Banking on China: University of California’s China Collaborations Under the Spotlight

By Nathan Su
Nathan Su
Nathan Su
July 2, 2021 Updated: July 2, 2021

In the past decade, the University of California (UC) system faced a sticky situation.

Staring down the barrel of precipitous cuts in state funding, UC needed to find benefactors to make up for the shortfall. It found its savior in the form of Chinese students who were willing to fork out around three times as much tuition as Californian residents to attend one of the system’s 10 campuses, which include some of the most prestigious public universities in the country.

Billions in tuition rolled in, and now UC boasts the largest number of Chinese students and scholars in the United States.

The university’s dependence on Chinese students for cash flow is not a unique phenomenon. It’s emblematic of deepening academic and economic links between Western institutions and China that until recently has attracted little scrutiny.

While U.S. universities often tout that collaboration with Chinese institutions serve to advance scientific endeavors and ultimately benefit humankind, the security risks and threats to academic freedom had often been overlooked.

These threats were highlighted by former President Donald Trump’s administration, which cast a spotlight on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sweeping efforts to influence and subvert American colleges: its engaging in an expansive campaign to steal U.S. research, including through recruitment programs aimed at transferring foreign know-how to China; and its economic influence means universities are often silent on sensitive issues that shine the spotlight on the CCP’s abuses. Meanwhile, Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes and overseas Chinese student groups act to jeopardize academic freedom and free speech on campuses.

The depth of the ties between American universities and China was so concerning to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he warned in December that U.S. schools were “hooked on Chinese Communist Party cash.”

“So many of our colleges are bought by Beijing,” Pompeo said in a speech at Georgia Tech.

“Americans must know how the Chinese Communist Party is poisoning the well of our higher education institutions for its own ends, and how those actions degrade our freedoms and American national security.”

Epoch Times Photo
Main gate of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. (Soramimi/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

China Links

For UC, collaboration with Chinese institutions goes back decades. But its relationships advanced beginning in the early 2000s.

In 2005, UC’s 10 campuses signed an agreement with 10 top Chinese universities to form the “10+10 Alliance.” The alliance was meant to “enhance cooperation in scientific research between Chinese and American institutions of higher learning, and promote academic and cultural exchange,” based on a copy of the agreement provided by UC.

Under the pact, UC would accept Chinese students whose studies were funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council, a scholarship fund established by China’s education ministry for Chinese students to study abroad, according to Chinese media at the time.

Then-Chinese Deputy Minister of Education Qingping Zhao attended the agreement signing ceremony on Oct. 10, 2005, and UC representatives later met with China’s then-Minister of Education Ji Zhou after the ceremony.

Less than a decade later, UC Berkeley partnered with Tsinghua University and the Shenzhen City government to establish the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute (TBSI), a graduate studies facility that focuses on research in environmental science and new energy technologies, information technology and data science, and precision medicine and healthcare.

The tripartite venture between the two universities and the city was the first of its kind in China. At the institute’s opening ceremony, UC Berkeley was congratulated by Tsinghua’s president as being the first Western university to participate in a new collaborative framework known as the “government-universities-industries partnership” (GUIP) model.

At the opening ceremony in September 2014, two agreements were signed, according to a Chinese media report. One was between UC Berkeley and Tsinghua University, the other was between the two universities and Shenzhen City government.

The ceremony featured speeches by then-Shenzhen City Mayor Qin Xu, then-Tsinghua University President Jining Chen, and then-Berkeley University Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. The Chinese officials who attended the ceremony included Shenzhen City CCP Committee Secretary Rong Wang, and Tsinghua University CCP Committee Secretary Xu Cheng.

“Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute is a model that establishes never-before-seen relations between universities. It is a milestone that establishes brand-new collaborations among universities, government, and industries in new adventures and practices,” then-Tsinghua University President Chen said at the ceremony.

Then-Chancellor of UC Berkeley Dirks said the two universities would work together to meet complicated social and economic challenges facing the United States, China, and the globe, according to a report by Tsinghua University News.

The institute’s current oversight committee includes three members: UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ, Tsinghua University President Yong Qiu, and Shenzhen City Mayor Rugui Chen.

In line with China’s GUIP model, the institute has built extensive relationships with companies across an array of industries.

According to its Chinese language website, TBSI has an external advisory board and an industry advisory board that include a long line of high-level executives from leading Chinese and Western tech corporations, as well as investment firms, venture capital companies, and insurance companies.

Tech firms advising TBSI include: Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE, China’s biggest internet company Tencent, and American firms Cisco, Apple, and Applied Materials. European tech company Siemens Ag, and Taiwan’s Delta Electronics are also on the list.

