A recent Australian report is warning governments, companies, and schools that their research cooperation with Chinese universities might contribute to the Chinese regime’s military development and human rights abuses.
The report, titled “The China Defence Universities Tracker: Exploring the Military and Security Links of China’s Universities,” was published by Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Nov. 25.
“When analyzing cases of espionage and illegal export involving Chinese universities, it becomes clear that institutions with strong military and security links are disproportionately implicated in theft and espionage,” the report said.
The report reviewed about 160 Chinese universities, companies, and research institutes, based on information available online, including Chinese agencies’ websites.
It placed 92 Chinese institutions in a “very high risk” category, meaning that they could be “leveraged for military or security purposes.”
Among those 92 institutions, 52 belong to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), such as Rocket Force Command College, Navy Logistics Academy, and Army Medical University. Additionally, 20 civilian universities were also tagged as “very high risk” institutions.
In addition, 23 civilian universities were placed in the next category of “high risk,” while 44 other civilian universities were flagged as “medium” or “low risk.”
Details of these Chinese universities and research institutes, including their risk assessment and research areas, have been compiled in an online database called “China Defence Universities Tracker.”
The report identified at least 15 civilian universities that have been linked to espionage, implicated in export controls violations, or have been identified by the U.S. government as aliases for China’s nuclear weapons programs.
Moreover, four of the “Seven Sons of National Defense”—a group of leading universities with deep links to China’s military and defense industry such as Beihang University, Harbin Institute of Technology, and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA)—have been implicated in espionage or export controls violations, according to the report.
One recent U.S court case has involved NUAA. In October 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice charged a Chinese spy named Xu Yanjun, who was working for China’s top intelligence agency the Ministry of State Security (MSS), for conspiring to steal information on GE Aviation’s fan blade design for jet engines.
Xu and his conspirators arranged for a GE aviation engineer to give a presentation at NUAA, with Xu paying for all of the engineer’s travel expenses to China, the indictment said. After the presentation, Xu continued to extract critical information from the GE employee. According to BBC, NUAA confirmed that Xu was also a part-time postgraduate student at its school.
“The MSS also leverages civilian universities for training, research, technical advice, and possibly direct participation in cyber espionage,” the report said.
For instance, Su Yuting, a professor at the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Tianjin University, was a recipient of a technology progress award issued by the MSS, according to a report by the university. Su’s area of research includes multimedia information processing and security, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
The think-tank noted that with the expansion of collaboration between universities around the world and Chinese partners, “it’s clear that many institutions have not effectively managed risks to human rights, security, and research integrity.”
For example, between 2007 and 2017, the PLA dispatched more than 2,500 of its scientists to train and work in universities overseas.
“Some of those scientists used civilian cover or other forms of deception to travel abroad,” the report said.
“All of them were sent out to gain skills and knowledge of value to the Chinese military; all of them are believed to be Party members who return to China when instructed.”
Beijing has long adopted a state strategy of leveraging private industry and universities to advance its military, the report said. Currently, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for the Development of Military–Civil Fusion oversees this fusion effort.
In August 2018, China’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, and the National Development and Reform Commission jointly issued a policy document, urging universities to integrate into the “military-civil fusion system” and “advance the two-way transfer and transformation of military and civilian technological achievements.”
“At least 68 universities are officially described as parts of the defense system or are supervised by China’s defense industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND),” the report stated.
SASTIND, a subordinate agency of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), is overseen by China’s State Council, a cabinet-like agency. The “Seven Sons” are supervised by the MIIT.
There are also more than 160 defense-focused laboratories in civilian universities. “Many of these defense labs obscure their defense links in official translations of their names,” the report said.
For instance, some national defense science and technology laboratories are simply called “national key laboratories.”
“The establishment of defense laboratories fosters close relationships between researchers and the military that can be used to facilitate and incentivize espionage,” the report said.
In May 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies found that a computer science laboratory at Wuhan University carried out cyberattacks on the West, including the United States, on behalf of the PLA, according to a report by The Washington Free Beacon. The program was run by the Ministry of Education.
The Australian report also warned that partnerships with Chinese universities and companies could inadvertently contribute to human rights violations.
For instance, state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation has established joint laboratories in Europe and Australia since 2014. Its subsidiary, Hikvision, a video surveillance company, has been linked to human rights abuses in the region of Xinjiang, where the regime has deployed a dense surveillance network to monitor and control more than 10 million Uyghur Muslims.
To guard against such human rights and security risks, the report recommended that universities collaborating with Chinese counterparts set up independent research integrity offices and introduce annual reviews of research integrity.