Campus - 19.11.2021 - 00:00
19 November 2021. On 3 August 2021, the NZZ daily newspaper published an article about a former doctoral student of the University of St.Gallen (HSG). The headline of the text alone appeared to suggest that the HSG was under the influence of the People’s Republic of China. In order to clarify the facts comprehensively, the President’s Board set up two working groups, which included external specialists, with the aim of examining the allegations. One working group, which was headed by Prof. Ulrich Schmid, the HSG’s Vice-President for External Relations, took stock of the University of St.Gallen’s overall relations with the People’s Republic of China. The second working group, which was chaired by Prof. Michael Lackner, a sinologist from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, examined incidents in the doctoral student’s case.
No intensive relations with, let alone dependencies on, China
The first working group, which included two professors from other Swiss universities as well as a representative of swissuniversities, examined relations with China in the areas of student exchange, basic and executive education, as well as projects of academic cooperation, taking into account the financial resources which Chinese actors channel into the HSG and its institutes. The examination did not reveal anything conspicuous. The HSG did not receive any donations or sponsorship money of Chinese origin, nor are there any financial stakes of Chinese actors in research projects. The largest amounts that were invoiced to Chinese organisations amounted to less than CHF 13,000 for a Chinese university’s study trip to Eastern Switzerland, as well as about CHF 3,500 for a commissioned report about a partner university’s MBA programme.
All in all, the HSG has 15 partner universities in the People’s Republic of China; the contracts concluded with them solely concern student exchange. Since the first partnership in 2002, 353 HSG students have spent an exchange semester in China, and 350 Chinese exchange students have come to St.Gallen. The report also shed light on the suggestions that there are close relations between the Chinese student association (CSSA St.Gallen) and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Berne. However, the association does not appear to be significant. The student association is not registered with the University and is thus not recognised as an official student association. The HSG only found out about it through the investigations conducted by the working group.
Greater awareness seems to be purposeful
The working group conducted interviews with eleven members of the University who are in contact with the People’s Republic of China. They were asked about the details of their activities and contacts, as well as about potential vulnerabilities, possible dishonest offers or attempts to exert pressure. None of the interviewees experienced any attempts to exert influence in this way. Research cooperation ventures predominantly take place at an individual level and are expressed in co-authorships of publications. The interviews reveal, however, that not all the members of the HSG are aware of Chinese cooperation partners’ potentially problematic political or military affiliations. As a consequence, the working group recommends that researchers should be more strongly sensitised in this respect. Hazards such as unchecked transfers of knowledge or self-censorship will be reflected upon by the HSG’s bodies in the coming months. Additionally, the HSG will intensify cooperation with swissuniversities in order to address the issue more strongly on a nationwide basis.
Renewed review of the individual case
The second working group dealt with the case of the former doctoral student who, after he had left the HSG (ex-matriculation) and then abandoned his doctoral studies at a Chinese university in Wuhan, wanted to return to the HSG in order to resume his doctoral studies. After various discussions and an emotionally charged exchange of e-mails with his former supervisor, the latter told him that both she and the co-supervisor would not be available to him any longer in future. The former doctoral student suspected that this was due to Chinese actors’ exertion of influence. In this final report, Prof. Michael Lackner stated that there was “no evidence of any influence exerted by China” and that such an influence “solely appears to exist in the student’s and the professor’s imagination”. Also, it had not been a tweet that was critical of China that had triggered off the termination of the informal supervision relationship, but the doctoral student’s harsh reaction to a later e-mail from the supervisor. A further factor was constituted by the fact that despite his ex-matriculation, the doctoral student continued to refer to himself a doctoral student of the HSG, both publicly and in relations with third parties. Finally, the professor said that he had already told her at an earlier stage that he was no longer interested in doctoral studies at the HSG and would not need her help any more. These alleged statements, which were made in the course of a Skype conversation, could not actually be verified, but the doctoral student did not contradict this account either.
Breach of procedural rules
In the case of the deletion of his e-mail account, a breach of procedural rules came to light: the trigger was a message from a professor from another university, who had received a peculiar, flawed e-mail from the former doctoral student and then voiced the concern that this e-mail might have been forged. Thereupon the PhD Office was told that the e-mail account might have been hacked. In the course of several steps, this finally prompted the HSG’s IT Department to block the account as a precautionary measure. According to the rules, it would only have been cancelled some weeks later (after expiry of the then customary grace period of two semesters after ex-matriculation and an advance warning to the account holder). Here, it was a case of human failure, for which we extend our apologies to the doctoral student. The professor was not involved in these processes. The HSG has taken measures to ensure that such an error cannot happen in the future.
Recommendations for the doctoral programme
Finally, Prof. Michael Lackner recommends that doctoral students who plan a stay in China should definitely be afforded better preparation for it. In addition, the HSG should rethink its practice of temporary ex-matriculation in connection with research stays abroad. Even if such a course of action is only suggested in exceptional cases, the President’s Board takes the recommendations seriously and will clarify the possibility of measures along these lines. The President’s Board would like to thank all the external specialists for their support in the establishment of the facts.