© Monwest, Matthias Leuhof

European universities are helping China to build the world’s most modern army

China wants to build the most powerful army in the world. They appear to be succeeding – thanks to European scientists, who are sharing militarily sensitive knowledge with the Chinese army on a large scale. This is the conclusion of research done by Follow the Money and ten other media outlets from seven different countries. Nearly three hundred of such sensitive studies were conducted in the Netherlands. ‘Vital knowledge has already leaked. We're fighting a rearguard action.’

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In 2016, four researchers – two from TU Delft, two from China – published a scientific article on techniques for underwater positioning. Because GPS cannot be used under water, they were searching for an alternative: underwater sensors that emit acoustic signals.

The application can be useful for monitoring ocean pollution or the exploration of raw materials, but it can also be used for 'tactical surveillance' and locating 'objects'. According to Richard Heusdens, professor at the Dutch Defence Academy, this study could very well have a military application.

One of the two Chinese researchers is affiliated with the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), which is part of the Chinese military's People's Liberation Army (PLA). The second Chinese researcher works for a company that researches, develops and sells wireless communications for military and civilian use. Finally, funding for the research comes from four Chinese funds, and a NUDT professor is thanked for his 'valuable' contribution.

At the time of the study’s publication, China was already systematically claiming territory in the South China Sea. It does so by, among other things, annexing and expanding reefs and atolls, constructing artificial islands, and expanding its fishing fleet, which chases off fishermen from other countries. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China's claim to the South China Sea in 2016, but the country has ignored this verdict.

This study is one of nearly three thousand (2,994, to be exact) examples we tracked of cooperation between Chinese military universities and European universities. We did this within the framework of the China Science Investigation, an international collaborative project led by Follow the Money.

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.

The broad academic cooperation between Europe and the Chinese military is a matter of great concern to insiders. For years, think tanks, experts and intelligence services have argued that it can lead to the leaking of highly sensitive knowledge.

The Dutch AIVD was the first Western intelligence service to point this out. In its 2010 annual report, the AIVD stated that Chinese intelligence services are interested in high-quality technology and science developed in the Netherlands. The service had already ‘actively’ warned companies, universities, and other institutions.

In its 2021 annual report, the AIVD called China the ‘greatest threat to the economic security of the Netherlands’

In its 2021 annual report, the AIVD even called China the ‘greatest threat to the economic security of the Netherlands’. In 2021, the country was interested in, among other things, communications, spacecraft and maritime technology. According to the AIVD, this knowledge is acquired, in part, through academic collaboration.

Belgium’s civil intelligence service VSSE has been warning for years about the risks that universities run if they take Chinese scientists under their wings. ‘Students from military research institutes, such as the Chinese National University of Defense Technology, are sent to various Western countries, including Belgium, where they acquire knowledge that is essential for certain military developments. They take the knowledge they gain with them to the army in their homeland. A few dozen of these military students are currently active at Belgian universities,’ the Belgian intelligence service wrote in its annual report for 2019. In 2020, Belgium’s Staatsveiligheid added: ‘The situation is alarming, because the phenomenon has grown since the United States began gradually reducing access of Chinese students to their country.’

In recent years, other European intelligence services as well have issued emphatic warnings against China’s quest for innovative technology. The Danish security and intelligence service, Politiets Efterretningstjeneste (PET), initially issued a general warning about the leaking of high-quality knowledge and technology to other countries, but openly pointed a finger at China in a report from February 2022. According to PET, especially foreign students and researchers can play a role in this. The German Bundesverfassungsschutz states that German scientists and knowledge institutes are not aware of all the dangers, or worse, ‘they ignore the problem.’

Xi Jinping plays catch-up

Of the 2,994 studies that we tracked, 2,210 were conducted with colleagues from the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), the main university of the Chinese military. The NUDT falls directly under the Central Military Commission, China's supreme defence body. The chairman of this committee is President Xi Jinping. The NUDT ranks among the top in China when it comes to computer science, optical and communication technology, and aerospace.

Researchers from European universities also collaborated with the PLA Information Engineering University, part of the People's Liberation Army, and with the China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP). CAEP indirectly falls under the Central Military Commission. The CAEP conducts research into, among other things, the development of nuclear, conventional, and laser weapons and into the application of microwaves.

