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EU grant for knowledge enhancement on contemporary China

20 May 2022

Prof. Jan van der Harst and Prof. Tjalling Halbertsma from the Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen (CEASG) are collaborating on ReConnect China, a European research project to improve knowledge on contemporary China. The project, led by researchers from Ghent University, is a collaboration by 14 universities and knowledge centres across various European countries. The European Union will support the project over the coming four years through providing a Horizon grant of €4 million.

Within the project, Europe’s relationship with China will be researched across various domains, such as ‘science and technology’, ‘domestic policy’, and ‘China in the world’. Van der Harst and Halbertsma will focus on the economic relationship between China and the EU; in particular, on how economic tensions are reflected in economic diplomacy. In this way, the project aligns well with the CEASG’s previous activities on economic diplomacy, the EU, and East Asia.

Honeymoon years

Tensions have increased in recent years, claims Professor of European Integration Jan van der Harst. ‘At the beginning of the century, the economic relationship between China and Europe was particularly good; those were the honeymoon years. This changed around 2014, since when the relationship has become more difficult and mistrust has grown.’

This change has various causes. For instance, China has become more powerful on the world stage. Tjalling Halbertsma, Professor by special appointment of East Asian Studies: ‘Twenty years ago, Europe went to China to conduct business and primarily saw China as an opportunity. Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon, so to speak. Everything is different now: China has entered the world stage more actively. Think, for example, of the Belt and Road Initiative, Huawei, or development aid and military infrastructure. In addition to opportunities, Europe also now sees threats and the emergence of a new world order. We must urgently strengthen our knowledge acquisition on China.’

Human rights

Other important changes include the election of Xi Jinping as President of China and the worsening human rights situation in the country. ‘In Europe, it was thought that economic prosperity in China would lead to political reforms, the improvement of human rights, and finally, perhaps even the embrace of more Western norms’, says Halbertsma, ‘but that, of course, has not happened. This shows that we do not fully understand China, and that more knowledge and expertise is needed.’

Political sensitivities have also influenced economic collaboration, says Van der Harst. ‘In May 2021, for example, the European Parliament blocked an investment agreement between the EU and China due to Chinese sanctions that were enacted as a response to European criticism of human rights violations. In this way, we can see that politics is becoming more and more intertwined with economic affairs.’


To obtain more knowledge, Van der Harst and Halbertsma, together with their colleague Frank Gaenssmantel, are researching how China and the European Union spoke about one another and about the economy in the recent period. They will research whether and to what extent this discourse has changed over the past twenty years.

Belt and Road

The researchers are also focusing on the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, through which China invests in and provides loans for infrastructure projects in various South and East European countries (including a number of EU member states). ‘The EU saw, and continues to see, this initiative as an attempt by China to play European countries off against one another. China denies this. We are going to research the response to this project in three Belt and Road countries’, says Van der Harst.

Economic diplomacy

Finally, Halbertsma and Van der Harst will delve deeper into economic-diplomatic affairs. ‘We will search for answers to the question of how it is possible that some trade disputes are settled amicably while others culminate in a sort of trade war. Which factors play a role in this? Economic factors are one category, as well as legal and political factors. The goal is to extract lessons from this so that the EU knows what role to play in managing trade conflicts in the future’, says Van der Harst. This part of the research builds on a project supported by the Dutch Research Council (NWO)/Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) about economic diplomacy, which fell under the China Exchange Programme that was carried out in Groningen a few years ago.

In addition to improved knowledge about China, it will also supplement the research with a report relevant to policy that will be offered to European policymakers.

ReConnect China: Generating independent knowledge for a resilient future with China for Europe and its citizens will be carried out across four years, beginning in November 2022.

Last modified:06 January 2023 3.58 p.m.

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