Beeld © Monwest, Matthias Leuhof

China sends selected military researchers to the Netherlands to gather sensitive knowledge

In recent years, over 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. This is the conclusion of research done by Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, as part of the China Science Investigation. The Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service calls the situation 'worrying'.

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On October 20 2017, in a jubilant article, Chinese state newspaper Hunan Daily describes how fantastically Chinese PhD students are doing abroad, and how essential they are to the strategy of the Chinese Communist Party. Shortly before, the PhD students watched the nineteenth CCP’s Party Congress via a live stream. According to the newspaper, President Xi Jinping emphasized that China ‘[will] allow young people to play a starring role in modernizing its military through science and technology’.

The newspaper describes the enthusiastic reactions of the PhD students, who are in a WeChat group. The chat group is run by the university from which they graduated: the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), part of the Chinese military. The Hunan Daily reports:

​‘Xiao Yandong is about to complete his PhD in the United States, and return to China. He posted on WeChat: “In foreign lands they pick flowers, in China we make honey. My heart is already back in the homeland. I look forward to applying myself to scientific and technological innovation.”’

He Lei, PhD student at Delft UT

"The country and the military chose us for foreign studies to learn and master groundbreaking science and technology"

​Another participant is at Delft University of Technology. The Hunan Daily: 'PhD student He Lei, who studies in the Netherlands, said: ‘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. We must keep the mission in mind, live up to the high confidence placed in us, and try to become the driving force behind scientific and technological innovations for the military.’

He Lei had just arrived in the Netherlands for a two-year study into mathematical formulas. He is in this WeChat group with about thirty other Chinese researchers from the NUDT stationed in the West – all PhD students. They exchange small talk, and encourage each other: ‘We must serve the military with science and technology!’, one writes.

​Three years later, He Lei is back in China, and back at the NUDT. He now has a permanent position as a researcher. The NUDT falls under the Central Military Commission, the highest military body in China. The university is part of the military and ranks among the top institutions in China for computer science, optical and communication engineering, and aerospace.

He Lei’s career fits into a pattern. Over the past decade, at least 93 Chinese military scientists have come to the Netherlands as PhD students or visiting researchers. The vast majority returned immediately afterwards to the military college at which they previously studied. At least eight PhD students, upon returning, began working at a department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For example, a scientist with a PhD from Delft UT is now part of PLA Unit 32381, where he published research on the future of robotic warfare.

Jan Swillens, general director of the MIVD

"These people can be traced directly to the defence industry or to military universities, so the know-how they acquire disappears into their military apparatus"

Through these PhD students, according to the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), China gains knowledge in research areas relevant to the military. ‘These people can be traced directly to the defence industry or to military universities, so the know-how they acquire disappears into their military apparatus,’ says MIVD director Jan Swillens. ‘It is worrying that Chinese students are obtaining doctorates in core technologies at technical universities in the Netherlands.’ By ‘core technologies’ he is referring to areas such as microchips, aerospace technology, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence.

Underwater localization and military simulation

In addition to these core technologies, the PhD students investigated by Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws also conducted research into radar systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, military simulation models, and underwater localization of objects. These are all militarily sensitive areas, experts say.

2018 saw the release of Picking Flowers, Making Honey. This study – conducted by independent researcher Alex Joske for the Australian think tank ASPI – showed, for the first time, that these studies abroad are part of China’s military strategy. Joske determined that the Chinese army sends scientists to foreign universities specifically for dual-use research: science that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

Technology, after all, plays a crucial role in Xi Jinping’s military ambitions. He wants his country to be the world’s main military superpower by 2049. In 2017, speaking to a packed Party Congress, Xi described technology as ‘the core of the capability to wage war’. That is why, for years, China has been fully committed to modernizing the PLA.

Unlike virtually all other militaries in the world, the PLA is not employed by the state, but by a party: the Chinese Communist Party. Under Xi Jinping, the country has developed into what, last year, an expert in Foreign Policy classified as a techno-totalitarian state. Since 2019, the European Commission has called China a systemic rival, because it promotes an alternative regime worldwide, which the Commission believes poses a threat to our way of life.

