Almost 200 British academics from 20 unnamed UK universities are being investigated for possibly sharing British technology with China that could be used in the Chinese government's repression of minorities and dissidents. The revelation came shortly after the University of Manchester cancelled a research partnership with China Electronics Technology Group. Pictured: Chinese President Xi Jinping (second from right) visits the University of Manchester on October 23, 2015. (Photo by Richard Stonehouse/AFP via Getty Images)
Almost 200 British academics from 20 unnamed UK universities are being investigated for possibly sharing British technology with China that could be used in the Chinese government's repression of minorities and dissidents, according to a recent news report by The Times. The revelation came shortly after the University of Manchester cancelled a research partnership with China Electronics Technology Group (CETC).
The cancellation came after the university was warned that CETC is, "one of the main architects of the Chinese government's surveillance state in Xinjiang, China, providing both technology and infrastructure that is being used for the identity-based persecution of more than one million people, predominantly Uyghur Muslims". The university said their research collaboration with CETC aimed to "significantly advance the field of radio astronomy" and that it had been unaware of CETC's alleged role in the persecution of Uyghurs.
Another new report, "Inadvertently Arming China? The Chinese military complex and its potential exploitation of scientific research at UK universities," published on February 7 by the British think tank Civitas, alleged the "pervasive presence of Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities in the sponsorship of high-technology research centres in many leading UK universities..."
"In many cases, these UK universities are unintentionally generating research that is sponsored by and may be of use to China's military conglomerates, including those with activities in the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well as hypersonic missiles, in which China is involved in a new arms race and seeks 'massively destabilising' weaponry...
"Many of the research projects will have a civilian use, and UK-based researchers will be unaware of a possible dual use that might lead to a contribution to China's military industries.
"This report illustrates how 15 of the 24 Russell Group universities and many other UK academic bodies have productive research relationships with Chinese military-linked manufacturers and universities. Much of the research at the university centres and laboratories is also being sponsored by the UK taxpayer...."
The authors stressed that:
"[N]one of the academics, researchers, or other staff whose research at UK universities or centres is discussed in this report are accused of knowingly assisting the development of the Chinese military, of knowingly transferring information to that end, or of committing any breach of their university regulations."
The revelations in the UK are only the most recent on a growing list of China's influence operations in academia across the Western world that are gradually becoming known. In January, Australian analyst Alex Joske, in a submission to the Australian Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, "The Chinese Communist Party's Talent Recruitment Efforts in Australia," identified at least 325 participants from Australian research institutions, including government institutions, in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talent-recruitment programs, with as many as up to 600 academics possibly being involved.
"Many appear to have had conflicting commitments, such as maintaining jobs in China through talent-recruitment programs while also employed full time in Australia," Joske wrote.
"Recruits are encouraged to transfer technology to China and commercialise it, including technologies with military and security applications. Cases such as that of a Thousand Talents Plan scholar and former University of Queensland professor providing AI-enabled surveillance technology to authorities in Xinjiang highlight the human rights implications of such technology transfer. However, Australian research institutions, funding bodies and government agencies are still catching up to the problem."
Joske estimated that CCP talent recruitment activity in Australia may be associated with as much as AU$280 million (USD $217 million) in grant fraud over the past two decades.
In an August 2020 report, "Hunting the phoenix - The Chinese Communist Party's global search for technology and talent," Joske wrote:
"The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses talent-recruitment programs to gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means. According to official statistics, China's talent-recruitment programs drew in almost 60,000 overseas professionals between 2008 and 2016. These efforts lack transparency; are widely associated with misconduct, intellectual property theft or espionage; contribute to the People's Liberation Army's modernisation; and facilitate human rights abuses. They form a core part of the CCP's efforts to build its own power by leveraging foreign technology and expertise. Over the long term, China's recruitment of overseas talent could shift the balance of power between it and countries such as the US...
"The mechanisms of CCP talent recruitment are poorly understood. They're much broader than the Thousand Talents Plan—the best known among more than 200 CCP talent-recruitment programs. Domestically, they involve creating favourable conditions for overseas scientists, regardless of ethnicity, to work in China."
According to the US Justice Department:
"China's Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese talent recruitment plans designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China's scientific development, economic prosperity and national security. According to court documents, these talent recruitment plans seek to lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China, and they often reward individuals for stealing proprietary information."
In the US, since 2019, more than a dozen criminal cases have been brought against academics suspected of lying about receiving CCP funding. The arrests have happened under the auspices of the China Initiative, a program under the Justice Department launched in 2018 and aimed at countering Chinese national security threats.
Accepting foreign funding is not illegal as such, but U.S. authorities require researchers who apply for U.S. taxpayer-supported funding to disclose such funds. More problematically, US officials have said that the Chinese talent programs create conflicts of interest and incentives to transfer intellectual property.
In one of the most widely publicized recent cases in the US, Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard University's department of chemistry, was arrested last January and charged for not disclosing that Wuhan University of Technology gave him more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab in China, as part of the CCP's Thousand Talents program. In addition, he received a $50,000 monthly salary and $150,000 in annual living expenses.
