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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At least eight Chinese PhD students who got their doctorate in the Netherlands, went to work for a division of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) immediately after their return. For example, a scientist with a PhD at Delft University of Technology is now at PLA Unit 32381, where he published a study on the future of robot warfare.

Through these PhD students, according to the Dutch 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.

‘The Netherlands has high-quality knowledge in these areas,’ says Swillens. ‘And that’s what the Chinese army is after. The military scientists receive a grant from the Chinese state and are then allowed to study abroad, but there is a quid pro quo. You are expected to use the knowledge you have acquired to benefit the strategy of the state.’

For example: last year, a Chinese soldier from the Air Force Engineering University, an army university, obtained his doctorate at Delft UT. He conducted research into the control of hypersonic aircraft. According to an expert to whom we submitted these studies, the technology described in them is also important for hypersonic weapons. These types of weapons are difficult to intercept by anti-aircraft defences due to their high speed (five times the speed of sound) and agility.

Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws examined a total of 93 Chinese PhD students who came to the Netherlands for their PhD research in the period 2013-2022, after completing their master’s degree at a Chinese military university. Many of them subsequently returned to China, where they often went to work for their original university. Sometimes PhD students and guest researchers claimed to have studied at innocent-sounding institutes. From their Chinese publications, it’s however clear these are pseudonyms of the military Information Engineering 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.

Technology plays a crucial role in Xi Jinping’s military ambitions. He wants his country to be the world’s military superpower by 2049. In 2017, before a packed People’s 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. In 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank was the first to recognize that this approach is an important part of China's military strategy.

Which Chinese PhD students are accepted at Dutch faculties, and how many, isn’t centrally tracked by any of the universities. After all, it is prohibited to track 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 sure what that means.

The international research collective China Science Investigation is led by Follow the Money, with support from the German CORRECTIV. Follow the Money found a total of 2,994 scientific publications on which scientists from European universities and Chinese military universities collaborated. For this, Follow the Money collected over 350,000 scientific studies. Productions from the media partners will be posted at ftm.eu/ChinaScienceInvestigation.