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New army recruits march during military training at Guangzhou University in China’s Guangdong Province, on Sept. 20, 2005. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Tsinghua and China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy

UC Berkeley’s Chinese collaborator Tsinghua University has been at the forefront of research and development, supporting Beijing’s military-civil fusion (MCF) strategy. This state-led policy prescribes that technology developments generated by universities and civilian industries be harnessed to advance the regime’s military modernization.

The strategy also “directs collaboration with foreign universities to acquire cutting edge research and technology to advance its efforts to achieve a world-class military by the year 2049,” according to a 2020 U.S. state department document (pdf).

Dubbed “China’s MIT,” Beijing’s Tsinghua is China’s top science and technology university. It conducts a range of military research, hosting at least eight defense laboratories, including one that works on air-to-air missiles, according to the China Defense Universities Tracker online database compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Another lab is called the “Military-Civil Fusion Laboratory for Peak Technologies.”

The university is also supervised by the regime’s defense industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense.

Having signed a cooperation agreement with the regime’s nuclear weapons program in 2014, Tsinghua has trained students for the program, as well as the broader defense industry, ASPI said. In 2013, 40 doctoral students at the university were sponsored by the program to study nuclear technology and required to work for the agency after graduating.

To promote MCF, Tsinghua even created a specialized master’s degree program, “Engineering Management of Military-Civil Fusion,” which is geared towards current or retired military personnel.

The university also worked directly with top-level Chinese military and defense academies to offer seminars and training to promote MCF in different provinces in China. Some Chinese factories have invited Tsinghua to give advice on how to participate in the state strategy, according to Chinese media.

In 2018, Tsinghua received more than $14 million from the Science and Technology Committee of China’s Central Military Commission—a party organ that oversees the military—to work on an Artificial Intelligence project for the military, according to a Chinese state media report.

The university also has a research and development center in Luoyang city of Henan Province. One of the center’s roles is to promote MCF. Its marketing center also has a military product division.

In September 2017, the third Military-Civil Fusion Tech Development Expo was held in Beijing. It’s main host was the CCP’s Central Commission for the Development of Military-Civil Fusion (CCDMCF), the body that oversees the strategy that works directly under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Under direction from CCDMCF, Tsinghua University planned, organized, and participated in the expo, according to reports by Chinese media.

Among the expo’s co-hosts were top CCP bodies, including the Department of Equipment Development of the Central Military Commission, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Defense’s Administrative Bureau of Science, Technology, and Industry, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the National Association of Industry and Commerce.

CCDMCF selected 15 technologies and products developed by Tsinghua to present at the expo, more than from any other university, Chinese media reported. A highlight was China’s fastest supercomputer developed by Tsinghua researchers.

Tsinghua has not only been a major actor in the implementation of MCF, it also aided in the formulation of the national strategy.

In October 2015, Xi made MCF a national priority in a meeting of the CCP’s Central Committee, a top decision-making body of the regime, state media reported at the time. The direction was to establish a nation-wide system for the management, operation, and policy system for MCF.

After the meeting, Tsinghua led a research project that analyzed similar military-civil collaboration efforts in the United States, Japan, Russia, and Israel. The results, published in May 2016, recommended the regime establish its own MCF path, drawing on takeaways from the four countries’ experiences.

Seven months later, the Central Commission for the Development of Military-Civil Fusion was formed in January 2017, with Xi as its director.

The regime’s MCF strategy was targeted by the Trump administration, which blacklisted a bevy of Chinese tech and defense companies that aided the military. Trump also issued an executive order that barred U.S. investments in a group of Chinese military-linked companies that form part of the MCF strategy. President Joe Biden recently expanded the list of Chinese firms caught by the ban.

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A researcher at Peking University’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics conducting tests at their laboratory in Beijing, China, on May 14, 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

Cheated in China

The lack of protections for intellectual property in China is well known. Amid deepening collaboration between U.S. and Chinese scholars, some Western academics have come to experience this first hand.

In July 2020, Chinese media reported on renowned UC San Diego professor Fu Xiangdong who accused a Chinese research team of stealing his pioneering research on Parkinson’s disease. Fu made the accusation in a letter that he sent to China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Science—the country’s top state-run research institute—and the Natural Science Foundation of China, a regime-funded scientific research institution.

Fu led a team at UC San Diego conducting research on Parkinson’s disease. After nine years of work, Fu’s team published a research paper in Nature (a British scientific journal) in June 2020. Fu’s team discovered they were able to eliminate Parkinson’s symptoms in mice by inhibiting the PBT gene.

But the alleged copy-cat Chinese research team beat Fu to the punch, publishing a similar research paper in Cell (a peer-reviewed scientific journal) two months earlier. The team was led by Yang Hui from Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience (ION), a branch of the Chinese Academy of Science.

