New research has found that European scientists have "shared militarily sensitive knowledge with the Chinese army on a large scale." 2,994 scientific collaborations between Europe and China have taken place with the Chinese military, nearly half of which involved scientists affiliated with China's elite National University of Defense Technology (NUDT). Pictured: The NUDT campus in in Changsha, Hunan Province, China. (Image source: Huangdan2060/Wikimedia Commons)
New research done by Follow the Money, a Dutch platform for investigative journalism, and ten other European media outlets, found that European scientists have "shared militarily sensitive knowledge with the Chinese army on a large scale."
The project, known as the China Science Investigation, collected a staggering 353,000 scientific collaborations between Europe and China and found that, of these, 2,994 have taken place with the Chinese military, defined as, "studies where scientists from Western European universities collaborated with Chinese colleagues directly linked to an institute that is part of the Chinese army."
Moreover, for the past ten years, these collaborations had also increased all throughout Europe. According to Deutsche Welle, nearly half of the scientific 2,994 collaborations that the China Science Investigation evaluated were published by scientists affiliated with China's elite National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) at universities in the United Kingdom, followed by the Netherlands and Germany. The NUDT's explicit purpose is to "strengthen the armed forces and the nation."
"It [NUDT] is the top institution of the People's Liberation Army, which among other things is known for its research into supercomputers and hypersonic missiles," noted Rebecca Arcesati, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) in Germany. "The fact that this particular university is so actively engaged in research collaborations in Europe should cause the warning lights to flash." In Germany alone, at least 230 research articles were published from 2000 through early 2022 in which Chinese military researchers had collaborated with German research institutions.
According to the China Science Investigation, "Collaboration took place in all kinds of areas: from drone studies to artificial intelligence, from space travel to shipping, and from radar to underwater communication."
There were also collaborations with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, known for its research into nuclear and other weapons.
In the Netherlands alone, where the Dutch intelligence services had already warned in 2010 that China's intelligence services were showing interest in high-quality technology and science developed in the Netherlands, more than "90 military scientists from China have gathered knowledge at Dutch universities and knowledge institutions. They conducted research into militarily sensitive technologies, such as hypersonic aircraft and reinforced concrete."
One Ph.D. student, He Lei from NUDT, who received his degree at Delft University in the Netherlands, told a Chinese newspaper that:
"The country and the military chose us for foreign studies to learn and master groundbreaking science and technology. This way, we will be able to take on the heavy task of strengthening and modernizing the army."
In Denmark, as well, the China Science Investigation project identified 91 research articles in which Chinese military researchers had collaborated with one or more Danish research institutions. In November 2021, Reuters revealed how a Chinese professor, Guojie Zhang, working at the University of Copenhagen had conducted genetic research with the Chinese military without disclosing the connection:
"Zhang and a student he was supervising worked with a People's Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory on research exposing monkeys to extreme altitude to study their brains and develop new drugs to prevent brain damage – a priority the PLA has identified for Chinese troops operating on high plateau borders."
Such studies could, for instance, assist Chinese troops stationed on the mountainous border with India.
"Western universities need to understand that Chinese military scientists have only one client, and that is the People's Liberation Army," Meia Nouwens, who is a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Politiken.
"Their raison d'être is to modernize the Chinese army. Your study shows that although the EU has identified China as a 'systemic rival', Europe needs to do more to protect our research. Especially when it comes to technologies that we believe will be crucial for the future of warfare."
These revelations have caused consternation in NATO, where David van Weel, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, says that European universities need to stop being naïve. "We have noticed that Chinese scholars linked to the People's Liberation Army, as well as Chinese investment firms, are very, very active in our research ecosystems," Weel said.
"It's about becoming less naive about the fact that there is an attempt to take as much knowledge as possible from our research communities back to China. In my home country, the Netherlands, there are researchers who have been working on artificial intelligence with Huawei instead of with NATO. It's the world turned upside down. This is because we have not invested enough and committed enough in recent years. But we are changing that now."
Several factors seem at play here. Naïveté combined with an almost extreme form of carelessness is one factor. In one Danish case, for instance, Chinese scientists from the NUDT collaborated for several years with Denmark's Technical University (DTU) on technologies with military potential, such as quantum physics, cryptology, optical communication equipment, battery technology and navigation systems. Several of the Danish scientists knew that they were dealing with Chinese military scientists, but did not consider that a problem because they "did not give the Chinese access to confidential information."
