The PRC’s ‘soft power’ in the Netherlands-part I: Dr. Ying Zhang

poster: ‘ magnificent house and beautiful spring’, Huawu chunnong 华屋春浓, June 1989, designer Jin Meisheng (金梅生) Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe (上海人民美术出版社) © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners https://chineseposters.net

Update April 2022: according to her linked-in profile, https://nl.linkedin.com/in/shaoyingzhang Dr. Ying Zhang’s engagement with Rotterdam School of Management, China business centre, has been terminated ~December 2021. At the time of the writing of the original article in Dutch in October 2021, Dr. Ying Zhang was still listed as staff member of RSM. RSM has meanwhile disabled some of the links to her profile...Dr. Ying Zhang has extended her close co-operation with comrade Urs Lustenberger by founding the ‘singularity academy’.https://www.scmp.com/country-reports/country-reports/topics/switzerland-business-report-2022/article/3171717/singularity

01/05/2022_In some of my previous articles on this website (Feb-June 2019) I asked the question whether Ajax would cancel its sponsorship contract with Huawei after the Chinese company came under international fire, following an unrelenting campaign by the Trump administration. The Chinese telecommunications giant has been linked by the Americans to espionage and wiretapping and got heavily criticized for its very close relationship with the state apparatus and the Chinese military.

Last spring the Netherlands was rocked by the news that around 2009-2010 Huawei could intercept Dutch mobile numbers fully unauthorized, uncontrolled and unlimited, from remote locations inside China and KPN buildings in our country.. https://nos.nl/artikel/2377101-rapport-over-kpn-bevestigt-jarenlange-geruchten-over-spionage-china . These would have included the phones of then Prime Minister Balkenende, various ministers and Chinese dissidents. Huawei allegedly also knew which devices were tapped by Dutch police and intelligence services, the media reported last March. KPN was already aware of this in 2011, yet Dutch citizens only learned about it in 2021. Or is it a storm in a teacup, fake news? Dutch Parliament has been anxiously awaiting the conclusions of our Telecom Agency’s (AT) investigation, which was supposed to be published before the end of 2021….

Telecom infrastructure

I posed my question also in the context of the broader issue whether the Netherlands (and Europe) should make itself dependent for its crucial infrastructure on a company – heavily subsidized by the CCP – from a country that belongs to the world’s top hackers, is acting increasingly hostile to the free world and where enterprises are obliged to share data with the government when asked to do so. In addition, I mentioned that Huawei and f.e. HikVision have been playing an active role in perfecting the surveillance state in China and providing technology for the “re-education camps” of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Finally, I wondered if and how the grand smart city plans of the municipality of Amsterdam, in which Huawei (and the Johan Cruijff ArenA/Ajax) was meant to play an important role, would be affected.

Well, anyone who has followed mijngroeve.nl is well aware that over the past 2 years a national and European discussion about Huawei and the 5G network has erupted, with the Chinese telecom giant being fully excluded in an increasing number of member states, except in the Netherlands and Germany. The parliamentary discussion about Huawei’s participation in our network is still raging in The Hague, though hardly visible to the outside world: the conversation is taking place behind closed doors: the topic has been labeled a national security issue…

Anyone who searches today for Huawei on the Ajax website will no longer find any reference to the sponsor, despite the fact that, as far as I know, a new cooperation agreement for at least another 5 years was reached around the end of 2018. Perhaps I’m wrong and has it been dissolved in all silence….We also do not hear much anymore from the municipality of Amsterdam about the role of Huawei in its smart city plans, although that does not necessarily mean that the Chinese company is no longer a participant. Maybe the city officials just prefer not to talk about it.

2017-2018

How different the situation was in 2017-2018, when Dutch love for communist China and Huawei reached its peak. The company even received an award from our Prime Minister Rutte for its major contributions to Dutch-Chinese economic relations. Rutte will probably not have an ‘active memory’ of it, so as a reminder here’s the link to the recent past… https://www.mijngroeve.nl/sport-en/ajax-huawei-contract-extension/

Municipalities, universities, many people have been extremely eager to work with Huawei over the past decade. To understand how China/Huawei came to be so loved it might be instructive to look not only at the higher political echelons, but also at some of the lower level players who were part of the China/Huawei charm offensive. I am referring to the so-called soft power, the ability of a country or company to achieve cooperation and shape preferences by using its economic appeal, by involving the (social) media and by developing cultural or academic ties and exchanges.

Soft Power

Obviously, not only communist China is employing soft power, so does the democratic West: the aim is to cultivate sympathy and to realize cooperation by influencing the image and public opinion about your own country in other countries as positively as possible through attraction and persuasion instead of force and coercion. Generally speaking there is nothing illegal about the use of soft power, as long as it does not result in bribery, blackmail, espionage, curtailments of academic freedoms, censorship etc.

