Beeld © 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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The international research collective, led by the Dutch platform Follow the Money, with the support of the German CORRECTIV, found a total of 2,994 scientific publications on which scientists from European universities and Chinese military universities collaborated. Follow the Money collected over 350,000 scientific studies and made them available to 30 journalists from 11 research desks in 7 countries.

The China Science Investigation shows that European universities are collaborating on a large scale with Chinese military institutes. Most notably, this concerns the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), which is directly overseen by the Chinese Central Military Commission, the authoritarian state's highest national defence body.

The consortium also found studies done in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, which focuses on nuclear weapons. The studies deal with militarily sensitive topics such as unmanned vehicles, radar technology, and artificial intelligence. 

Universities in Great Britain have conducted the most joint studies with Chinese scientists. They account for almost half (1,389) of all scientific articles found. Germany is in second place with 349 articles, followed by the Netherlands (288) and Sweden (230).

A few examples:

• A 2018 British study, done in collaboration with four colleagues from the NUDT, concerns 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 (Denmark) worked on advanced 5G and 6G radio signals with an engineer from China, who claimed to come from a university that doesn’t exist. The Danish intelligence service, PET, cited the incident in 2021, to illustrate how Danish studies and technology can leak and be misused.

• Five scientists, including one from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and a colleague from NUDT, wanted to improve personal tracking systems to identify and monitor people in a group, even if they are disguised. Authoritarian regimes can use such a system against their own population. That is certainly a risk in China: Uyghurs are monitored in an unparalleled way. This has been known since 2018, but the study was published in 2021.

• In 2021, a scientist at 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.’

The fact that the Chinese military institutes seek cooperation in these research fields is part of a well-thought-out strategy. China wants to become the world’s main technological, economic, political and military power. In front of a packed People’s Congress in 2017, Xi described technology as ‘the core of the capability to wage war’. China obtains this technology, in part, from abroad: sometimes through espionage, but also through ‘normal’ scientific collaboration.

The independent Australian China expert Alex Joske says: ‘The Chinese army enters into these partnerships specifically to gain access to technology and expertise that improve the army. In fact, these collaborations mean that expertise and knowledge are transferred from within Europe to the Chinese army.’

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

Under President Xi Jinping, the country has developed into what an expert in Foreign Policy characterised as a ‘techno-totalitarian state’, where freedoms are curtailed and minorities are persecuted.

The research collective

The China Science Investigation is an initiative of Follow the Money. With the support of the German independent newsroom CORRECTIV, the Dutch research platform leads a collective of 30 journalists from 11 investigative desks in 7 countries. This consortium also consists of RTL Nieuws from the Netherlands; Deutsche Welle, Deutschlandfunk, and Süddeutsche Zeitung from Germany; El Confidencial from Spain; the Belgian newspaper De Tijd; research platform Irpimedia from Italy; the Danish Politiken; El Confidencial from Spain; and the Swisse Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Over the coming months, the research collective will conduct further research into scientific collaborations and ties between Chinese scientists and European knowledge institutions. A complete overview of all publications from the participating media partners and more information about the project and the research team can be found at www.ftm.eu/ChinaScienceInvestigation.