© Monwest, Matthias Leuhof

Drones and concrete to withstand bullets: collaboration with ‘ordinary’ Chinese universities also poses risks

Collaboration between Dutch universities and the Chinese armed forces is not limited to military universities. Over the past seven years, several hundred studies were conducted in collaboration with civilian Chinese universities as well, that in turn work for the military.

It’s like something out of a science fiction film: a swarm of drones deftly manoeuvres through a dense bamboo forest. Buzzing – screaming, rather –, they find their way past fallen trees, through small gaps, and over bushes. Without much trouble, they follow and film their human target, a man walking among the trees. The drones are not controlled. They have, as the researchers themselves call it, a ‘smart brain’.

This research was done by scientists from China’s Zhejiang University. One of them had previously conducted research into these drones, first with a Dutch university and then with a Spanish university. It is civilian research, the scientists claim, but while Zhejiang is indeed a civilian university, it is connected to the Chinese defence industry. The university has at least three defence labs and also conducts research for the Ministry of State Security, China’s civilian intelligence agency.

It appears that Dutch scientists are not only conducting research with colleagues from the Chinese army, as our previous articles show. In fact, some of the fruits of their studies with Chinese civilian colleagues are ultimately reaped by the army. This is one of the conclusions of the China Science Investigation, a large international study into more than 350 thousand scientific studies, initiated by Follow the Money, with the support from German non-profit research platform Correctiv.

Gathering knowledge

By 2049, when it celebrates its centenary as a communist nation, China wants to be the foremost military, economic and political superpower of the world. The knowledge still required for the country to achieve this goal is obtained from abroad in a coordinated way, through, among other things, scientific research. Military intelligence services from various European countries have been issuing warnings about this for years.

Several Dutch and foreign specialists inventoried the areas where China still needs to develop, such as artificial intelligence, photonics (the study of light), robotics (including drones), sensor technology, and quantum technology. It concerns 'dual-use' technology: having both military and civilian applications. For our research, we looked at possible military applications.

Follow the Money manually looked at several thousand (abstracts of) studies in these research areas, on which both Dutch and Chinese scientists collaborated. We then looked at the Chinese university with which those studies had been conducted. Ultimately, we only selected papers published after 2015, where the Chinese researcher is affiliated with a university classified as ‘risky’ in The China Defence Universities Tracker. The reason for that characterization: these universities have departments and labs that work closely with the defence industry in China. Using this method, we found over four hundred studies.

The Seven Sons

In addition to civilian universities with ties to the armed forces – such as the aforementioned Zhejiang University – there are seven civilian universities with a status aparte: they fall under the military-scientific apparatus.They are called the ‘Seven Sons of National Defence’: civilian universities that have contracts with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Seven Sons do not fall under the Ministry of Education, but under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. This ministry oversees China’s defence industry through the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).


Roughly half of the Seven Sons’ research budget is spent on defence research. On its website, Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) reports: ‘NPU has put its roots down in the west; dedicated itself to national defense and written several “firsts” into the history of the PRC.’

In recent years, Dutch universities – Delft UT, Eindhoven UT, University of Twente, University of Groningen, Utrecht University, and VU Amsterdam – have conducted dozens of studies with scientists from the NPU.

For example, two researchers from the University of Groningen and colleagues from the NPU worked on a paper to improve task division and communication between robots. In the summary, the researchers report: ‘One robot is chosen as the leader to make a centralized task assignment for the other robots.’

We presented the study to Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapons and aviation systems at the Dutch Defence Academy. According to him, this research is ‘useful for civilian applications as well as maritime patrols and military applications such as intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and surveillance’.

Another ‘son’, the Beijing Institute of Technology, co-hosts a biennial conference on defence. The chairmen and keynote speakers are mostly from the Seven Sons. Interesting detail: in 2018, a PhD student from Delft UT presented a paper by TNO, Delft UT, and the Faculty of Military Sciences of the Netherlands Defence Academy, which even won them an award [see box].

