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Are European academics helping China's military?

May 19, 2022

An investigation by DW and partners has found that European researchers have cooperated with China's National University of Defense Technology. The NUDT's purpose is to "Strengthen the Armed Forces and the Nation."

President Xi Jinping shakes hands with a uniformed NUDT officer, other officers nearby
President Xi Jinping made an official visit to the NUDT in 2019Image: Li Gang/Xinhua/IMAGO

Is Europe helping modernize China's army?

The promotional video for China's elite National University of Defense Technology is set to dramatic music. In quick succession, soldiers run behind tanks, guns blazing, followed by uniformed NUDT professors addressing attentive students.

"We dedicate our lives to the modernization of the national defense army," a narrator intones.

The NUDT is the alma mater of a Chinese student who subsequently did his Ph.D in Germany, conducting research that may have had potential military applications.

Yet the German professor who supervised the student's PhD readily admitted in a recent phone call that he had never given his student's military affiliation much thought.

A note of regret crept into the professor's voice as he recalled the friendly and "outstanding" student, whom he had been proud to host at his institute of computer sciences in a small university town. He said he had been sorry to see the student return to China once his Chinese scholarship ran out.

Upon going back to China, the student took a job with the NUDT.

His former German host knows little about the exact nature of the man's research. "When you're at NUDT," the professor told DW, "you're not allowed to talk about your work."

Run by the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, the NUDT plays a crucial role in military research, from hypersonic and nuclear weapons to quantum supercomputers, said Alex Joske, an independent researcher who until 2020 tracked military institutes and labs in China as an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Researchers across Europe have forged close ties with scientists from the NUDT, whose mission is written in bold characters on a gargantuan stone slab close to the campus's College of Computer Sciences: "Excel in Virtue and Knowledge; Strengthen the Armed Forces and the Nation."

From AI to robotics to quantum

Under the lead of the Dutch outlet Follow the Money and the German investigative nonprofit CORRECTIV, DW and 10 European newsrooms collaborated for several months on the China Science Investigation, which found nearly 3,000 scientific publications by researchers affiliated with European universities and their counterparts at military-linked institutions in China — most notably the NUDT. 

Though it's possible that some papers may relate to the same research projects, the overall figure gives an estimate of the extent of the cooperation.

The joint publications ranged from artificial intelligence and robotics to quantum research: fields that explore what are often referred to as emerging technologies. These are set to reshape the ways in which we communicate, socialize, drive and, crucially, conduct — and win or lose — wars.

Graduation cap with text: China Science Investigation (Powered by Follow the Money)
Thirty journalists from seven European countries partnered for the China Science Investigation

In a future in which the countries with the most powerful algorithms and computers are set to dictate the world order, it shouldn't come as a surprise that China, in its stated quest to establish itself as the global superpower, is actively pursuing this expertise abroad. This includes sponsoring top Chinese researchers to study internationally.

Military personnel are among them, Joske said. "For every couple of papers that are published, you will possibly also see an actual Chinese military officer who's worked and studied at a European university and built a relationship that's led to these collaborations and research papers," he said.

As many Chinese students are funded by lucrative government scholarships, they are particularly attractive to European institutes and research groups, which are often strapped for cash. The joint research, DW and its partners have found, may, in essence, represent a transfer of knowledge from European scientists to the Chinese military.

More than 200 projects in Germany

Nearly half of the studies gathered by DW and its media partners were published by NUDT-affiliated scientists and researchers at universities in the United Kingdom, followed by the Netherlands and Germany. In the latter case, at least 230 papers were published from 2000 through early 2022.

SPERRFRIST Projekt C | Shanxi Family Planning Guidance Research Institute in Taiyuan
For a long time, Western countries actively courted China. Cooperation on all levels was encouragedImage: Xinhua/Imago Images

DW and its German partners, CORRECTIV, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Deutschlandfunk, found several problematic publications among those. The studies were conducted with researchers at the University of Bonn and University of Stuttgart and through the prestigious Fraunhofer Institute in fields such as quantum research, artificial intelligence and computer vision.

DW has decided not to name the titles of papers and the scientists to protect individuals from retribution at home and abroad. And, given the scale of collaboration across Europe, DW does not believe that individuals should be singled out. It is very likely that there are more potentially problematic papers in the data set that have yet to be identified as such. 

'Have to make a real effort not to see the dual-use application'

Several independent researchers confirmed that the research described in the papers might indeed have — to varying degrees — potential dual-use applications. In other words: The research could serve civilian as well as defense or security purposes.

One paper was published in 2021, the others within the past five years. In some studies, such as one on tracking groups of people, the application was immediately clear. One would "have to make a real effort not to see the dual-use applications here — you can't rule out that it can be used to track Uyghurs," one researcher said, referring to the Muslim minority that China has submitted to a systematic and forced program of "reeducation" in detention camps and all-encompassing surveillance.

The study was published together with a researcher from the NUDT who had received numerous military awards prior to publication.

Uighurs: Imprisoned for their faith and culture

Another paper delves into encrypted quantum communication. Several experts agreed that, though this field is at a very early stage, the research may eventually have potential dual-use applications, such as shielding military communication from eavesdropping.

Dual-use application not always easy to foresee

In a paper that aims to estimate the depth of objects, the potential military application was less clear-cut. "We could imagine that an adversary might have low-quality images they want to estimate depth from but can't without this," one expert wrote in an email to DW and its partners.