Although European universities have for decades been conducting research with scientists from Chinese universities, academic collaboration began to ramp up in 2013. The main reason: Xi Jinping, taking office in late 2012, determined that China was lagging far behind the West in terms of technology. If he was going to transform the country from a low-wage producer country to a technological superpower, a lot would need to be done.

Since then, China has been investing in the development of its universities and cooperation with foreign countries, in order to acquire knowledge there. The ambitious program Made in China 2025, launched in 2015, further crystallised those plans. The goal: to turn China into a smart superstate, leading in modern technology such as robotics, artificial intelligence, chip manufacturing, and clean energy.

According to Danny Pronk, senior researcher at the Security Department of the Clingendael Institute, China is ahead of schedule: plans to modernise the army by 2025 at the latest have already been achieved.

Moreover, in 2049, when the People’s Republic of China turns 100, in Xi Jinping’s vision, the country should also be the technological, economic, political and military powerhouse of the world. This ‘rebirth’ will coincide with completion of the modernization of the army; in 2049, they are expected to be able to not only fight the US, but to win.

Tip of the iceberg

Of the 350 thousand studies in our database, we were able to directly link 2,994 to Chinese military institutions through the researchers themselves. This probably constitutes the tip of the iceberg, as employees of Chinese military institutes sometimes operate under assumed names. The number of collaborations strongly increases after 2012, then dips after 2019, which may be explained by the corona crisis.

The love affair, by the way, is not one-sided: European academics approach Chinese colleagues, as well. Chinese universities are internationally renowned, Chinese students and PhD students bring in money, and researchers usually receive funding from Chinese funds.

While most European countries have been cutting back on education for years, China increased its Research & Development budget by 7 per cent annually for the period of 2021-2025. For fundamental research, the budget even increased by 10 per cent, to make sure this area catches up.

A few of the studies conducted by European researchers in collaboration with the Chinese Army:

• In 2018, a British researcher and four colleagues from the NUDT published a study on picking up radar signals. The goal is clear from the first sentence: ‘In modern electronic warfare environments, there are multiple-radar transmitting signals.’

• A PhD student at Aalborg University worked on advanced 5G and 6G radio signals with an engineer from China, who claimed to come from a university that doesn’t exist. Chinese scientific papers revealed that the engineer worked at the Information University of Engineering, an army university. According to the professor who heads up the study, the research has military applications, such as GPS systems, radar, and wireless communication. The Danish intelligence service, PET, cited the incident in 2021, to illustrate how Danish studies and technology can leak and be misused.

• A group of five scientists, including a German scientist affiliated with the Fraunhofer Institute and another scientist affiliated with the NUDT were working to improve systems to track people. They wanted to identify and monitor individuals in groups, even if they cover up and move around each other. This goal can help fight crime, but at the same time can be used by authoritarian regimes against their own population. This is especially critical with regard to the situation of the Uyghurs in China. The ethnic group by China has been repeatedly the target of unprecedented surveillance, and this is known since 2018. However, the paper was published in 2021.

• In 2021, a scientist affiliated with TU Delft and five colleagues from the NUDT space institute published a study concerning the thrust of a specific type of rocket engine. About this, defence specialist Danny Pronk says: ‘These applications most likely have a military purpose. The NUDT is not involved in civil space travel.’

‘Behind each published paper may also be a Chinese military officer who has worked and studied at a European university’

According to independent researcher Alex Joske, scientific collaboration with the Chinese army is more extensive than we can tell, based only on the studies found. He mapped out academic collaboration with universities and institutes related to the Chinese military for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). This resulted in the China Defence University Tracker, a database that is consulted worldwide.

Joske: ‘It is worrying that published papers are only one of the many aspects of the mutual ties. They are proof of deeper relations between these PLA institutes and European universities and research organisations. Behind each published paper may also be a Chinese military officer who has worked and studied at a European university, and who has built a relationship that led to these collaborations and research papers. This data is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as Chinese military cooperation with Europe is concerned.’