Hypersonic arms race

last year, Lv Maolong obtained his PhD at Delft University of Technology. There, he collaborated on studies into the stability and control of hypersonic aircraft, devices that fly at least five times the speed of sound (MACH 5). Lv did his master's degree at the Air Force Engineering University and after getting his PhD in the Netherlands and returning to China, he was given a permanent position there. The AFEU is one of the largest universities of the Chinese military and provides training in both technology and training for aerial combat.

Promotion video of the Air Force Engineering University, published in 2014

One of the challenges with hypersonic aircraft is accuracy. This has to do with the great speed at which they travel through the air, says Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapons and aviation systems at the Netherlands Defence Academy. At the request of Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, he took a look at four of Lv’s publications.

The measurement and control technique described by Lv is also important for hypersonic weapons, says Voskuijl. China, the United States, and Russia are currently engaged in a hypersonic arms race. Last year, China defied the rest of the world by conducting a hypersonic rocket test. Western air and missile defence systems are not well prepared for these weapons.

According to Voskuijl, the problem is the way such an aircraft behaves during flight. ‘We aren’t yet able to describe that with much accuracy, and the software controlling the device has to take that into account. That is the focus of Lv’s four scientific publications.’

Danny Pronk, defence specialist

"When a scientist from a Chinese military university conducts dual-use research, you can assume that it concerns a military application"

Lv’s work also has a civilian application, says Voskuijl: space travel. ‘Hypersonic planes could be an alternative to the rockets we currently use to get to space.’ While he cannot say for sure, Voskuijl suspects that the publications were written with the  military in mind. Defence expert Danny Pronk agrees. ‘When a scientist from a Chinese military university conducts dual-use research, you can assume that it concerns a military application.’

Yangyueye Cao, a former student at the NUDT, worked at Eindhoven University of Technology. Here, in 2020, she obtained her PhD on the subject of UHPFRC, a type of concrete reinforced with special synthetic fibers. These fibers make concrete, usually quite brittle, resistant to bullet impacts.

Klaas van Breugel, concrete expert and professor emeritus at Delft UT, says about this material: ‘In addition to civilian applications – for instance, bridges – there is also a military application: bunkers or nuclear installations that you want to protect against attacks.’

Defence acknowledges having carried out firing tests for Cao, as the ministry itself was  interested in UHPFRC’s ‘possible added value’

A salient detail: in her doctoral research, Cao thanks the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s Knowledge Center for Weapons and Ammunition ‘for carrying out ballistic tests’. Cao calls the experiments she conducted in the Netherlands ‘an essential part’ of her research.

In response to questions from Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, the Ministry of Defence acknowledges having carried out firing tests for Cao, as the ministry itself was also interested in UHPFRC’s ‘possible added value for dynamic stress’. A spokesperson claims that there was no security risk.

Chinese military researchers at Dutch universities

Last year, research by Delta, Delft UT’s journalistic platform, showed that dozens of military PhD students from the NUDT were finding their way to the Delft university. Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws also looked at other Dutch and Chinese military universities. This showed that there were also PhD students and guest researchers from the Air Force Engineering University, the Information Engineering University, and various military medical universities coming to the Netherlands. In total, we found 93 people between 2013 and 2022.

After their master’s degree at a Chinese military university, they came to the Netherlands for their PhD research. They then returned to China, where they often went to work for their original university. Some were affiliated with both a Dutch university and a military university during their PhD period.

In some cases, PhD students and visiting researchers stated that they came from the innocent-sounding Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping, or from the National Digital Switching System Engineering & Technological R&D Center. From their Chinese publications, it’s clear these are pseudonyms of the military Information Engineering University.

The number of scientific papers written with the Chinese army per Dutch university

​With 43 military PhD students and guest researchers, Delft UT was the most popular among Chinese military personnel. The University of Amsterdam (17) and Leiden University (9) are also popular. Erasmus University Rotterdam, Twente University of Technology, Eindhoven UT, VU Amsterdam, and Utrecht University have also played host to military PhD students.

