What is China being told about Yantai?

In Groningen, we’ve known since January of this year that the RUG campus in the Chinese city of Yantai isn’t happening. But according to student movement DAG, in conversations with Chinese partners, former RUG president Sibrand Poppema made it sound like it may have still been on.
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

DAG checked Chinese websites for news on Groningen and the RUG. It was, says DAG member Koen Marée, ‘just a hunch’. ‘I had googled “University of Groningen Yantai”, but all I got was information in Dutch and English.’

Marée translated his search terms into Mandarin and used the Chinese search engine Baidu. He came across posts on the website belonging to the China Agricultural University (CAU) and the news website Dazhong Net. These said that Sibrand Poppema, former president of the RUG board, talked to CAU representatives in March and July.

Joint venture university

‘It’s clear that in China, they’re still using the term “joint venture university”‘, Marée writes in an analysis published on the DAG website. According to the article published on the CAU website in March of this year, ‘Poppema confirmed that the university will actively help to promote the Yantai plans’. And a post on Dazhong Net from July claims that Poppema said that he was excited to set up a ‘joint venture with a Chinese university’.

But, says DAG, no one is using these terms to talk about Yantai here in Groningen. In January, the university council said they would not consent to a Groningen branch campus in China. The RUG has stayed in contact with the CAU, but only to explore the options for small-scale collaboration between faculties, the RUG board assured the university council.

Legal trouble

So does DAG think that the university board is secretly hoping to establish a full-blown branch campus after all? ‘No, that’s not a conclusion we can draw at this point’, says Marée. Perhaps Poppema was trying to prevent the cancelled branch campus project from becoming a legal problem.

The CAU could file a damage claim against the RUG. In 2015, the two universities signed a declaration of intent to set up a future University of Groningen Yantai. This declaration is formally known as a memorandum of understanding, and it’s a tricky document, writes DAG: it can mean something very different in China than it does in the Netherlands. ‘Here in the West, MoUs aren’t understood to be binding. But in China a Memorandum of Understanding carries much more weight. The parties signing the memorandum have to show they are of good faith.’

‘There will be no branch campus’

RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker is unaware of the statements the Chinese websites are writing about. But she emphasises that no one is working on a branch campus in secret: ‘This is absolutely untrue. We decided there would be no branch campus in January, and that decision stands.’

Marée has many questions to ask the RUG board: ‘Why was a contract with possible legal ramification signed as early as October 2015 when no decision had been made at that time? Why wasn’t the university council told about the meetings between Poppema and the Chinese representatives? Do we know more about any (potential) claims by China yet?’

‘The university council is meeting tomorrow, and the board will answer any and all questions then’, says Bakker.


14 November 2018