As relations between the West and China plummet to new depths, we can at least take comfort from the fact that many of our leading academic institutions are still enjoying a healthy collaboration with their Chinese equivalents.
Or can we? At times of conflict, the very word ‘collaboration’ has unfortunate connotations.
An investigation by the Mail has found China’s ‘collaboration’ with British universities often smacks more of infiltration and is potentially lethal to our national interest.
Many of the UK’s top universities — some from the prestigious Russell Group — are unwittingly sharing their most advanced research with secretive elements of the Chinese military
Research from Britain’s most eminent academic institutions may be ending up in the hands of the Chinese military at a time when we can ill-afford such security breaches.
Many of our top universities — some from the prestigious Russell Group — are unwittingly sharing their most advanced research with secretive elements of the Chinese military which specialise in state-of-the-art fighter jets, hypersonic missiles and supercomputers used to develop nuclear weapons.
The revelations come in the week the British Government kicked out Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from our 5G mobile network. The company, which is seen as an arm of the Chinese state, is increasingly regarded as a major threat to our national security.
The current tensions between the UK and China were also highlighted by an explosive book, Hidden Hand: How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping The World, serialised in the Mail this week, which revealed how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has penetrated the British Establishment and City of London to promote its own interests.
Our new investigation details how China’s defence establishment has an astonishing reach into the very heart of British academia. It makes for deeply disturbing reading. Our revelations include:
- Cambridge University’s links with a Chinese military institution blacklisted by the U.S. Government for posing a nuclear threat;
- Imperial College London’s recruitment drive at the military university whose scientists sit on People’s Liberation Army advisory committees;
- Glasgow University’s ties to a company manufacturing surveillance technology used to monitor persecuted Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang province;
- A Manchester University laboratory has been funded jointly with a Chinese developer of intercontinental ballistic missiles;
- Nottingham University’s multi-million pound deal with China’s main supplier of military aircraft.
The evidence originally came from a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a defence think-tank, which warned against ‘espionage’ by the CCP. The Party is known to be building links between China’s universities and its military and security agencies.
In a state policy known as ‘military-civil fusion’, Beijing has embarked on a huge programme to merge its academic institutions with its massive military machine. The ultimate goal is to maximise China’s power across the globe.
Thousands of Chinese scientists are sent every year by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to work abroad. According to the report, some ‘use civilian cover or other forms of deception to travel’, playing down their military links when applying to study internationally.
They are sent to gain skills and expertise much-prized by the Chinese military. Once their mission is complete, they are ordered to return.
The sheer scale of China’s infiltration into our universities is breath-taking — and the evidence for it is compelling. In the course of its research, the ASPI’s findings came from a database of 160 Chinese universities which have close links with the military.
The sheer scale of China’s infiltration into our universities, such as Cambridge University (pictured) is breath-taking — and the evidence for it is compelling
It ranked these institutions according to the security threat they pose to foreign universities which collaborate with them, designating them ‘Very High Risk’, ‘High Risk’, ‘Medium Risk’ or ‘Low Risk’.
For almost a decade, the CCP has embedded itself in some of the most prestigious universities in Britain and across the West.
In 2017, the Guangdong Education Service of International Exchanges, part of China’s education ministry, published an account of the relationship between Cambridge University and China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT).
This revealed that the NUDT had ‘cooperated’ with Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory ‘to produce the next generation of supercomputer . . . talents for China. Once such a supercomputer . . . is successfully developed, it will greatly enhance [our] country’s strength in the fields of national defence, communications and higher-precision navigation’.
NUDT was developing what was the world’s most powerful supercomputer, Tianhe-2, until 2016 when the U.S. government had blacklisted the institution — and prevented the U.S. manufacturer Intel from supplying chips to it — because of the supercomputer’s capabilities.
These included what the U.S. Commerce Department said were ‘nuclear explosive activities’ which were ‘contrary to national security’. The ASPI think-tank has designated NUDT ‘Very High Risk’ for international collaborations, describing it as China’s ‘premier institution for scientific research . . . directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission’.