Deception is another factor, but, again, combined with carelessness on the part of European universities. In another Danish case, for instance, a Chinese military engineer, saying that he came from a Chinese research institute that turned out to not exist, collaborated with Aalborg University in Denmark on advanced radar technology. The engineer was, instead, from the People's Liberation Army Information Engineering University. The problem, however, was not only deception on the part of the engineer, but that the university did not take steps to vet the Chinese engineer's credentials.
There is no doubt that European scientists, through their collaboration with Chinese researchers working directly for China's military, have contributed to China's accelerating military modernization.
"If you cooperate with NUDT, then you cooperate directly with the Chinese military. It would be the same as the Russian army having a university, of which the Chief of Defense was the top leader," said Emily Weinstein, nonresident Fellow at the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council.
"It is possible that you as a Danish or German researcher think the research is completely harmless. But to that I would say that civilian scientists are not trained to think in the same way. We are talking here about active military officers, and we should basically expect that no matter what they research, even if it seems harmless, they do it from a military point of view. They are trained to absorb knowledge and apply it in a military context."
In November 2021, General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his concern at how fast China had accelerated its military modernization after testing a hypersonic weapon:
"If you look at, again, 40 years ago, they had zero satellites... They had no ICBMs... They had no nuclear weapons... They had no fourth or fifth-generation fighters or even more advanced fighters, back then... They had no navy... They had no sub-force. Look at what they have today... So if you look at the totality, this test [of a hypersonic weapon] that occurred a couple weeks ago, is only one of a much, much broader picture of a military capability with respect to the Chinese. That is very, very significant. We're witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed."
The collaborative articles between European scientists and Chinese researchers working for China's People Liberation Army that the China Science Investigation has uncovered are just a small part of the knowledge that Chinese researchers have accumulated, according to Alex Joske, an independent researcher formerly with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "What is particularly worrying is that the number of published articles constitutes only one part of the relationships between the researchers," Joske said.
"For every handful of articles we see here, there has probably been a Chinese military scientist who has worked and studied at a European university, where he has built relationships and knowledge. This data is just the tip of the iceberg."
China also has invested large sums in many European universities, not least in the UK. An investigation by The Times published in February showed that British universities have accepted £240 million from Chinese institutions, many with links to the military, including £60 million from institutions sanctioned by the US government for supplying the Chinese military with fighter jets, communications technology and missiles. In addition, in just six years, the number of research collaborations between scientists in the UK and Chinese institutes with deep connections to the country's defense forces tripled to more than 1,000.
Recently, investigative journalist David Rose published a piece in Unherd, revealing that one of the UK's "foremost" high-tech weapons experts, Professor Clive Woodley at Imperial College London -- one of the British universities that has received the most funding from China -- had been freely working with China for years:
"Most of Woodley's research has been funded by the Ministry of Defence. A former president of the International Ballistics Society, he served as Chief Scientist at the MoD-controlled company QinetiQ from its inception in 2001 — when the MoD privatised its own labs — to 2018. He has advised the MoD about many of its key lethal systems...
"[O]ver the past eight years, Woodley has participated at least seven times in seminars and lectures for senior figures from China's defence industry and university departments that work with its military. He is also a co-editor of two Chinese journals funded by weapons firms. Since 2014, he has had eight papers either published in Chinese journals or co-written with Chinese scientists working with Chinese arms makers — the most recent, in 2021."
"This case raises serious concerns about the integrity of our military secrets and the level of cooperation between a British expert and a potentially hostile state," Tom Tugendhat, chairman Britain's Foreign Affairs Select Committee said.
According to the Unherd report, however, the Ministry of Defense denied that Woodley's activities had posed any risk.
"Its spokesperson refused to answer a single question about Woodley's involvement with China, other than to say: 'We have robust procedures in place to make sure research contracts do not contribute to overseas military programmes and that individuals or organisations with foreign-state links cannot access our sensitive research... we ensure that stringent vetting checks are carried out.'"
"Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6," the UK's spy chief, head of MI6 Richard Moore said in November 2021.
"We are deepening our understanding of China across the UK intelligence community and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.