Beijing International Defence Conference

The ‘Beijing Friendship Hotel’ has seen foreign scientists come and go. It was built in 1954, to serve as accommodation for experts from the former Soviet Union, who came to assist the CCP in scientific matters. To accommodate the Russian guests, the few foreign chefs in Shanghai were brought to Beijing to cook for them. To this day, the Friendship Hotel serves borscht and Moscow fried fish.

In 2018, this hotel hosted scientists from around the world for the 1st International Conference on Defence Technology.

Postcard of the Beijing Friendship Hotel [source]

The conference proceeding contained studies on explosive mixtures, nanomaterials in rocket technology, and propulsion systems for rocket engines. Scientists from Delft UT (including one specialising in explosions), TNO, and the Faculty of Military Sciences of the Netherlands Defence Academy contributed a paper on bullet resistance of a certain building material.

TNO financed the research that formed the basis of the paper; according to them, it was also relevant to the Dutch armed forces. TNO further says that they were not present at the Beijing conference. ‘The paper in question was written and presented by an Italian PhD student employed by Delft UT. [..] TNO doesn’t think it’s wise that Delft UT had the PhD student present the paper in question in China.’

The event was fully funded by the China Ordnance Society 中国兵工学会 (Chinese Society of Military Industry), one of the main sponsors of innovation of China’s weapons and defence industry, according to its website. The organisation funds various magazines on military and defence science.

​In 2018, the award for the best contribution went to the Dutch research team. Today – four years later – Delft UT has adapted a different policy, a spokesperson informs Follow the Money. ‘Participation in a defence-related conference in China is no longer an option.’

The Dutch Ministry of Defence says that the studies’ results were published and thus, they are available to everybody.

Read more Fold in

Civilian universities

In addition to the Seven Sons, scientists at Dutch universities collaborate with Chinese colleagues from ‘regular’ civilian universities, as well. But there are risks here, too: some of them have departments and laboratories that work closely with the Chinese defence industry.

A research team from the independent think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) – which is financially supported, in part, by the Dutch government – has mapped out as many of these universities as possible, ranking them according to their degree of involvement in the military apparatus. FTM also examined the collaborations between Dutch universities and those Chinese universities that the ASPI labels as 'risky'.

Military use

A number of studies clearly seem to be intended for military applications. For example, in 2020, two scientists from Eindhoven UT and a colleague from Wuhan University (‘very high risk’) conduct research on how well a particular type of concrete can withstand NATO bullets.

It is the same type of concrete studied by Delft UT with a military Chinese colleague, and that according to an expert has a military application. In the paper, the researchers from Eindhoven UT and Wuhan University write that the material has ‘great potential for protective and military applications’. As with the Delft study, the researchers thank the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which provided them with test ammunition for their research.

Two Delft UT researchers and colleagues from the Wuhan University of Technology (‘high risk’) conducted research into how to prevent self-propelled ships from crashing in ‘various working conditions’ (2020). That can be useful for ordinary ships, but certainly for the military.

‘You can assume that any research into anything that flies, sails or drives can be useful to the Chinese armed forces,’ says Paul Verhagen of the think tank The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). Verhagen specialises in topics such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and the Chinese-American tech arms race.

Verhagen: ‘The same applies to this particular study into drone boats. Such boats can be useful because they can be hard to detect, so they can easily cross the line of defence, or because so many can be sent at the enemy that it becomes impossible to defend against them.’ In April of this year, The Washington Post described how the US defence wants ‘robot ships [to be able] to replace sailors in battle’, in order to compete with China.

At the University of Groningen, a number of studies were carried out in collaboration with universities that, according to the ASPI, carry a ‘high’ to ‘very high’ risk. In one of these, the UG researcher and colleagues from Tsinghua University (‘very high risk’) and the University of Science and Technology Beijing (‘high risk’) looked at the technical challenges of reducing unmanned flight systems in size.

Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapons and aviation systems at the Netherlands Defence Academy: ‘Super-small unmanned systems are difficult to detect and have information, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications. Specific reference is made to a DARPA program for the development of nano-UAVs. DARPA is an American military technology research institute. So this also has military relevance.’

Human target

The study involving drones in a bamboo forest, cited previously, also comes from a Chinese civilian university with military ties: Zhejiang University, which has defence labs and ties to the defence industry.

Earlier this month, one of the researchers involved was interviewed by the China News Service: ‘Letting these drones fly freely, like a flock of birds, would be the ultimate goal for us and our international colleagues,’ said Xu Chao, a professor at the College of Control Science and Engineering of Zhejiang University. He stated that ‘flying in formation in an unfamiliar and complex environment [..] is a major technological pain point in robotics and artificial intelligence’.

South China Morning Post: Autonomous drones fly through Chinese bamboo forest (May 2022)

The drones – they are quadrotors: they have four propellers – weigh as little as a can of Coke and fit in the palm of your hand, according to the researchers. Xu Chao conducted research into these quadrotors with the Eindhoven UT as early as 2013. To be exact, he worked on simulation models for them. At the time, the researchers wrote that the drones ‘can be easily augmented with different sensing units for various applications such as unmanned reconnaissance flights, air photography, air filming or tracking or following of objects’.

Then, in 2019, Xu conducted research with the University of Valencia (Spain) on how those quadrotors could fly with agility and accuracy. ‘Very useful if you want to fly quickly and autonomously through a forest,’ says Mark Voskuijl: ‘And it makes sense for the author to first focus on simulation models for drones, and then on their controls.’

In his most recent study, Xu’s drones track and film a human target without crashing even once.

‘Western universities are helping the Chinese army to get a head start, which could cost us dearly in the future’

Lawyer and drone expert Jessica Dorsey, assistant professor at Utrecht University, finds it ‘problematic and worrying’ that Dutch researchers are participating in such studies. According to her, this example is emblematic of a trend where ‘Western universities are helping the Chinese army to get a head start, which could cost us dearly in the future’.

In their interview with the China News Service, the Chinese researchers speak only of the fantastic civilian uses for ‘smart’, autonomous quadrotors. You could use them for rescue operations, or maybe have them clean your house.

Dorsey: ‘It’s interesting how they describe their research, talking about all the “useful” applications for drone swarms, when they will clearly be used by the military, and the researchers are affiliated with the military apparatus.’

In civilian guise

China is fully committed to their strategy of what it calls military-civil fusion: if any research by companies or civilian institutions can be used to help the Chinese armed forces get ahead, then it must be.

‘De strategie van‘It’s clear that what motivates research and education exchanges with European universities, is China’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy,' says Rebecca Arcesati of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a leading German think tank. ‘This implies that collaborating with many Chinese universities can directly benefit China’s military modernization. It’s not just collaboration with universities directly run by the PLA, but also some civilian universities. Obviously the Seven Sons of National Defence are of particular importance, but we also have other civilian universities that are increasingly being asked to contribute to essentially support the Chinese arms industry.’

According to Arcesati, this is an orchestrated policy. ‘This was clearly highlighted in 2017 opinions of the State Council on Civilian-Military Fusion, where it was stated that universities need to play a key role in supporting China’s arms industry. The focus is really on cooperation between university and academia in contributing to the technological advancement of China’s military.’

Military-Civil Fusion: universities are teacher’s pet

In January of 2021, American think tank Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) published a report on how the US might assess the risks of this Chinese policy. ‘MCF is startlingly expansive in scope, including everything from efforts in big data and infrastructure to logistics and national defense mobilization. [..] [it] could enhance Chinese defense innovation and support the development of emerging capabilities that may impact the future military balance.’

In Chinese, the character ‘Jūn’ (military) comes first, followed by the character ‘mín’ (civilian). So, the translation is ‘military-civil fusion’. According to German researcher Didi Kirsten Tatlow, the word order says something about China’s priorities. ‘The policy is tailored to the interests of the military. It goes back to the beginning of the Communist Party's rule and has been deepened, refined and developed over the years.’