According to Chinese media, Fu was invited to ION to present his research on June 14, 2018, about 18 months before the professor submitted his research results to Nature. During the presentation, Fu revealed many details about his experiments, the lab set-up, and research findings.

Yang was one of the audience members in attendance. At the dinner after the presentation, he also asked Fu many detailed questions about this research.

Following this, Yang immediately instructed his own research team to set up a new research project along the lines of Fu’s work, according to Chinese media. Piggybacking off information from Fu’s years of research and lab work, Yang’s team was able to complete its work in less than two years, and got it published in Cell in April, two months ahead of Fu’s paper in Nature.

Fu, in his 60s, is one of the leading figures in his field of cellular and molecular medicine. He joined UC San Diego in 1992 after earning a doctorate at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University in 1988 and a master’s from Wuhan University in China in 1982.

Yang, meanwhile, is 28 years old, and received his PhD in China in 2012. According to Chinese media, Yang’s research paper was based on less than one year of lab testing data. He is also a founder and chief scientist of a pharmaceutical company, according to Chinese media.

Yang first denied Fu’s accusation, but later made a statement to “deeply apologize for not being able to keep Fu updated about our research progress,” adding that he “appreciate[s] Fu’s contribution to our work.”

Fu, in a phone interview with The Epoch Times, said that it was a common practice for researchers to reveal undisclosed information in presentations such as this. But he now regrets ever giving a presentation at ION, during which he revealed some sensitive details about his research.

The researcher said he didn’t seek any legal assistance from UC in pursuing the dispute.

Fu also told The Epoch Times that he was invited to make the presentation at ION by a former colleague Poo Muming. Poo, a neuroscientist who resides in China, is currently a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a founding director of ION.

Poo was born in China in 1948, not long before the CCP took power, but grew up in Taiwan after his family fled to the island a year after his birth. He came to the United States as a student in 1970 and later became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s.

The professor founded ION in 1999 as an institution under CAS, and kept holding research positions at both UC Berkeley and ION for more than a decade. He later became an emeritus at UC Berkeley to focus his efforts in China. In 2016, Poo won the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience for his pioneering study on the connections between neurons in the brain, a process integral to learning and memory.

In 2017, Poo gave up his U.S. citizenship to become a Chinese citizen, Chinese media reported. During an interview with Chinese media in 2018, Poo said: “In my heart, I have always believed that I am Chinese. Working for my motherland is my biggest contribution to society.”

Poo, in the interview, said he obtained U.S. citizenship only because it made international travel easier. He also explained that he dropped his American citizenship because he did not feel it was appropriate to keep such a status when presenting his Chinese research projects to the international community.

Also in 2017, Poo led a team at ION to produce the world’s first truly cloned primates, a pair of crab-eating macaques.

Fu and Poo became close when they both worked as professors at UC San Diego in the late 1990s, according to Fu. Poo later moved to work for UC Berkeley in 2000, but their relationship continued.

Fu said he felt betrayed by his former colleague because he had always thought of Poo as his friend.

Yang and Poo did not return requests for comment from The Epoch Times.

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Chinese lab technicians at a lab for studying tropical diseases in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, China, on June 21, 2016. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Thousand Talents

Fueling the rise in U.S.-China academic ties is the regime’s push to lure foreign experts to work in China through its state-backed talent recruitment plans. These programs, such as the “Thousand Talents Plan,” offer Western scholars a salary, funding, and other perks to work and conduct research at Chinese institutions. They have been the focal point of criticism by U.S. officials who say the programs facilitate the transfer of research and know-how to China.

In the past two years, federal prosecutors have cracked down on U.S. researchers who have allegedly hid their ties to these programs and funding from China. While it is not illegal to sign on to a Chinese recruitment plan, U.S. researchers who receive federal grants are required to disclose foreign sources of funding to prevent taxpayer money being used to fund work done overseas.

The National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the United States, said in April that it flagged more than 500 federally-funded U.S. scientists who may have financial ties with China and other foreign adversaries.

In a high-profile case, Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, was indicted in 2020 on charges relating to lying about his participation in the Thousand Talents Plan. Under the program, Lieber received hundreds of thousands of dollars to work at the Wuhan University of Technology, prosecutors allege. Meanwhile, he received millions in federal funding to work on sensitive research in the United States.

