcase the potentially opposing interests at play. Holland, Jora and Ryan (1984, 4) report such a donor conflict: “European Studies in the Centre for European Studies at Renmin University of China is funded by both the Chinese government and the EC, although the Chinese governmental funding is greater. Apart from the amount of funding, the focus areas and goals of the two fund donors appear to diverge, a feature which is considered as a potential hazard to the European Studies developments in China.”

This raises relevant policy questions as well as a deeper philosophical concern regarding the strategies that the European Union and individual European governments should pursue when engaging with authoritarian regimes and with China in particular. What exactly are the implications of scientific cooperation with an authoritarian regime? Should funding be more closely scrutinized and if necessary limited – in view not only of the fundamental values Europe normatively embraces, but also in order to safeguard its core political interests? But would this very action be aligned with Europe’s core values?



Ralph Weber is Assistant Professor for European Global Studies at the University of Basel. He directs the project “European Studies in a Global Perspective” together with Silvana Tarlea.

Silvana Tarlea is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for European Global Studies and at the Department of Politics at the University of Basel.



[1]    Administered by the Directorate General International Cooperation and Development European Commission — DG DEVCO – development and humanitarian assistance to China:, last accessed May 17, 2018.

[2]    See the report published in May 2016,, last accessed May 17, 2018.

[3]    An example is the Dragon-STAR-Plus project run by European and Chinese research and academic organizations, innovation intermediaries, public authorities, funding agencies and SMEs. Funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Research Framework Programme, the purpose of the project is “to support the European and Chinese research communities to establish collaborations” in a variety of ways, see:, last accessed May 16, 2018.

[4]    See:, last accessed May 16, 2018.

[5]    See:, last accessed May 16, 2018.

[6]    The website of the program is available online at:, last accessed May 18, 2018.

[7]    See the report by the Open Source Center (25 August 2011) available at the homepage of the Federation of American Scientists:, last accessed May 19, 2018.

[8]    The two most important associations are the Chinese Association of EU Studies (a regional member of the EU Studies Association Asia Pacific,, last accessed May 18, 2018) and the Chinese Association of European Studies (, last accessed May 18, 2018).

[9]    The most comprehensive overview of the state of affairs is given in a special issue of the Chinese Journal of European Studies celebrating the 30th anniversary of European Studies in China, see: Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Ouzhou Yanjiusuo, ed. (2011). For more recent information, see the homepage of the Chinese Association of European Studies (, last accessed May 18, 2018).

[10]   The program can include teaching modules, chairs or centers of excellence.

[11]   The Politics of European Studies in Asia, Workshop organized in the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel on April 25, 2018. Support to European Studies in Asia by the EU’s Jean Monnet programme, presentation by Jose-Lorenzo Valles, European Commission, DG Education and Culture. More information available online at:, last accessed May 18, 2018.



Interview U1: professor at Renmin University, October 30, 2017, conducted in Beijing, China, by Ralph Weber and Silvana Tarlea.

Interview U2: professor at Qinghua University, November 2, 2017, conducted in Beijing, China, by Ralph Weber and Silvana Tarlea.

Interview U3: professor at China Institute of International Studies, October 31, 2017, conducted in Beijing, China, by Ralph Weber and Silvana Tarlea.

Interview U4: professors at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, October 31, 2017, conducted in Beijing, China, by Ralph Weber and Silvana Tarlea.



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Chirathivat, S. and P.H. Lassen, eds. (1999). European Studies in Asia. Bangkok: Centre for European Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

HEIDUK, G. (2008). “European Studies in China: Recent Developments and Future Perspectives”, in The Future of European Studies in Asia, ed. M. Holland, S. Jora and P. Ryan, Singapore: ASEF, 52–69.

Holland, M., S. Jora and P. Ryan, eds. (2008). The Future of European Studies in Asia. Singapore: ASEF.

HUANG W.-P. (2017). European Studies in China. Professor Jean Monnet Chair, Research Center for European Studies. presentation, online: (last viewed 18 May 2018)

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Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan ouzhou yanjiusuo 中国社会科学院欧洲研究所, ed. (2011). Zhongguo ouzhou yanjiu 30 nian 中国欧洲研究30年 [30 years of European Studies in China], special double issue of Ouzhou yanjiu 欧洲研究 [Chinese Journal of European Studies], Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.



Photo: Europe and China relationship, 3d rendering background | Shutterstock

Published on June 5, 2018.


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