"At the same time, however, this could be exceedingly useful for, for example, open-source confirmation of covert sites by repressive governments and a range of peaceful activities," he continued. "We have a dual-use issue where the balance of risks and benefits are not clear."

And that leads to the heart of the problem: Military applications are not always easy to see and even less easy to foresee. Drones, for example, can be used to spray fields with fertilizers — or to gun down opponents in a war zone.

Scientific research is like a tower constructed out of a big pile of Lego bricks. Each researcher or institute adds a different colored brick until eventually a structure emerges that becomes clear for all to see. The difficulty in predicting potentially problematic applications is particularly acute in the field of basic research, as opposed to applied research, which is conducted with a certain application in mind.

Alex Joske said the line between basic and applied research could be "gray and unclear: One year you work on AI and algorithms for coordinating groups of objects, and the next year that very same research could be applied to military drone swarms, for example."

And, while scientists may set out with benign applications in mind, they can be co-opted — or coerced — to put their research to a different use.

In China, the omnipotent Communist Party has lifted all boundaries between civilian and military aspects of life: Anything and anybody can be commandeered for military purposes, including scientists. 

Soldier in front of portrait of Xi Jinping at entrance to military base in Guilin, in China
President Xi Jinping has pushed the 'military-civilian fusion'Image: Greg Baker/AFP

Dual-use export regulations

In Germany, it's up to individual researchers to determine whether their research does indeed have a dual-use application. If it does, they need to apply for an export license for joint publications with scientists based outside of the European Union or for guest lectures abroad with the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA).

Universities need to provide an end-use certificate that attests to a purely civilian use. But, one export control officer told DW, whether that certificate amounts to much "is another matter."

DW and its partners sent the list of potentially problematic publications to BAFA and the involved universities to determine if they had been granted export licenses. BAFA declined to comment on individual papers.

The NUDT also did not respond to questions.

In a written response to another inquiry, one German institute stressed that it was aware of its responsibility when it came to "academic freedom and risks." Though officials declined to comment on individual papers, the university asserted that each case was given careful consideration, particularly when it came to "sensitive topics of cooperation." 

China Science Investigation: Studio Talk

A spokesman for another university wrote that officials were not aware of any "contractually agreed research cooperation" with the NUDT. He added that the university had abided by German laws and regulations and pointed to "written information and offers of consultation" to raise awareness among faculty and students. 

Agreements with foreign partners were given careful consideration, the spokesman wrote. However, he added, the university had "not seen any reason" to apply for an export license, given that the paper was the result of basic research.

A different university stressed that the paper in question was written without "direct involvement by the NUDT" and that it, too, was based on basic research that did not meet any "dual-use concerns."

'The hand that bites you'

When it comes to basic research, there are no restrictions whatsoever. "Anything goes," another export officer said. 

The logic is that placing too many restrictions on basic research and collaborations would stifle scientific advancement. But lift all controls and you may risk feeding "the hand that bites you," Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a journalist and the co-author of "China's Quest for Foreign Technology: Beyond Espionage," told DW and its partners.

Tatlow cautions against working with China in certain fields, but she also concedes that all such scientific cooperation could not — and should not — be capped. Rather than treating all Chinese researchers with suspicion, Tatlow and others call for more stringent controls when it comes to research into potential dual-use technologies, and background checks for Chinese researchers along the lines of those already conducted for Iranian nationals. 

For now, Tatlow said, "China feels that it can operate very freely in open societies such as Germany or the United States, and indeed it can, because we're not stopping most of these behaviors." The current situation for China, she said, is "a little bit like being a kid in a sweet shop: You can go in and take a lot of stuff." 

Western courting of China

For a long time, Western countries actively courted China. Cooperation on all levels was encouraged, with China seen as a vast economic market to be tapped into.

The idea was that strong economic, scientific and cultural ties would automatically lead to more liberalization and democratization. They didn't.

It took a while for the warning signs to trickle into the public consciousness through reports of the unlawful and arbitrary internment of Uyghurs in camps, China's active courting of authoritarian regimes, and the quashing of the last pockets of opposition on the mainland and in Hong Kong. You could warn policymakers "until you were blue in the face," one security official sighed.

Military parade in 2017 with a camouflaged jeep rolling past a line of soldiers and rockets
The People's Liberation Army is under the direct control of the Chinese Communist PartyImage: Li Tao/Xinhua/Imago Images

It was only in the past couple of years that politicians seemingly began to heed the warnings from German security agencies that the strategy of mutual entanglement might indeed be flawed. In 2020, the German Foreign Ministry started to screen visa applications from visiting Chinese researchers more closely, DW and its partners learned from security sources. Yet universities, which one security official called "naive and obsequious" when it comes to China, seemed to see little reason to change course.

The German computer scientist readily admits that he never really gave the student's affiliation with the NUTD a second thought — at least until recently. When pressed, he conceded that his former star pupil's research might have defense applications down the line.

But, he said, sounding genuinely surprised about the line of questioning, he had never met any foreign researchers "who behaved strangely: I just don't believe they are evil people." The international scientists he has met, he said, have been purely motivated by their quest for knowledge. They are, he stressed, essentially "good people."

Even now, he does not seem overly perturbed by his former student's NUTD affiliation, though he also does not think that they could collaborate on a project at this stage, given that his Chinese colleague was not allowed to even talk about his work, let alone share specific details.

But, the computer scientist said, should his former student be employed by a different university at some point in the future, "then I could well imagine working together again." 

Additional reporting by a journalist at DW who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons. 

Edited by: Milan Gagnon