Techniques that seem harmless can have high military relevance. German researcher Didi Kirsten Tatlow, co-author of the book China’s Quest for Foreign Technology, told Follow the Money: 'Science and technology cooperation with Europe is helping China to advance its military in multiple areas [..].These developments then feed into their overall science and technology system. [...] Europe is feeding that machine. There’s a saying, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. I would actually turn it around and say ‘don’t feed the hand that bites you”.’

Oceanographic research

Many of the thousands of studies with Chinese military institution employees concern underwater drones (gliders), underwater sensors, and buoys with sensors, or concern studies into AI and mathematical models that can be applied to underwater drones and sensors.

These studies can’t be linked directly to China’s annexation of the South China Sea, but the rise of oceanographic research does run parallel to it. According to Tatlow, this research illustrates how European countries are helping China develop not only their technology, but also their military.

In May 2017, the influential publication Jane’s Defence Weekly revealed that the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, a state-owned company, had disclosed details of the ‘Underwater Great Wall’, a project commissioned by the military, at a trade show the previous year.

It appears that China is getting the knowledge necessary to build the Underwater Great Wall from, among other places, the Netherlands

That same month, Chinese state broadcast network CCTV announced that the government had decided to establish a large-scale underwater surveillance network in both the East and South China Seas. Government officials claimed its primary purpose was to monitor the environment, but acknowledged on camera that the system could also be used for 'national defence'.

It appears that China is getting the knowledge necessary to build the Underwater Great Wall from, among other places, the Netherlands. The aforementioned 2016 research by TU Delft and the NUDT about a type of underwater GPS is one of the many studies that the Dutch are doing on this subject in collaboration with Chinese military academics.

In 2018, TU Delft conducted research with the NUDT into underwater position determination, intended for all kinds of applications for underwater drones. The four Chinese researchers received money from three Chinese funds.

China is already using these underwater drones on a large scale. In December 2020, Indonesian fishermen found a droone in their nets, in a strategic marine area between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The lights on the torpedo-like colossus still worked, as did the sensors.

Compensating for shortcomings

In September 2021, Dutch research institute The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies – specialising in defence and security issues – described the technological areas in which China requires more knowledge. Examples are  AI, big data, robotics, photonics (light technology such as lasers), quantum technology, semiconductors, and lithography (for making chips).

China wants to acquire this knowledge for both civilian and military purposes. According to the HCSS, the impact of AI on military knowledge development will be ‘revolutionary’, as will that of quantum technology.

And true enough, the China Science Investigation shows that scientists addiliated with the Chinese army are seeking cooperation with European universities in just these areas.

Recently, Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post published a series of articles about scientific breakthroughs by NUDT researchers. These included laser imaging technology that can detect even small objects in space, commercial satellites that can also be used to spy, and techniques that allow one to check whether satellites have been hacked. In all these areas, NUDT employees have collaborated with European universities.

Researcher Tatlow confirms that China strategically takes advantage of the academic freedom and openness in the West. ‘It’s clear when you read the Chinese policy documents and party directives, that China feels that it can operate very freely in open societies such as ours. And indeed it can, because we’re not putting a stop to most of these behaviours. China is a little bit like a kid in a sweetshop. They can go in and they can help themselves widely.’

Since 2007, under the slogan ‘Picking flowers in foreign lands; making honey in China’, the Chinese army has been running a special program to obtain knowledge and technology from the West. Since then, the People’s Liberation Army has sent over 2,500 military scientists and engineers abroad, to establish relationships with researchers and institutions around the world.


Why are we Investigating China?

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch paint an increasingly bleak picture of the human rights situation in China. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the country has developed into what an expert described as a ‘techno-totalitarianstate in Foreign Policy last year. Police, military and security services are not in the service of the state, but of the party – a crucial difference from all other countries, excepting North Korea.

Moreover, these services are directly involved in the repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other minority groups, as well as the persecution of human rights activists, Hong Kong democrats, bloggers and vloggers, independent journalists, lawyers and union leaders, feminists, LGBTI+ people, and so on. The legal system is also at the service of the regime: the probability of conviction is over 99 per cent.

