CEIAS
Latvia: Carelessness rooted in low threat perception

Latvia: Carelessness rooted in low threat perception

This article benefited from research assistance by Sintija Broka.

Academic cooperation with Chinese higher education entities is not an active direction of institutional interaction in Latvia. The Latvian academic community initially met the exchanges with China with a level of optimism. Although the major state universities, especially the University of Latvia and Riga Technical University, do have a long list of Chinese academic partner institutions based on MOUs, official contracts, and informal exchanges, many of these contacts are passive. They have not developed beyond the initial agreement or memorandum.

Such a vast array of cooperation agreements and yet utter lack of exchanges on the ground can be explained by the initial hopes of the Latvian higher education institutions in the early 2010s in boosting education export towards the Chinese market, illustrated by a peak in MOUs, mutual visits, and even new institutions (such as the China-Latvia Academic Cooperation Centre at the University of Latvia in partnership with North China Institute of Science and Technology) between 2015-2017. These plans have not materialized, and for the most part, have only resulted in an empty shell of documents and one-time meetings. After the state security institutions began pointing toward the risks in cooperation with China, including in academia and education, after 2018, and especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020-2022, exchanges have come to an almost complete standstill.

Perhaps due to the lack of practical day-to-day exchanges, universities have not established detailed protocols on cooperation with PRC institutions. Even though all FOIA request respondents answered that Chinese partners are not involved in deciding the research direction or able to influence decisions regarding curricula, research scholarships, student scholarships, or internships, the responses to other questions demonstrated the lack of a developed risk-assessment system.

Since no state-issued guidelines on the cooperation with entities based in authoritarian regimes exist in Latvia, the major Universities exhibit different approaches. Riga Technical University has adopted actor-agnostic guidelines since 2020, which also cover China. Riga Stradins University has been enlisting in-house China expertise in PRC partner screening since 2018.

Often case-by-case decisions become the responsibility of individual university international cooperation officers. A similar picture emerges when individual students head to PRC universities as China Scholarship Council scholarship recipients: “If necessary, outgoing students are provided with information about the problems they may face, they take risks individually.”

Confucius Institutes

Latvia houses only one Confucius Institute (CI), established at the University of Latvia in 2011 with South China Normal University as its partner institution. The Confucius Institute has concentrated on Mandarin language and Chinese culture teaching, organizing the Chinese Language Bridge (Hanyu Qiao) linguistic proficiency competition, as well as administrating scholarships. It has not been openly involved in public controversies. The scope of financial contributions of the Confucius Institute remains undisclosed. According to the response to the FOIA request, “the finances of the Confucius Institute are not registered with the University of Latvia”. According to research conducted by the investigative journalists published at the outlet ir.lv, PRC transfers to the CI average €70,000-80,000  annually, with a record peak in 2016 (€142,833) and a record low in 2018 (€26,015).

The non-financial contributions are also managed by the Confucius Institute, consisting of “books registered in the Latvian National Library joint catalog, some outdated computers, folk costumes, and holiday props”.

The Confucius Institute serves as a hub providing Confucius Classrooms at Riga Technical University, as well as in smaller regional higher education institutions: Rezekne Academy of Technology, Daugavpils University. The Confucius Institute also provides individual teachers to other secondary and higher education institutions, including Liepaja University, Ventspils University, and the Latvian Academy of Culture. Even though only one Confucius Institute exists in Latvia, a worrisome trend emerges: all Chinese language teaching, except at Riga Stradins University, which offers independent courses, is either managed or directly conducted through CI channels. One can conclude that the level of dependence on CI in the Chinese language and Chinese culture-related topics in the Latvian secondary and higher education is high and constitutes a risk.

Risks

Most Chinese counterparts of the Latvian universities do not appear on the ASPI China Defense University Tracker. Riga Technical University stands out as the institution with the most contacts with PRC schools categorized by ASPI Defense University Tracker: 12 institutions total, including very high/top secret institutions, such as Harbin Engineering University and Beijing Institute of Technology. This can be explained by the profile of the university being science and technology. The counterparts in China that match this profile have a significant degree of being national defense institutions.

Riga Stradins University also has an MOU with the Beijing Institute of Technology (very high/top secret). However, no active ties have been reported after an exchange of visits in the peak years.

The Latvian Biomedical Research and Study Centre under the University of Latvia has established cooperation with MGI Latvia, a company that produces genome sequencing equipment near Riga and is a subsidiary of the BGI Group, a Chinese-owned company whose subsidiary Beijing Liuhe BGI was added to the United States Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security list for its role in human rights violations in Xinjiang. Also, a 2021 Reuters investigation has pointed toward BGI Group’s links with the PRC military and quoted a US official saying: “US government advisors warned in March that a vast bank of genomic data that the company, BGI Group, is amassing and analyzing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage.” Following a 2018 MOU,  students reportedly have access to equipment at company premises and data sharing occurs.

Conclusions

Currently, there are no major risks or dependencies stemming from academic cooperation with China. However, two issues have occurred. First, the Chinese language and culture teaching has been effectively monopolized by CI-affiliated structures. Second, since cooperation is marginal, certain complacency can be detected in dealing with universities that ASPI has rated as very problematic for international cooperation: no centralized training is taking place either. To mitigate these issues, independent China research and language teaching needs to be encouraged, and university officers dealing with highly problematic counterparts in China need to be trained.

Authors

Key Topics

China-Europe Academic Engagement TrackerLatvia

office@ceias.eu

Murgašova 3131/2
81104 Bratislava
Slovakia

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates from CEIAS.

All rights reserved

CEIAS 2023