China expanded this policy in its ‘National Development’ strategy, Xi Jinping said in a 2017 speech. By the year 2049, China should be a ‘modern socialist state’. To achieve this, China would have to obtain a world-class army, through military-civil fusion.

Although private (tech) companies sometimes dig in their heels when the government demands their cooperation, the Chinese state can force companies to hand over sensitive information or technology. The Chinese universities are quicker to cooperate. ‘Several hundred Chinese universities receive military funding, educate military students, conduct defence research, and/or have established dedicated initiatives or laboratories to these ends,’ the CNAS writes. And the number of willing employees is growing.

Read more Fold in

This does not mean that all Chinese scientists share knowledge with the military, nor that they do so with enthusiasm, when they are required. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, co-author of the book China’s Quest for Foreign Technology, investigated the pressure exerted on (student) researchers when the Chinese government wants something from them.

‘It’s both pressure and enticement. Students are regularly encouraged by the PRC authorities, including by Chinese diplomats in Europe, to “repay the motherland with science and technology”. They understand what that means and many, though not all, internalise the demand and comply. Overall, though, it is hard for them to stay out of the CCP system overseas, too. We should offer them help and support to do so.’ Follow the Money previously wrote about the pressure and the culture of fear present among Chinese students in the Netherlands.

So should Western universities cease all cooperation with China? Not at all, according to each of the experts we spoke to. Joris Teer, China analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, believes that we should ‘absolutely’ continue to collaborate with China on an academic level. ‘In the areas of economics, politics, and sociology, for example, interaction is not only desirable, but even necessary.’

‘The government must be given the right to say “no’” to a specific collaboration. Doing nothing is not an option’

But the situation is different when it comes to high-level technology. Teer believes that, first and foremost, there should be a clear definition of risk areas. These need to be mapped out, not only by defence experts, but also by investment and screening experts.

Teer: ‘The first group knows which fundamental technological gaps still exist for the Chinese armed forces, and which technologies will dominate the warfare of the future; think of artificial intelligence, the latest semiconductors, and drone swarms. And experts in the field of foreign direct investment and joint ventures have a good sense of ​​how much of China’s money is spent where, both at home and abroad. That is a second indication of which knowledge Beijing is looking to acquire.’

He argues for a notification obligation for universities and companies ‘with regard to collaborations in these high-risk fields, including those of PhD students’. ‘Finally, the government must be given the right to say “no”. Doing nothing is not an option. If, through European universities and companies, China obtains the technology for a first-class jet fighter, anti-submarine warfare, and a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, threat assessment concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea will change rapidly.’

Translation: Chris Kok.

Responses from universities

The universities where we found collaborations with military institutes all say that this subject has only recently received more attention. The universities have all set up advice centres on knowledge security and/or Chinese collaborations and have developed resources such as decision trees and checklists. For example, Delft UT uses the ASPI tracker – which also includes civilian universities – as a tool for employees to assess an intended collaboration.

The universities also claim to use the guidelines and advice drawn up by the Ministry of OCW. (More about this in our first article in this series.)

Ultimately, universities place the responsibility for entering into these collaborations with researchers themselves. A spokesperson for Leiden University: ‘We expect every scientist to think carefully about possible risks and conditions in collaboration with third parties, and to enter into discussions with third parties about this.’

A spokesperson of Eindhoven UT said about the research into concrete that is mentioned:

A spokesperson of Eindhoven UT said about the research into concrete mentioned in this article: ‘The experimental part of this study was conducted in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence. For the tests at Defence, standard NATO ammunition was used. The aim was not to develop concrete that specifically stops these NATO bullets [..] but to protect our military from bullets fired by terrorists. One of the people involved with the paper that FTM refers to, is a professor at Wuhan University; The scientific level of concrete research in China is top notch, among other things because China is the world’s biggest cement and concrete manufacturer.’

Read more Fold in