The author of the ASPI report wrote: ‘Some of NUDT’s leading experts on drone swarms, hypersonic missiles, supercomputers, radars, navigation and quantum physics have been sent to study or work abroad.’
The Mail has identified Cambridge scholars who arrived in this country from NUDT, including a visiting professor who returned to the Chinese university in 2013, and a PhD student who studied at the Cavendish Laboratory for five years before returning to NUDT as a lecturer in March this year.
For almost a decade, the CCP has embedded itself in some of the most prestigious universities in Britain and across the West
According to the Guangdong website, Cambridge University accepts between three and eight students from the NUDT each year, who come to pursue doctorates. It adds China’s ‘foreign cooperation units’ encompassed ‘252 world-class universities, scientific research institutions or international organizations in 47 countries’.
Lt Col Chris Mitchell, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defence, told the Mail last night: ‘We are aware that China’s Military-Civilian Fusion Strategy has enabled the militarisation of the civilian sector [to] support their military modernisation goals.’
He added that the American military was also aware of ‘China’s efforts to gain technological advantage, which includes theft of intellectual property and sensitive technology’.
Chinese military websites further offer a chilling insight into how the PLA is making the most of western academic largesse. China’s 81st Group Army explains on its website how in 2011 a Communist Party member ‘was selected to be a visiting scholar in a certain country’.
The website suggested in a vivid phrase that Party members travel to the West to pick ‘exotic flowers’ to make ‘Chinese honey’.
For many years China’s overtures to British academia were welcomed with open arms. In 2015, then-PM David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne hosted a state visit for President Xi Jinping, Mr Cameron declaring he hoped to usher in a ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British relations.
Mr Osborne — this week revealed to be linked to pro-Beijing lobby group The 48 Club — was a key player in a period, during which billions of pounds worth of deals with China were agreed.
In 2015, then-PM David Cameron (pictured right) hosted a state visit for President Xi Jinping (left), with Mr Cameron declaring he hoped to usher in a ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British relations
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Osborne toured Imperial College London with President Xi, accompanied by Prince Andrew. Neither the Prince nor Mr Osborne wished to comment when their offices were contacted by the Mail.
The campus tour included a visit to the Joint Lab for Applied Data Science, a collaboration between Imperial’s Data Science Institute and Zhejiang University — an institution at the centre of the Chinese defence system which is (according to the ASPI) part-funded by China’s civilian intelligence agency.
Imperial is also affiliated with China’s Harbin Institute of Technology, which is directly linked to the military and one of only eight Chinese universities with ‘Top Secret’ level access to classified weapons research.
Imperial held a recruitment drive there in 2013, and the Mail has identified several scholars who returned there after studying in London.
Many in Britain are expressing deep reservations about Chinese infiltration of top universities.
Tom Tugendhat MP told the Mail: ‘The Foreign Affairs Committee has been raising concerns about Chinese Communist Party influence in UK universities for many years.’
Declaring that the Mail’s investigation ‘raises more concerns’, Mr Tugendhat went on: ‘We need to ensure the UK works with others around the world to defend both our academic freedom and our intellectual property.’
The Mail found several further examples of British academic collaborations with Chinese military universities.
In 2016, the University of Glasgow worked with the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) — allegedly ‘linked to China’s nuclear weapons programme and surveillance technology used in Xinjiang, where Uyghur muslims have suffered human rights abuses’, according to the ASPI.
An estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been persecuted in these camps. ASPI alleges that a professor recruited through the Thousand Talents Plan established in 2015 an artificial intelligence company, Koala AI, that produces surveillance systems used in Xinjiang.
The University of Birmingham founded a joint project with the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) — one of the main suppliers of aviation technology to the Chinese military.
Professor Robin Mason, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) of the University of Birmingham, said his institution has ‘extensive Codes of Practice . . . to mitigate risks from overseas collaborations’.
