Chinese army preys on technological knowledge European universities

Chinese military scientists are increasingly collaborating with European universities. The knowledge that the researchers from China gain with this will mainly benefit the People’s Liberation Army. Experts believe that stricter rules are needed in which fields Chinese and Dutch researchers are allowed to collaborate.

This is the conclusion of research by the China Science Investigation, an international partnership where journalists from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland work together.

Largest Military Superpower in 2049

Chinese military scientists from the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) are particularly interested in knowledge about weapons technology, unmanned vehicles, robotics and semiconductors. The NUDT is only one university in China that is involved in research into these technologies: there are also research centres for, for example, the navy and the air force.

In the past twenty years, Chinese military universities have conducted 2,994 studies with European universities. Most studies were done in the United Kingdom (1,389). Germany and the Netherlands are in second and third place with 349 and 288 studies respectively. The NUDT has the most studies to its name of all Chinese military universities, namely 2,210.

China yearns for this knowledge to become the largest military superpower in the world by 2049. President Xi Jinping has never hidden this ambition. But China still has a long way to go to achieve this goal. Western knowledge is indispensable for this. That is why China is investing heavily in the development of its military universities. Cooperation with European institutions is crucial in this regard.

‘Security aspects of Chinese cooperation are now tangible and insightful’

Danny Pronk, a defence expert and senior researcher in the Clingendael Institute’s Security Department, says these partnerships help the Chinese move forward to become a leading global power. Pronk says that the results of the scientific research serve the defence apparatus in China.

Security and intelligence agencies have been warning about cyber-espionage by China for years. Last May, NRC wrote an article in which the newspaper suggested that dozens of researchers at TU Delft had close ties with the Chinese army. The then Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven said there was no evidence that Dutch knowledge had been transferred to the Chinese army.

Despite these warnings, the number of studies is increasing sharply. This is because European research institutions saw collaboration as an opportunity to earn money. “We were pretty naive about that. Now the safety aspects of that collaboration are becoming tangible and insightful, but we have not faced that for a long time,” notes Pronk.

‘Setting limits to cooperation’

The defence specialist is of the opinion that the Dutch government should set clear boundaries in which fields we may and may not cooperate with the Chinese. “On some fronts, it may already be too late. The modernization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has taken off in the last decade. But there are many other areas that are still under development and research,” Pronk told RTL Nieuws. In his view, the government should limit the cooperation with Chinese universities.

Dutch universities have stated in a response that they value academic freedom. At the same time, in recent years there has been considerable attention for the risk that high-quality technological knowledge ends up with the Chinese army.

Outrage over research project with Huawei

In 2020, there was great outrage when the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the VU University Amsterdam (VU) and Huawei announced that they would start an investigation into the use of artificial intelligence for search engines. “Why let the Chinese invest millions in technology in which we want to be the best? How safe is it really?”, asked Member of Parliament Dennis Wiersma (VVD) at the time.

Joba van den Berg (CDA) was also surprised about the collaboration. “Vital sectors need to be better protected,” she said of the issue. Kees Verhoeven (D66) demanded that the responsible ministers provide clarity “in the way in which the cabinet makes choices in cases where technological interference threatens”. The Rathenau Institute pointed out that the dividing line between military and civil engineering is becoming increasingly blurred.

The universities said they had consulted in advance with the AIVD and the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV). Because the educational institutions issued guarantees to prevent knowledge theft, the collaboration with Huawei was allowed to take place. The Chinese technology company invested 3.5 million euros in the research project.

Update (May 23, 2022): Further research by local media and Follow The Money shows that in the past ten years dozens of Chinese military scientists had a paid appointment at a Dutch university. According to the media, at least 93 Chinese researchers are involved. TU Delft had the most Chinese military personnel, namely 43. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) is in second place with 17 appointments. Leiden University and the Eindhoven University of Technology come in third and fourth with 9 and 7 Chinese military researchers respectively.

Jan Swillens, director of the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), warns against cooperation between Dutch universities and Chinese military scientists. “High-quality Dutch knowledge ends up in Chinese weaponry and that is worrying.” According to the CEO, the Chinese research focuses on nano, computer and quantum technology and artificial intelligence, among other things. “The Netherlands has high-quality knowledge in these areas. And that’s what the Chinese army is after,” said Swillens.

Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapon and aviation systems at the Netherlands Defense Academy (NLDA), also warns of the danger that Chinese researchers will take the high-quality knowledge home with them. “China has been working very hard on developing and testing hypersonic weapons for more than a decade.” Klaas van Breugel, emeritus professor of concrete modelling and material behaviour at Delft University of Technology, mentions a Chinese student who was researching concrete with synthetic fibres as an example. The concrete can protect soldiers from bullets and explosions.

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