Since 2007, the Chinese army has been running a special program to obtain knowledge and technology from the West. Independent researcher Alex Joske was the first one to describe this strategy, in his report Picking Flowers Making Honey (2018). Since the start of the program, the People’s Liberation Army has sent over 2,500 military scientists and engineers abroad, to establish relationships with researchers and institutions around the world.

In December of 2018, German think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Germany and the British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published a joint report, warning that China aims to become a global technology and science superpower, and is building an army that can fight as well as win wars.

The European Commission has, since 2019, labelled China a systemic rival, because it promotes an alternative regime worldwide, which the commission believes poses a threat to our way of life. China’s human rights violations were a more important factor in that decision, according to European Commission president Ursula van Leyen, in May of 2021. In June of 2021, because of China's political ambitions, military programs, and increasingly assertive stance, NATO called China’s military threat a ‘systematic challenge to the international order’.

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Dutch universities lend a helping hand

Despite all the warnings, Dutch universities themselves are eager to collaborate with their Chinese military colleagues. In the China Science Investigation, we discovered 288 studies conducted in collaboration with military institutes.

The University of Amsterdam conducts research into AI and sensor technology with the NUDT (93 studies), as does Leiden University (37 studies). With the NUDT, TU Eindhoven mainly conducts research into AI and innovative materials (21 studies). TU Delft takes the cake: 125 studies, mostly about robotics and AI.

In 2021, Delta, TU Delft’s journalistic platform, published a series of articles on how TU Delft ‘unintentionally lends a helping hand’ through this scientific collaboration. Research by Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws shows that the number of collaborations between Delft and Chinese scientists with army ties is even greater than Delta revealed at the time.

In the summer of 2021, TU Delft proudly presented a video in which several autonomous drones float into a messy room to trace a gas leak. We found various studies into this swarm technology. In each case, Chinese military researchers were involved.

According to drone expert and lawyer Jessica Dorsey, assistant professor at Utrecht University, such studies carry real risks: they are also interesting for warfare. Dorsey: ‘China has come a long way in swarm technology. I don’t get scared easily, but that scares me. China is now using swarms for light shows, but we are seeing worrying developments, such as drones lecturing protesting citizens. You could also quite easily employ swarms like these to drop a powder or bomb.’

A 2021 study, conducted by researchers from TU Delft, KU Leuven, and NUDT, explicitly mentions the 'military interest' in drones, and studies how these flying robots can autonomously create 3D visualisations.

Dorsey thinks the collaborations with military universities are problematic. ‘They are shadowy and worrying, partly because of China’s stance on human rights and academic freedom. I am also concerned that it is so little talked about. For example, where does the funding for these studies come from? That is not often checked. Mostly everyone thinks: how nice, that there is funding.’

For TU Delft’s Aerospace Engineering department, enough is enough: PhD students from NUDT are now a no go

Defence expert Danny Pronk supports this view. ‘For a long time, universities had a reflexive reaction of not wanting to know. Furthermore, due to economic interests, there exists a far-reaching form of naivety.’

But, for TU Delft’s Aerospace Engineering department, enough is enough: PhD students from NUDT are now a no go. Riccardo Ferrari, researcher at the Faculty of Mechanical, Materials and Maritime engineering, acknowledges that, until 2019, his own department failed to weigh the pros and cons of collaborating on research with military universities. ‘With the current knowledge on the position of NUDT and other Chinese military universities, we would no longer have performed the research with their scientists,’ Ferrari says.

A TU Delft spokesperson adds: ‘Internal compliance procedures – the China Tools – have been developed and implemented in order to prevent such future collaborations.’ Aerospace Engineering is the only department at TU Delft that no longer hires or works with NUDT staff.

The Ministry of Education stays out of it

While, over the years, warnings from security services became more and more urgent, the Ministry of Education actually encouraged cooperation with Chinese universities.

Even after the publication of the so-called ‘China Note’ of May 2019, in which the government on the one hand praised the economic benefits of doing business with China and, on the other hand, warned of the ambitions of the fast-growing superpower, this did not immediately change. The Ministry of Education again focused on more cooperation. This is shown by documents that Follow the Money obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

In order to intensify the exchange of knowledge with China, the Ministry of Education, for example, planned a ‘knowledge mission’ to China in early 2020 – which, incidentally, was cancelled due to the pandemic.

