This article benefited from research assistance by Madalina Merlusca.
Over the last decade, China has been expanding and improving its economic and cultural ties with Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC), relying on both bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Cooperation in the field of education has been one of these pillars, driving student and professor mobility, language cooperation, and academic partnerships. Romania has shown an increased interest in building academic and cultural ties with China, with cooperation driven on both sides by an overlap of initiatives. These include the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the 17+1 framework, and the European Union Erasmus+ program, as well as local university-level projects designed to enhance their attractiveness and relevance in a globalized multicultural environment.
Out of 53 civil and military public higher education institutions in Romania, around 80% of them have had ties with Chinese entities. Most of these ties are with Chinese universities, with an MOU or cooperation agreement as the basis. Over 20% of these ties have been driven by the European Union Erasmus+ program. Generally, there is a lack of transparency regarding agreements signed with Chinese counterparts and what these entail, more so with respect to the scope of financial or non-financial contributions.
Findings show that while cooperation is encouraged through different platforms in both Romania and China, on the Romanian side there are no state-issued guidelines for cooperation between academic institutions and China-based entities. Universities also lack special guidelines or mitigation measures for potential risks or challenges associated with studying in China.
As of early 2022, there are four Confucius Institutes in Romania, with the oldest dating back to 2007. These were established within the following universities: the University of Bucharest, the University Babes-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca, the Transylvania University of Brasov, and the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. Ten universities indicated that they collaborate with a Confucius Institute. In addition to offering Chinese courses, these Institutes aim to promote Chinese culture under its many facets, including history, arts, literature, and music. For instance, the Confucius Institute at the University of Bucharest organizes art exhibitions, tea ceremonies, festivals, conferences, and talks. It has also been involved in the launching of several translations of Chinese books into Romanian. Similarly, the Confucius Institute at University Babes-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca engages in cultural activities to promote the Chinese language and culture and offers courses in calligraphy, music, and Taichi.
Furthermore, Chinese courses are also provided by at least eight Confucius Classrooms established across the country. Most notably, the Ovidius University of Constanța in partnership with the Confucius Institute from Sibiu has been offering Chinese courses to schools since 2011.
Together with the Confucius Institutes, the Chinese Embassy in Bucharest has also played an important role in fostering academic cooperation and the study of the Chinese language. In 2017, for instance, the Embassy launched the “Chinese Ambassador Scholarship” to encourage the study of the Chinese language.
While, generally, cooperation with Chinese universities has drawn little interest or concern in the Romanian public sphere, the increased scrutiny faced by Confucius Institutes in several Western countries has raised questions on some occasions. Notably, in early 2022 Pavel Popescu, a member of the Romanian parliament, asked the Ministry of Education to clarify the relationship between the Ovidius University and the Confucius Institute. Citing Belgian and American sources, the lawmaker made an inquiry regarding the protection of personal data as per European legislation, and the type of activities provided by the Confucius Institute.
As noted above, a majority of public universities have ties with Chinese entities, mostly universities. Two Romanian universities have cooperated with the Beijing Institute of Technology (one of the “Seven Sons of National Defense”) through bilateral cooperation agreements and/or Erasmus+ agreements. As the name implies, the Seven Sons is a group of universities at the forefront of China’s military and defense industry. The Beijing Institute of Technology is a leading center for military research, particularly in weapons and missile technology. The Institute, which has top-secret security credentials, is assessed as very high-risk in the ASPI China Defense University Tracker.
Furthermore, a third Romanian university has links with the Harbin Engineering University, another member of the Seven Sons group, also classified as very high-risk. In November 2021, the University of Craiova opened the China-Romania Research Center in Applied Mathematics together with scientists from three Chinese universities: Harbin Engineering University, Central South University (high-risk classification and secret security credential), and Shandong University of Science and Technology. Notably, the Chinese scientists benefit from the financial support of the China Scholarship Council.
Overall, ties with very high and high-risk universities have been found at 14 Romanian public universities. Additionally, nine Chinese counterparts have been linked to espionage, according to the China Defense University Tracker. It is worth noting the cooperation between the Nicolae Balcescu Land Forces Academy and the PLA Army Engineering University, which provides research for the land forces of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The PLA Army Engineering University has had several other exchanges with military academies from other countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom.
Among other notable examples of academic cooperation, we highlight the establishment in 2018 of the first Master’s Degree in traditional Chinese medicine at the University of Transylvania in partnership with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. That same year, the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu established the Sino-European International Business School (SEIBS), an MBA program focused on the Chinese business environment. Classes are taught in English by both Romanian and Chinese professors. Another interesting case relates to the Polytechnic University of Timișoara which in 2020 signed an agreement with the Hangzhou Dianzi University to launch a double degree Master’s school.
Responses from Romanian universities show that there is limited cooperation with Chinese companies, but there are exceptions. The Polytechnic University of Bucharest disclosed ties with Huawei. In 2021, Huawei Romania together with the Polytechnic University organized the 8th edition of an educational project called “Seeds For Future”, which offers training by Huawei for students and young graduates in the ICT field. In 2021, the two parties also organized the first edition of the CEE & Nordic Huawei HarmonyOS Developer Contest.
As China is becoming more influential on a global scale and active in fostering bilateral and multilateral cooperation with European countries, Romania must adopt a cooperation framework that allows for cultural and academic cooperation in a mutually beneficial manner, with minimal risks and challenges. Understanding China as a partner is essential for building a cooperation strategy with well-defined goals and risks. Romania, as well as other European countries, needs a top-down strategic approach that takes into consideration what it is willing to offer and what it needs from its Chinese counterparts.
Universities should increase the level of transparency regarding cooperation agreements and memoranda, particularly with high or very high-risk universities, and set up risk assessment guidelines for academic exchanges and adopt codes of academic integrity. The latter has become particularly important in the context of pandemic outbreaks which may cause confusion and instability for students living abroad. As it would be difficult, considering the small number of Romanians with China-related expertise, for each university to individually develop the capability to assess risks, especially security risks, it would be useful for the Romanian ministries of education and foreign affairs to work together to present universities with information and assessments of such risks and counsel them in designing plans for cooperation and then in implementing their cooperation agreements. Right now, the onus is on the universities themselves, but the vast majority of them lack any personnel with either Chinese language skills or expertise on China.
To that purpose, it is particularly important to build a generation of China experts using domestic and European resources and diversify the educational offering about China. The educational offering should not be limited to Chinese initiatives only; academic cooperation with China should be complementary. Universities should consider the larger national and European context surrounding cooperation with Confucius Institutes and Chinese universities and determine the potential outcomes prior to entering cooperation agreements.