The use of soft power by the PRC gained momentum in the Netherlands between 2012-2018: from 2019, the Dutch political establishment gradually shook off its naivety towards communist China, a change in attitude which has started to trickle down to the business community, public organizations, universities, city governments, etc. China’s aggressive stance towards its neighbors such as India and Taiwan and to anyone who dares to criticize President Xi Jinping, the rapidly rising Sino-American tensions under Trump, the CCP’s takeover of Hong Kong as well as the Corona epidemic, have resulted in a steadily growing mistrust of the PRC and concerns about the Netherlands’ and Europe’s over-dependence on an increasingly totalitarian state.

Today, China’s soft power looks to be in decline, all the more so as the regime in Beijing prefers screaming ‘wolf warriors’ and coercion, i.e. hard power. The Chinese government can no longer count on much sympathy in Dutch parliament, a large number of MPs have been very critical about the PRC in 2021. Only our Prime Minister has mostly remained silent about China. But even Rutte must meanwhile realize that the country that he may have viewed as one of the drivers of the long-term prosperity of the Netherlands has turned into a serious concern for the long term… In addition, the hoped-for ‘level playing field’ in the economic relations with China seems further away than ever.

Dr Ying Zhang/RSM

But until ~2020 China’s soft power had fairly free rein. For example, if we take a look at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), we see that Dr. Ying Zhang, born and raised in the PRC and risen to the rank of ‘Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Chinese Economy and Business/RSM, Erasmus University’, has played a prominent role in fostering relations between Erasmus/RSM and China, especially Huawei, from 2012 onward. In fact, she was the founder and head of the Erasmus-Huawei partnership between 2017 – 2019. Among other things, these ties have enabled student exchanges and have been utilized to arouse sympathy and admiration for Huawei’s achievements as well as to stimulate joint research projects.

refer

https://www.rsm.nl/about-rsm/vacancies/meet-our-employees/ying-zhang/

https://www.rsm.nl/information-for/journalists/rsm-in-the-media/detail/?tx_eurinthemedia%5Bidentifier%5D=9691&cHash=cd37f8871c2847713d778a965a0eade6

https://dutchitchannel.nl/573906/huawei-en-rotterdam-school-of-management-lanceren-samenwerkingsprogramma.html

Zhang’s profile on the RMS website says: “She serves as 1) a strategic advisor at Strategic Swiss Partners, a Global Network Partner for GLORAD, 2) an Academic Advisory Board Member of Amsterdam School of International Business/ Hogeschool van Amsterdam and 3) a Senior Academic Advisor for its Steering Group of the Dutch National Framework of the BBA Program International Business” And further:

“Professor Zhang is awarded as one of the Top 30 Thinkers under the Radar by Thinkers50.com. She is also an active contributor to the Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI) in Europe and the Project Leader (from Erasmus) in China’s National Key Research on International Inland Transportation under China’s Belt-Road-Initiative Plan and China’s Strategic International Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation”

And finally: “Professor Zhang’s academic insight on United Nations SDG9 (=Sustainable Development Goals) has won 2019 “MOOC Award of Excellence” from SDG Academy/UNSDSN (MOOC=massive open online courses/red.)… Professor Zhang promotes the relevance of academic research and argues for the necessity of cross-sector collaboration between business, education research,  and social-economic circumstance.  She advocates the value of social innovation as well as the effort to build a sustainable community.”

Huawei and BRI

Dr. Zhang has apparently built up a nice network within the Netherlands, Europe and even the UN and is of course very familiar with the management of Huawei over here. She has put in a good word for Huawei at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HVA) too, contributing to the establishment of HVA’s relationships with the telecom giant. I have not been able to find out to if she has also played a part -behind the scenes- in the promotion of Huawei at the Johan Cruijff ArenA/Ajax, the municipality of Amsterdam and in the port of Rotterdam.

Just take a look at the following video. Through a long scientific (?) introduction, Dr. Zhang leads us at minute 6:30 to the higher goal of the video: the promotion of the BRI, in her eyes the most shining example of sustainable development, of which Xi Jinping has also tried to convince governments in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOW1VdNlmpk

Huawei is a major contributor to Xi’s BRI plans, it must take care of the connectivity and digital highway in this new silk road after all. Any critical notes about China’s policies, Huawei or the debts with which the Chinese government saddles participants in the BRI, are of course not included in Zhang’s charm offensive. Oh, and that famous MOOC award just refers to an online package of courses provided by 21 teachers from the RSM, including Zhang, on ‘driving business to sustainable development goals’, which has been rewarded with compliments by the SDG Academy of the UN .