It wasn’t until late 2020 that the Ministry slowly began to change its tune. In November 2020, it introduced measures aimed at increasing knowledge security, and in December 2020 it announced measures to ‘raise awareness’ about the risks of collaboration in dual-use studies: studies that can prove useful for both civilian and military purposes.

However, while European regulations do in fact allow for stricter screening and rules regarding knowledge export, the Ministery of Education limits itself to checklists, awareness, and providing information to universities. In addition, a ‘country-neutral assessment framework’ for undesirable knowledge and technology transfer is supposed to provide more binding measures. But that framework, which the department has been developing for over a year and a half, won’t come into effect until 2023, at the earliest.

Dutch Ministy of Education

'We merely provide extra information and tips, so that the institutions themselves [can] make an informed decision about whether or not to enter into a collaboration

However, some non-binding initiatives have been launched. In July 2021, the universities’ umbrella association presented the Knowledge Security Framework for Universities. This allows universities to assess their academic collaboration with other countries. In January 2022, the Dutch government published the National Guide to Knowledge Security, a guide for administrators of knowledge institutions who are tasked with risk assessment of foreign collaborations.

The Ministry also opened the State-Wide Knowledge Security Desk. A spokesperson: ‘We merely provide extra information and tips, so that the institutions themselves [can] make an informed decision about whether or not to enter into a collaboration.’

OCW’s passive attitude sometimes leads to criticism from other ministries. In October 2020, in the AD, Ank Bijleveld, then Minister of Defence, spoke critically of attracting Chinese military graduate students. In November 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a memo to OCW, in response to OCW’s concept letter to Parliament about university cooperation: ‘As usual, we notice that the responsibility is very much placed on the shoulders of the institutions.’

‘I fear that vital technology and knowledge has already leaked. There are currently almost no military areas where China is lagging behind’

Dutch defence specialist Danny Pronk describes Chinese researchers as ‘vacuum cleaners’ who absorb knowledge everywhere. ‘All the knowledge they gain in the West is analysed back in China,’ he says. ‘They filter out what’s useful.’ This way, according to Pronk, the Chinese army has, among other things, acquired the knowledge to build a ballistic missile that can detect and hit moving ships.

Pronk: ‘I fear that vital technology and knowledge has already leaked. There are currently almost no military areas where China is lagging behind. We have waited too long to take action. As a result, we are now fighting a rearguard action.’

Reactions from universities

The universities where we found collaborations with military institutes all say that this subject has only recently received more attention. For example, the spokesperson for the VU emphasises that the university is ‘working hard’ on this matter. The VU was previously confronted with the disclosure by the NOS that China was financing research into human rights there. The VU is now conducting an internal investigation into this matter. The spokesperson: ‘We are increasingly realising how insidious the methods of influencing can be, and as a university we are pulling in the reins.’

The universities have all set up advice centres on knowledge security and/or Chinese collaborations and have developed resources such as decision trees, checklists, and (China) tools.

The universities all refer to the recently published national guidelines on knowledge security. Leiden University: ‘In addition, we expect every scientist to think carefully about possible risks and conditions in collaboration with third parties [..] We pay attention to these kinds of matters together. And remember the corrective effect that contact with other scientists from other universities can have. You hear things, you watch out for each other, you give each other tips and warnings. If dubious studies have been done, measures will of course follow. To which studies this applies, is currently merely speculation.’

At the request of Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, Utrecht University is working on an internal risk analysis method ‘to gain more insight into valuable knowledge domains, risks, and vulnerabilities within the university’. In doing so, the university looks at the type of scientific domain, and the profile and country of origin of the partner. ‘In this respect, China is one of the countries to which the UU pays particular attention.’

Twente University is one of the few institutions that is well aware of its risky collaborations with China and says that it monitors these collaborations closely.

The universities do emphasise the importance of open collaboration. Twente: ‘Twenty University will always advocate proportionality and a good balance between knowledge security and academic freedom.’

Eindhoven declined to respond before being able to view a list of the studies in question.

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Translation: Chris Kok.