Western universities may be inadvertently helping China's military: Report

  • Some Chinese military scientists have deliberately concealed their army backgrounds while working on sensitive research at Western universities, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
  • The findings come amid widespread fears of Beijing using education, spying, political donations and people-to-people diplomacy to gain a greater clout abroad.
Chinese scientists cultivating cells in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.
Visual China Group / Getty Images
Chinese scientists cultivating cells in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

Many Chinese military scientists working on strategic research at Western universities have deliberately concealed their ties to the army, according to new research. That's sparked concerns of host institutions unknowingly contributing to Beijing's defense prowess.

In a report this week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said it discovered two dozen new cases of scientists from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) — the umbrella term for China's ground, naval and air forces — traveling abroad "using cover to obscure their military affiliations."

"These scientists use various kinds of cover, ranging from the use of misleading historical names for their institutions to the use of names of non-existent institutions," the Canberra-based think tank found.

Most were Australia-bound and studied topics such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology, according to the study. The majority came from top Chinese military academies such as the National University of Defense Technology, which is led by the state-run Central Military Commission.

Other popular destinations included the European Union and the United States — countries that view Beijing as an intelligence adversary. These nations, however, may be oblivious to their inadvertent role in China's military advancement, according to the report's author Alex Joske: "Helping a rival military develop its expertise and technology isn't in the national interest, yet it's not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon."

ASPI's findings come amid widespread fears of Beijing using education, spying, political donations and people-to-people diplomacy to gain a greater clout abroad. The issue threatens to further strain relations between China and Western economies at a time when Beijing is dominating the global trade conversation.

Risk of espionage

The Chinese army encourages its academics, who are civilians, "to work on areas of interest to the military while they're overseas" in order to leverage foreign training to develop improved technology at home, Joske wrote.

The process is described by the PLA as "picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China," but it risks "harming the West's strategic advantage," Joske said.

Chinese military researchers may also engage in espionage or steal intellectual property while overseas, he warned. That's a particularly sensitive topic in the current U.S.-China trade war, with Washington accusing Beijing of pilfering technology.

China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to CNBC's request for comment at the time of writing.

Growing suspicion over China

Hiding one's military background is believed to facilitate the overseas visa process, the ASPI study suggested.

International suspicion about Chinese activities abroad has been growing this year, pushing Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. — a group known as the Five Eyes alliance — to increase cooperation against potential Chinese interference in their respective markets.

"A number of PLA scientists using cover to travel abroad have created LinkedIn profiles using their cover institutions, which may have been used to shore up their claimed affiliations while overseas," Joske said.

Some of them also claim to be from civilian institutions in the same regions as their military units, ASPI warned, pointing to New Zealand member of parliament Jian Yang as one such example. China-born Yang was questioned by New Zealand's national intelligence agency in 2017 about the years he spent at leading Chinese military colleges.

Weighing the risks

Many universities, however, have defended their partnerships with PLA scientists.

The University of New South Wales and Curtin University, both in Australia, insisted that work by PLA scientists did not undermine intellectual property or security, Joske said. He also identified several benefits from research collaboration with China's military, including scientific developments, funding opportunities and published work.

And not every incident is worrisome, the report said.

Cooperation between U.S. and Chinese governments on a particle physics project known as the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment, for example, involves the National University of Defense Technology but doesn't pose major security threats, ASPI said.

But going forward, Western governments must deepen discussions on PLA collaboration "to determine how it relates to national interests" in addition to enhancing scrutiny of visa applications by foreign military personnel, Joske recommended.