Lieber also received $1.5 million for the establishment of a joint research lab at the Wuhan University using Harvard’s name and logo without Harvard’s knowledge, prosecutors said. The former professor has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The Epoch Times uncovered around a dozen UC academics who have had academic collaborations with Chinese universities or research institutions, including those who have joined China’s recruitment plans. All of the scholars identified work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

One of the academics is Lin Liwei, a mechanical engineering professor at UC Berkeley. He is a participant of China’s Thousand Talents Plan, according to Chinese media reports. Lin also previously served as a co-deputy director of TBSI. Both Lin and UC Berkeley did not return a request by The Epoch Times about these reports.

In 2019, Zhang Kang, a prominent eye doctor at UC San Diego resigned amid scrutiny of his ties to the Thousand Talents Plan as well as his undisclosed interests in several Chinese biomedical companies.

Fu himself joined the Thousand Talents Plan a decade ago, according to the UC San Diego alumni website. Years earlier, he was awarded the prestigious title of Changjiang (Yangtze River) Scholar in China—the highest academic award issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

As part of the program, Fu worked as a visiting professor at Wuhan University from 2011 to 2016, while continuing his main research role at UC San Diego.

Fu told The Epoch Times he chose to work with Wuhan University because it was where he originally graduated. He said he didn’t get any pay from Wuhan University, except coverage of his travel expenses.

Dangers of STEM Cooperation With China

The Chinese regime’s promotion of academic linkages with Western institutions is part of its long-running strategy to bolster its totalitarian dictatorship by stealing from democracies worldwide, according to Robert Spalding, a senior fellow specializing in U.S.-China relations at Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute.

“The CCP’s new globalized dictatorship model enables the CCP to maintain its closed system for culture and human rights, but remain connected to the West’s ivory tower of academia for science and technology,” Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general, told The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr, the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk and founder of Corr Analytics, said it was “highly irresponsible” for the UC system to continue STEM collaboration with China.

“But don’t expect the University of California to limit itself while other universities continue to take advantage of their relationships with Chinese universities,” Corr told The Epoch Times.

The United States should enact laws to end STEM cooperation with the Chinese regime, including barring undergraduate and graduate students in these fields from China, according to Corr.

“As long as China treats the United States and allies as enemies and chumps, those spots should be taken by American and allied students, with U.S. government funding if necessary,” he said.

In May 2020, then-President Trump banned visas to Chinese graduate- or higher-level students affiliated with institutions that support the MCF strategy in a bid to guard against Chinese state-sponsored theft of American technology.

Around the same time, federal authorities zeroed in on a network of suspected undercover Chinese military researchers in the United States.

Last year, at least four Chinese researchers were arrested and charged with visa fraud for allegedly lying on their applications about their status as members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the official name of the Chinese military. One of those researchers, Tang Juan, a visiting researcher at the University of California Davis, was harbored by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for weeks before she was eventually arrested in late July.

In another case, the justice department alleged that a PLA officer was tasked by supervisors in China to obtain information that would benefit military operations. Separately, prosecutors accused a PLA medical researcher of observing lab operations at a U.S. university so they could be replicated in China.

The investigations into these researchers have led to more than 1,000 military-linked researchers leaving the United States last year, according to a senior Justice Department official.

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Chinese students hold a memorial outside the UCLA campus for Dr Li Wenliang, who was the whistleblower of the coronavirus, Covid-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, and caused the doctor’s death in that city, in Westwood, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

CCP’s Control of Speech on American Campuses

The CCP has asserted its interests on American college campuses, including UC, through the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) and Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes.

Chinese consulates control and fund CSSAs “to keep tabs on students and to press pro-Beijing causes,” then-Secretary of State Pompeo said in the December speech. CSSA chapters are present at more than 100 U.S. colleges, including all 10 UC campuses.

In November 2017, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco reported on its website about an event where the consulate hosted a gathering of CSSA members in the area to study the documents released following a recently held National Congress of the CCP, the Party’s most important political convention that convenes every five years.

According to the report, more than 40 CSSA members attended the study and discussion session. They were from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, Stanford University, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Academy of Art University, and California College of Arts.

The scholars and students attending the event were told by Chinese consulate officials to have confidence in the CCP’s leadership and China’s socialist practice. They were also reminded not to forget to carry on their mission to support China’s “national rejuvenation,” a slogan coined by Xi construed by analysts as indicating his desire to replace the United States as sole world superpower by mid-century.

Meanwhile, Confucius Institutes, billed as Chinese language and culture centers, have drawn mounting protest over their role in spreading CCP propaganda and exporting censorship to American schools.

Last year, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington as a foreign mission, recognizing it as “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.”

Confucius Institutes at UC Davis and UC Los Angeles closed last year, leaving the only remaining institute in the UC system at the Santa Barbara campus, according to the National Association of Scholars.

UC didn’t return requests for comment from The Epoch Times.

Cathy He contributed to this report.

Nathan Su
Nathan Su