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And He Lei? His Delft supervisor Mathijs de Weerdt tells Follow the Money that, in Delft, he worked on algorithms for planning issues, for example for traffic, or for the operational management of factories. That too is dual-use science, but mostly civilian. In doing so, he represents a different group of military researchers: PhD students who, while they returned to their military college or army, mainly conducted civilian research in the Netherlands.

This also applies to Yin Jiapeng, who in 2014 started his PhD trajectory at Delft UT. He researched, among other things, how to use a drone to calibrate weather radar systems. After defending his dissertation in 2019, Yin returned to his alma mater: the NUDT. There, he started working at the State Key Laboratory of Complex Electromagnetic Environment Effects on Electronics and Information System. This laboratory, according to its website, has contributed ‘to the weapons and equipment of national defence’.

At the State Key Laboratory, Yin subsequently worked on phased array radar, a system that can be found on most modern small warships. Its dish consists of thousands of small radars, each of which can send its own beam of signals. This allows you to locate objects at greater distances and in greater detail than is possible with traditional radars.

This technology is typically dual-use: useful for meteorological observations and air traffic control, but also for military purposes. For example, the radar system allows you to simultaneously track an aircraft and a land vehicle. If you equip military ships with it, you can detect and disable ballistic missiles, from the sea. According to a defence expert who, at the request of Follow the Money, assessed a study by Yin, the described technology also has military applications.

Yin invariably collaborates on these studies with a former Delft UT employee: Pang Chen, who was a guest researcher in the same Delft department, two years prior to Yin’s arrival. In his resume, Pang states that he participated in ‘advanced research into weapons and equipment’.

Fuel for hypersonic weapons 

In 2016, Ma Likun, who obtained a master's degree from the NUDT, obtained his PhD from Delft UT. He conducted research into the rapid and accurate calculation of the behavior of small flames in laboratory settings. The calculation models he developed in Delft can be applied to burners in high-temperature furnaces, gas turbines, and car engines: civilian research, according to his promotor Dirk Roekaerts. His dissertation received cum laude.

Ma went on to become a professor at the NUDT, and to conduct research at the Science and Technology on Scramjet Laboratory, an NUDT lab that conducts research into, among other things, hypersonic propulsion. Here, he has, in recent years, been working on scramjet technology: jet engines designed for speeds above MACH 5.

​This is also dual-use science, says Voskuijl. For Follow the Money, Voskuijl looked at two scientific publications about scramjets that Ma worked on, after being hired at the NUDT. The technology involved is indispensable for the development of hypersonic weapons, Voskuijl concludes.

The fusion of civilian and military knowledge

Civilian knowledge subsequently appearing in military guise is not a coincidence; it is policy. China even has a term for it: civil-military fusion. While the concept was already used by Mao Zedong and his successors, Xi Jinping applied it to make the Chinese military the most technologically advanced army in the world. Xi unfolded those plans at the Party Congress that He Lei in Delft and the other WeChatting PhD students watched, as ordered by the NUDT.

Alex Joske, independent researcher

"Even if you keep a military PhD student from doing militarily sensitive research, you still provide them with skills to do better research for the Chinese army"

One of the cornerstones of that policy is the removal of barriers between, on one side, civilian research and the commercial sector, and on the other, military research and the defense industry. For this reason, Alex Joske, who led research at ASPI into the cooperation between Western universities and Chinese military-academic institutions, believes that there are risks even to civilian research done by military scientists. 'Even if you keep a military PhD student from doing militarily sensitive research, you still provide them with skills to do better research for the Chinese army,' says Joske.

In retrospect, Ma’s promotor thinks so too. Professor emeritus Dirk Roekaerts tells Follow the Money that Ma’s master’s degree from the NUDT had more implications than he realized at the time. It is ‘not just a preparatory program, but one that demands something in return from its students. I have resisted further collaboration with the NUDT, but of course my contribution to his education has benefited the NUDT, if only because he is now an excellent professor there, who can direct new research.’

Simone Baldi, Lv’s promotor, would have made a different choice with the knowledge of today. Herman Russchenberg – who took Yin under his wing – informed Follow the Money that he no longer wants to hire NUDT students. Jos Brouwers, Cao’s supervisor, says that when he hired her in 2017, there were no restrictions. The next time someone from the NUDT applies, he will ‘make inquiries’.

