In recent years, the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) Amsterdam has conducted research on human rights in China. As part of this work, carried out by the university's Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre, researchers travelled to Xinjiang province, notorious for the Chinese authorities' mass incarceration of more than one million Uyghurs and members of other largely Muslim minorities. The CCHRC published the results of its investigations in a newsletter, financed through the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing.
It was a little strange, but hardly surprising, to learn from one of the Dutch researchers, Peter Peverelli, that he saw nothing untoward in Xinjiang. The region was "just lovely," he said, "lovely people, breathtaking nature, great food. And no forced labour, no genocide, or whatever other lies the Western media might come up with."
The Vrije Universiteit had to admit that something was not quite right. It now says it will not accept further Chinese funding for the centre and will return the money it received last year. The CCHRC website was taken offline, leaving behind only a terse statement: "Human rights are preeminently the area where inclusiveness and diversity are important."
That is one way of putting it. The Nazis were not very keen on inclusivity or diversity, either. But it is an unusual way to describe the Chinese government's systematic persecution of an ethnic and religious minority.
This is not to say that people like Peverelli, who deny that such abuses are taking place, are necessarily corrupt. They may well think that whatever the Chinese government claims is true. Why, therefore, should they refuse to take Chinese money to confirm what they already believe about human rights in Xinjiang? The same thing might apply to some Western supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin who receive Russian money and subsequently express their disgust with NATO.
Research can be expensive. Universities are often strapped for cash. And many countries, including China, are more than happy to help researchers portray them in a good light. The question is whether universities, or media outlets, should ever accept money from governments or other institutions that have a political interest in the returns on their generosity.
For example, the British literary magazine Encounter got into trouble in 1967 when revelations of the CIA's indirect sponsorship of the publication led to the resignation of its editor, Stephen Spender. In the 1980s, when Japan's increasing economic power was spooking many in the West, US universities that accepted Japanese corporate money were much criticised, even when they claimed there were no strings attached. At the same time, some critics of Japanese corporate power were being sponsored by European or American institutions.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with official or unofficial subsidies. But when there is a problem, it is usually for one of two reasons: reputational embellishment or political influence-peddling.
In the mid-1990s, Oxford University was riled by the "Flick affair." Gert-Rudolf Flick, the perfectly respectable grandson of a prominent German industrialist, offered to sponsor a Flick Chair in European Thought. After a lot of hand-wringing, the university turned down the money, because the Flick company had profited from concentration-camp slave labour during World War II, and Flick's grandfather, Friedrich, had been convicted of war crimes.
One may well ask whether instituting a Rupert Murdoch Chair of Language and Communication at Oxford was any better. Murdoch is not a war criminal, but he is still a highly controversial media and political player. Then there is the case of Japan's Ryoichi Sasakawa, whose Sasakawa Peace Foundation doles out large sums to many institutions, including Yale University. Sasakawa was a gangster and a fascist (and a suspected war criminal), but he is no longer a political player because he died in 1995.
Still, taking cash from someone seeking to buff their tainted reputation, though sleazy, is less dangerous to the intellectual integrity of universities or media than political propaganda. And this is where things get tricky.
Some governments are more respectable than others. French, German, or even (still) American democracy is preferable to the authoritarianism of Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping. Clearly, the United States uses its "soft power" to further its own interests, too. But one difference is that, unlike in a dictatorship, propaganda is still a dirty word in a liberal democracy. It is a little easier to preserve a degree of independence in the context of American soft power (as was true of Encounter, which was an excellent magazine).
But maintaining even some independence is not always simple. US universities have received financing not only from Japanese companies, but also from the Japanese government, especially for Japan studies. MIT's Richard J. Samuels, a distinguished political scientist, said about this: "Once you have an endowment, it's arm's length and the role of the donor ceases with the delivery of the gift."
There is no reason to doubt Samuels' words. The Japanese government is probably too sophisticated to exert direct pressure on the content of the scholarships and programs it sponsors, though some professors have told me in private that there could be worry of needlessly upsetting donors by supporting doctoral research on subjects that might seem provocative.
China, however, goes about things in a very different way. Criticism of Xi, especially but not only regarding human rights in Xinjiang or Tibet, is quickly punished. China slapped economic sanctions on Australia after the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, was barred from entering Hong Kong because his organisation had criticised China's human-rights record. In short, what Peverelli, or anyone else, really thinks is irrelevant. Subsidies from China don't come without a quid pro quo.
This may be true of many kinds of financial support. What matters is whether there are strings attached. Universities need cash. Media organisations have commercial imperatives. Governments have political priorities. Private donors, whether former criminals or not, have personal interests.
But academic independence cannot be guaranteed if financial donations come with expectations of intellectual conformity and political compliance. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has realised this now. Better late than never.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945 and A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in the Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.