Report Highlights Risks of Research Partnerships With Chinese Universities

A recent Australian report is warning governments, companies, and schools that their research cooperation with Chinese universities might contribute to the Chinese regimes military development and human rights abuses.

The report, titled “The China Defence Universities Tracker: Exploring the Military and Security Links of Chinas 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 these 92 institutions, 52 belong to Chinas Peoples 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 Chinas nuclear weapons programs.

Moreover, four of the “Seven Sons of National Defense”—a group of leading universities with deep links to Chinas 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 Chinas top intelligence agency the Ministry of State Security (MSS), for conspiring to steal information on GE Aviations 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 engineers 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. Sus area of research include multimedia information processing and security, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

Military-Civil Fusion

Beijing has long adopted a state strategy of leveraging private industry and universities to advance its military advancement, the report said. Currently, the Chinese Communist Partys Central Commission for the Development of Military–Civil Fusion oversees this fusion effort.

Last August, Chinas 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 Chinas defense industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND),” the report stated.

SASTIND, a subordinate agency of Chinas Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), is overseen by Chinas State Council, a cabinet-like agency. The “Seven Sons” are supervised by the MIIT.

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