The promotors say they have made clear agreements with their PhD students: all research results must be published. ‘So, no more knowledge goes to China than if the research were done by a European; after all, our policy is that of open science,’ He Lei’s supervisor Mathijs de Weerdt says.

Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapons and aviation systems

"The knowledge to apply these techniques really does reside in the researcher himself. And they go back to China"

Yet that is not the solution, Voskuijl thinks. ‘Those papers are quite short, so you can't describe all the details. The knowledge to apply these techniques really does reside in the researcher himself. And they go back to China.’

The military PhD students usually stay in touch with their Chinese alma mater. The ASPI has previously shown that the NUDT even has specific policies to stay in touch with its ‘overseas personnel’. He Lei’s WeChat group was set up by an NUDT ‘PhD team’, which regularly posts study materials so that the PhD students can ‘keep up with the spirit of the 19th Party Congress,’ according to the Hunan Daily.

In her dissertation, Cao – the concrete researcher – thanks her NUDT teachers for encouraging her to do her PhD abroad, and for their ‘continued trust, support and guidance’. Another PhD student thanks his NUDT professor in his dissertation: ‘During these years, you have been concerned about my research progress and personal development.’

Both the ASPI and the Dutch MIVD state that the PhD students have no choice but to return to China and use their knowledge there for defence purposes. ‘They receive a grant from the Chinese state and are then allowed to study abroad, but there is a quid pro quo,’ says MIVD director Swillens. Professor Roekaerts has the same impression. ‘I understand Ma was in a system where a higher authority assigns people to universities,’ he says.

​Lots of talent, plus extra money

According to the ASPI, since 2007, the Chinese army has sent about 2,500 scientists to foreign universities. According to the think tank, the United States was the most popular destination, based on the number of papers authored by both an American academic and a Chinese military academic.

The Netherlands is in eighth place, remarkably high for such a small country. According to the MIVD, this is not without reason: ‘In the Netherlands, we have a lot of high-quality knowledge, both at Dutch universities and knowledge institutions, and at companies,’ says Swillens. ‘And so we are an extremely important target for Chinese defence.’

For every scientist who obtains their doctorate, a university receives approximately 83 thousand euros from the government

The policy that the Dutch government has pursued for years also seems to play a role: the Netherlands was only too happy to bring in those Chinese students. A confidential memo from September 2010, sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Education, says: ‘Attracting talented Chinese PhD students to the Netherlands is an important spearhead in the Dutch strategic knowledge agenda.’

The universities had the same idea: in addition to talent, most PhD students also bring along grants from the China Scholarship Council. In addition, Dutch universities receive a sum of money from the government for every scientist who obtains their doctorate: for 2022, it is approximately 83 thousand euros per PhD candidate, the Ministry of Education tells RTL Nieuws and Follow the Money.

Academic freedom

The Netherlands has no laws that prohibit collaboration with foreign researchers, universities, or institutes, with two exceptions. They cannot cooperate with students or scientists involved in North Korean or Iranian nuclear or missile programs, or cooperate with people or institutions involved in terrorist activities.

Which Chinese PhD students come to study here, and how many, isn’t centrally tracked by any of the universities. After all, it is prohibited to collect certain information – such as the country of origin – about groups, if there is no legal basis for doing so. And no university denies researchers from military universities a PhD spot.

Only the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at Delft UT has stopped accepting PhD students from the NUDT, although this measure does not apply to other Chinese military universities. A spokesperson for Delft UT says that the university has become ‘more careful’ about hiring PhD students, but is not clear about what that entails.

According to Jan Swillens of the MIVD, professors play an important role in protecting Dutch core technology. ‘They know better than anyone which knowledge is really important and must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands.’

Sometimes such choices thwart scientific ideals, says professor Dirk Roekaerts, who supervised PhD student Ma. ‘As scientists, we maintain that scientific knowledge must be available to everyone, especially if it is co-financed by the taxpayer. Also, we maintain that cooperation with all layers of society and all countries in the world is very important. The harsh reality prevents us from taking these principles to the extreme.’

Translation: Chris Kok