More recently, MIT mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen was charged with fraud, allegations that he failed to disclose ties and payments from Chinese government institutions, while also receiving US tax money for his research.
"Collaboration with foreign researchers is like the lifeblood of the scientific community — no one is saying don't do it," United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said. Lelling has prosecuted several academics for failing to disclose their research ties to Chinese institutions. "Equally importantly, don't lie about it, don't hide it. Catalog it, be forthcoming about it on the appropriate forms."
"This year, the FBI and Department prosecutors also exposed six individuals, studying in the United States, found to be connected to People's Liberation Army military institutes, who concealed their affiliations from the State Department when applying for research visas to study at U.S. universities. In one of those cases, the Department alleged that a PLA officer was being tasked by superiors in the PRC to obtain information that would benefit PLA operations. In another case, a PLA medical researcher stands accused of following orders to observe lab operations at a U.S. university, which received funding from the U.S. government, in order to replicate those operations in the PRC...
"After the FBI conducted interviews this summer that led to charges in those cases and the State Department closed the PRC's Houston Consulate, a large number of undeclared, PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers fled the United States."
The Justice Department said that more than 1,000 PLA affiliated researchers fled the US.
China continues generously to fund Western universities. In the UK, for instance, the Chinese company Tencent funded post-doctoral research in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University. The university announced on its website:
"Technology giant Tencent has made a generous gift to fund a new five-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Engineering... Founded in 1998, Tencent uses technology to enrich the lives of Internet users. Tencent operates the leading communications and social platforms Wechat and QQ, which connect users to a range of digital content and services. Tencent invests heavily in talent and technological innovation, actively promoting the development of the Internet industry."
According to the CIA, Tencent was founded with financing from China's Ministry of State Security.
Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, wrote in a Japan Times article from March 2019:
"It has long been understood that Tencent — the Chinese firm that owns WeChat and QQ, two of the world's most widely used social media applications — facilitates Chinese government censorship and surveillance...
"In the realm of censorship, media reports and expert research indicate that WeChat has been refining the use of artificial intelligence to identify and delete images, which netizens commonly employ to evade censorship and surveillance of text communications...
"This surveillance is increasingly leading to legal repercussions for ordinary users. A sample of cases tracked in Freedom House's China Media Bulletin over the past year feature penalties against numerous WeChat users for mocking President Xi Jinping, criticizing judicial officials, commenting on massive floods, sharing information about human rights abuses, or expressing views related to their persecuted religion or ethnicity, be they Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists or Falun Gong practitioners. The punishments have ranged from several days of administrative detention to many years in prison, in some cases for comments that were ostensibly shared privately with friends. These dynamics have inevitably encouraged self-censorship on the platform."
"The Chinese companies Tencent, owner of WeChat, and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, play a significant role in facilitating and entrenching the Chinese government's censorship, surveillance, and propaganda regime inside China," wrote Human Rights Watch in September 2020.
"WeChat censors and surveils users on the PRC government's behalf and hands over user data to authorities when 'sensitive' information is discovered. There have been numerous reports about people getting harassed, detained, or imprisoned for their private messages on WeChat. A man in Shandong province was sentenced to 10 months in prison for sending a single video clip referencing an anti-government campaign to a U.S.-based friend. Uighurs and Tibetans have been imprisoned for using WeChat to share religious materials. A study by Citizen Lab in Canada showed that WeChat also surveils its users outside the PRC to build up the database it uses to censor PRC-registered accounts."
Oxford University has also received a generous donation from Tencent. Its prestigious Wykeham chair of physics, which was established in 1900, will now be known as the Tencent-Wykeham chair, in honor of the Chinese software giant's donation of £700,000 to the university.
Much of Chinese influence on British universities comes from the CCP's Confucius Institutes, of which there are at least 29 in the UK, according to a February 2019 report on the topic by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
"Confucius Institutes were established in 2004 as part of the Chinese Communist Party's intensifying propaganda drive overseas," Dr Tao Zhang, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, told the Commission.
"They are strategically located in various foreign universities, allowing the Chinese authorities to gain a foot-hold for the exercise of control over the study of China and the Chinese language. From its organization and funding to textbooks and staff, the Confucius Institute is an extension of the Chinese education system, directly controlled by the state and having the same ideological and propaganda roles as schools and universities in China."
According to the report:
"Confucius Institutes are directly controlled, funded and staffed by an agency of the Chinese government's Ministry of Education, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as the 'Hanban'...
"In Britain, there are at least 29 Confucius Institutes, the second largest number in the world after the United States, attached to major universities such as Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Cardiff and University College London. There are also 148 Confucius 'classrooms' in schools around the United Kingdom, according to the Hanban website."
The US Department of State and the US Department of Education warned about Confucius Institutes in October of 2020:
"[T]here is increasing evidence that they are also tools of malign PRC influence and dissemination of CCP propaganda on U.S. campuses. The presence of a Confucius Institute, with the Beijing-based funding that comes with it, can provide an institution with financial and other incentives to abstain from criticizing PRC policies, and may pressure the institution's faculty to censor themselves."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.