Zhang the ‘independent thinker’

Despite all her academic titles, Zhang clearly isn’t a great political analyst and thinker when she comments on the state of relations between the US and China in the past and present (from minute 1:10)…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VNGrGA0x1M

Instead she prefers to portray herself as an expert on Western education: in a TED talk for an enthusiastic Amsterdam audience she attempts to expose the enormous shortcomings of the education in rich countries, which are ultimately responsible for all the serious social, economic and ecological abuses in the world in her view. Unfortunately I am not one of the top 30 under the radar thinkers: it is too difficult for me to follow her ‘scientific’ argument. For those interested, here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K1xTYpdE9E

She was also the driving force behind the establishment of a think tank ‘the new silk road institute (NSRI)’. https://www.belt-road-initiative.eu/ , ‘an openly scholarly platform’ consisting of China lobbyists. The same has been true for the vague ‘Identitat Global Forum (IGF)’, which aims to promote the BRI and a new world order, refer e.g.

https://www.belt-road-initiative.eu/identitat-global-forum-2019

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bj-8Dp8p3dg (2020 Davos)

During her public appearances for the NSRI or IGF, she never fails to mention her position at Erasmus University, by which she intends to give her presentations extra cachet and weight. The Swiss Urs Lustenberger, partner with Lustenberger Attorneys at Law and president of the Swiss Asian Chamber of Commerce, as well as -according to his own website https:///urslustenberger.com– ‘adjunct professor at the Erasmus China Business Center’ frequently pops up at the same events. In his publications on China, Lustenberger can’t stop extolling the virtues of the Chinese BRI and the enormous opportunities it offers Europe and Switzerland in particular, see e.g. https://www.erim.eur.nl/fileadmin/user_upload/SwissTrade_CH_silkroad_26-01.pdf

Additionally he likes to seize upon any opportunity to sow doubts among his audiences about the functioning of governments in Western democratic societies, who are too pre-occupied with the short-term (=the next elections): a development that almost inevitably will result in ‘nationalism and exploitation’, according to Urs. (see his commentary during the Davos IGF 2020 session after 1hr 14 minutes and 30 seconds in the video above). It would be better if other mechanisms of governance and long-term thinking would settle in Europe. Coming from his mouth it sounds as a covert defense of the CCP’s monopoly on power and the latter’s “infallible” long-term strategy and vision, as embodied by Xi Jinping and the BRI.

Comrade Urs

Dr. Zhang organized a number of workshops for the China Business Center and the NSRI with ‘independent’ experts and among them Lustenberger as the regular entertainer, of course. In September 2018 he was even a guest at a 2-day workshop in Rotterdam with our former Prime Minister Balkenende, together with an audience consisting of future Chinese CEOs and representatives from the Dutch business community and government. It resulted in a dazzling promotional film that’s very entertaining to watch, if only to see Balkende praising again the Dutch VOC mentality and to hear the superlatives from the Dutch business folks about the collaboration with China. Huawei is of course also present on this day by a Dutch representative this time. By the way, in minute 1:35 in the video Comrade Urs nonchalantly informs the Chinese participants how easy it is to obtain a European passport in Malta in exchange for just 2 visits (and a considerable amount of euros, I thought?), the so-called Golden Visa, about which European parliament and others have expressed serious concerns. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLYfBIfOH-Q

Also refer https://www.rsm.nl/about-rsm/news/detail/14521-connecting-europe-and-china-the-importance-of-mindset-and-culture/

Lustenberger and Zhang are given plenty of space by EUReporter, an ‘independent digital news platform’ based in Brussels, the center of European power. In reality, this media company publishes, for example, unedited press releases from Huawei as independent news articles: they are nothing else than paid advertisements… .https://www.politico.eu/article/huawei-brussels-eu-reporter-china-telecommunications-5g/

https://www.politico.eu/article/brussels-lobbying-connections-transparency/

EUReporter 

EUReporter is more than happy and willing to post the PR messages from Zhang and co. Like this one in 2020 about the Corona pandemic, where the fact that the Chinese government locked up the whistleblowers and first swept the problem under the carpet, goes completely unmentioned. It is all champaign and caviar with the Covid measures of the PRC, the crisis is mainly due to the West; it is moreover the proof that a new world order is urgently needed according to the duo. .https://www.eureporter.co/frontpage/2020/05/12/covid-19-pandemic-as-a-force-to-disrupt-institutional-trust/

Next Dr. Zhang’s twitters or posts her articles and interviews as published by EUReport on the RSM website, her facebook page or linked-in page, in an attempt to demonstrate that her opinions are picked up by the ‘mainstream European media’, see eg.

https://www.rsm.nl/information-for/journalists/rsm-in-the-media/detail/?tx_eurinthemedia%5Bidentifier%5D=9011&cHash=cd3b90953a7d2a9b765d1661b69f3f7d