The University of Manchester, too, partnered with the AECC in 2015, and the following year opened the Sino-British Advanced Control System Technology Joint Laboratory with a Chinese body that launches space vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A spokesman for Manchester said it ‘carries out due diligence on all research collaborations . . . We take all necessary measures to assure ourselves that our research is not used beyond its agreed application’.
In 2016, Exeter University opened an Advanced Structure Manufacturing Technology Laboratory with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).
Four years earlier, the University of Strathclyde had worked with CALT to found a joint laboratory. Exeter University said it had ‘a robust ethical review process which governs all research projects’.
The Universities of Nottingham, Warwick and Cranfield have all collaborated with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which is designated a ‘Very High Risk’ institution — it is China’s primary supplier of military aircraft.
In 2012, AVIC entered into a £1 million-a-year deal with Nottingham University to establish an ‘Innovation Centre’ on its campus and sponsored 20 of its employees to take masters and doctorates at the university.
A University of Nottingham spokeswoman said the now-expired agreement had been ‘subject to rigorous internal ethical procedures’.
Warwick University also hosts Chinese aerospace executives for three-week courses at its Warwick Manufacturing Group. The University emphasises these are ‘taught modules’ and not ‘research’.
In 2012, the University of Southampton partnered with the Wuhan University of Technology — a ‘High Risk’ institution with ‘Secret’ security credentials — to launch a High Performance Ship Technology Joint Centre.
The centre is now closed, but a spokesman for the university confirmed that it continues to collaborate with Wuhan University of Technology.
In 2012, the University of Southampton partnered with the Wuhan University of Technology (pictured)
‘In managing our collaborations, we also closely monitor UK Government advice on . . . university-business relationships,’ he added. The Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Strathclyde did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Our universities often benefit from collaborating with their Chinese equivalents. The latter invest in laboratories on British campuses and Chinese students bring in a colossal amount of fees to the higher education sector.
Some 16 UK universities receive one-fifth of all their income from the country, and by 2022 China is on track to be the world’s biggest investor in research and development. The academic sector is keen to receive its slice of the pie.
In recent years the Russell Group has responded warmly to China’s charm offensive, exchanging students to study abroad in its universities.
And Nottingham University even constructed its own campus — complete with facsimile buildings — near Shanghai, creating the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.
Of course, most of the 120,000 Chinese who study in Britain do so independently — with no intention of infiltrating universities on behalf of the Chinese military.
‘It’s really unfortunate [Chinese students] have been caught up in these wider geopolitical tensions,’ Jo Johnson, former Universities Minister, told Radio 4’s Today programme this week, adding: ‘Everyone needs to have their eyes open in terms of dealing with national security and there are protocols in place . . . to ensure that national security isn’t imperilled by science collaborations.’
Many of the Chinese universities with links to the military — including the Harbin Institute of Technology and NUDT — are eminent places of learning in their own right. But that’s what makes their infiltration so pernicious.
As Anglo-Sino relations continue to sour, there is mounting apprehension about China’s ‘soft espionage’ in universities.
‘In academic research, international cooperation is vital, but increasingly China does not behave like a normal country,’ said Elisabeth Braw, a non-military warfare specialist at the defence think-tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institute). ‘Joint research that even remotely aids China’s aggression against other countries and its own citizens is extremely problematic.’
Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, last night echoed these sentiments.
‘This investigation sharply illustrates . . . the fusion between Chinese military and civilian doctrine to pursue its geo-political ideology,’ he said. ‘This calls for a full re-set of our wider foreign policy towards Communist China, including how we protect the integrity of academic institutions, business and public organisations.’
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: ‘The UK is a world-leading destination for international students and we have robust procedures in place to protect national security interests.’
A spokesman for lobby group Universities UK explained that in the autumn it was publishing new guidelines for universities on a range of issues including security, adding that ‘a responsible attitude to risk is essential for engagement in teaching and research’.
As relations between London and Beijing grow ever colder, perhaps a ‘re-set’ is long overdue. It might start first in our universities — before too many flowers are picked to make all that Chinese honey.