Brussels is teeming with organizations that pretend to be independent media institutions or think tanks, but in reality are sponsored for their lobbying work by companies or governments. Unsuspecting readers and naive MEPs probably often have no idea of the ulterior motives of these media companies and their press events as they are not registered as lobbyists in Brussels. The ‘Brussels press club’ is an example of such a lobby organisation, closely associated with EUReporter.

http://www.pressclub.be/event/eu-reporting-china-china-reporting-eu/

The China lobby

The above is just a simple example of how soft power can be created and utilized and what kind of support chain can be involved. It is difficult to judge how much influence these vague clubs, propagandists and lobbyists actually have. But we can safely assume that more organizations and institutes across the Netherlands and Europe have employed academics like Dr. Zhang Ying, whose main goal have been to boost China’s image and to realize partnerships or joint research projects between Dutch and Chinese companies such as Huawei. It’s hard to believe they have been recruited for their academic achievements. No doubt some of them eagerly took the chance – where and whenever possible – to propagate without much trepidation the CCP’s positions in name of Dutch academic institutions at international forums in an attempt to generate more goodwill for China’s ambitions. In short, they just morphed into CCP party officials.

Again, it is not illegal of course, remarkable it certainly is.

Unfortunately, not every Dutch institute or every professor has been able to distinguish fact from fiction with these Chinese propaganda machines. Others may have turned a blind eye to propagandistic chatter and dubious academic credentials as long as enough doors were opened in China. I reckon it’s the same story elsewhere, in France, the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy etc etc, in all EU member states. Not to mention those European ex-politicians and academics who have just chosen to dance to the Chinese government’s tune uncritically. We recently had such an example at the RUG in Groningen https://nos.nl/artikel/2374137-rijksuniversiteit-groningen-ziet-af-van-nieuw-geld-uit-china-voor-leerstoel

Taken all together, one quickly ends up with a sizeable battalion of PRC lobbyists, propagandists, hangers-on and fellow travellers. This explains how China’s charm offensive has been able to penetrate different levels of our European societies, with the aim, among other things, to steer and positively influence the narrative about the BRI and Huawei.

As said, in 2021 this Chinese soft power seems to be on the decline in the Netherlands, https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/etnc_2021_-_chinas_soft_power_in_europe_-_falling_on_hard_times.pdf, public confidence in the People’s Republic has plummeted. The Dutch government has urged the business community and universities to be more vigilant in their contacts and cooperation with China.

The Dutch Universities

Yet the ultimate responsibility still lies with the companies, institutions and people themselves. As a result, some universities, professors and organizations continue to wrestle with the question if and what kind of cooperation with China can or should take place or is still allowed because there are of course also many good Chinese academics and research topics out there.

Others apparently have difficulty sensing how, in the changing geopolitical climate, certain partnerships risk to become heavily criticized or even condemned, especially if those involved fail to convince the society of the value of a specific joint research project for the Netherlands or to clarify how misuse of knowledge can be excluded, as witnessed by the recent fuss about the DNA project of the Erasmus hospital with China or the AI project of the VU/UVA with Huawei. https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/2021/10/11/omstreden-dna-onderzoek-verbeter-ethische-toetsing/ see f.e. also: https://www.folia.nl/actueel/144747/samenwerken-met-huawei-wordt-het-dreams-lab-een-nachtmerrie

The new Dutch government should take much more control in the management of the academic exchanges with unfree countries, and in particular with the PRC. Government officials of various departments have already been working together to create an assessment framework that should help universities to evaluate partnerships. However, the long absence of a new Dutch cabinet has again led to a delay in the formal introduction of such a framework. Hopefully it will finally get the badly needed priority soon…

RSM

The RSM most likely does not have much to worry about the transfer of sensitive technology or know-how like our TUs. The propaganda ‘chitchat’ of Dr. Zhang probably never received much attention from the board at Erasmus, in particular as long as it took place for a limited audience outside of Rotterdam. More importantly, Dr. Zhang’s role as an intermediate in the collaboration with Huawei must have been viewed positively by Erasmus: the increased brand awareness and cultivated goodwill in China must have surely brought in a growing number of Chinese students and money for the University of Rotterdam.

RSM’s China Business Center and the NSRI nevertheless appear to have been without much life and activity in 2021, though the Corona pandemic is probably mostly to blame. Zhang is still affiliated with Erasmus according to RSM’s own website.

The EU recently announced its response to the BRI in the form of a grand plan called “Connecting Europe Globally” (aka Global Gateway Europe) https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/07/12/a-globally-connected-europe-council-approves-conclusions/ Let’s see if the RSM will still continue to gloss over Dr. Zhang’s promotion of the BRI and the CCP’s goals in the name of Erasmus University….

In Part II: Afke Schaart