The China Defence Universities Tracker: The 7 Sons of Defence and scientific cooperation with the PR China
After academic cooperation with China in humanities studies became critizised and the role of the Confuzius Institutes questioned, the next step is the cooperation between Chinese universtites and Western universities in science and natural science as security experts fear that the dual use technlogy and reearch was used ofr the military moidernization of the PLA according to the Double First strategy and military-civil fusion. As a new guideline for the Western intelligence agencies and the universities the socalled „The China Defence Universities Tracker“ has become the unofficial criteria whether to cooperate with a Chinese university or not. Published by the Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI) as Australia is part of the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation , the Tracker analysizes the development of the militray-civil fusion and lists all universities which participate in PLA- programms or receive funds from the PLA and the Ministery of Defence. Some univerity professors complain about an atmosphere of a paranoid witchhunt which would undermine academic exchange and scientific progress and think that it is part of a wider „decoupling strategy“, a „China minus“ and not „China plus“ strategy.However it would be worth to summarize in a study if an academic win-win situation, scientifc progress and brain drain situation really existed in the past decades or if these are more complaints by Orientalists, sinologist , university professors who see becauseof the underfunded German education and univeristy system money, Chinese knowledge and funds as an viable and pragmatic option.
The China Defence Universities Tracker
Exploring the military and security links of China’s universities.
This report accompanies the China Defence Universities Tracker website.
What’s the problem?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is building links between China’s civilian universities, military and security agencies. Those efforts, carried out under a policy of leveraging the civilian sector to maximise military power (known as ‘military–civil fusion’), have accelerated in the past decade.
Research for the China Defence Universities Tracker has determined that greater numbers of Chinese universities are engaged in defence research, training defence scientists, collaborating with the military and cooperating with defence industry conglomerates and are involved in classified research.1
At least 15 civilian universities have been implicated in cyberattacks, illegal exports or espionage.
China’s defence industry conglomerates are supervising agencies of nine universities and have sent thousands of their employees to train abroad.
This raises questions for governments, universities and companies that collaborate with partners in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There’s a growing risk that collaboration with PRC universities can be leveraged by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or security agencies for surveillance, human rights abuses or military purposes.
Universities and governments remain unable to effectively manage risks that come with growing collaboration with PRC entities. There’s little accessible information on the military and security links of PRC universities. This knowledge gap limits the effectiveness of risk-management efforts.
What’s the solution?
Efforts to manage the risks of engaging with PRC universities should involve close collaboration between governments and universities. Both share a concern for protecting national interests, ensuring the integrity of research, preventing engagement from being exploited by rival militaries or for human rights abuses, and increasing the transparency of research collaboration.
The Australian Government should establish a national research integrity office and refine and enforce foreign interference and export controls legislation. It should use the China Defence Universities Tracker to improve the screening of visa applicants and inform decisions to award research funding.
Universities should be proactive in their efforts to concretely improve how research collaboration is managed.
The China Defence Universities Tracker is a tool to help universities and researchers understand institutions in China and avoid harmful collaborations.
Universities can use the recently published Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector to help review their management of collaboration.2 They should introduce clauses into agreements with PRC entities to terminate those agreements in the case of specific ethical concerns or indications of research going towards a military end use.
Universities could demonstrate their commitment to these initiatives by establishing independent research integrity offices that promote transparency and evaluate compliance with ethics, values and security interests, serving as administratively distinct bodies that avoid influence from internal university politics.
Military–civil fusion is the CCP’s policy of maximising linkages between the military and the civilian sector to build China’s economic and military strength.3 The policy was promoted by President Hu Jintao in 2007 but has been elevated to a national strategy by President Xi Jinping, who personally oversees the Central Commission for the Development of Military–Civil Fusion (中央军民融合发展委员会).4 It has its roots in efforts dating back to the PRC’s founding, including policies such as military–civil integration and ‘nestling the military in the civil’.5
Many countries seek to leverage private industry and universities to advance their militaries. However, as scholar Lorand Laskai writes, ‘civil–military fusion is more far-reaching and ambitious in scale than the US equivalent, reflecting a large push to fuse the defense and commercial economies.’6
Military–civil fusion in China’s university sector has spurred efforts to increase academe’s integration with defence and security. In 2017, the Party Secretary of Beijing Institute of Technology, a leading university for defence research, wrote that universities should ‘stand at the front line of military–civil fusion’.7
‘National defence technology research requires the participation of universities’, according to the Chinese government agency overseeing efforts to safeguard classified information at universities. The agency describes universities as one of three parts of the national defence science and technology innovation system. Alongside defence conglomerates, which are responsible for large-scale projects and the commercialisation of defence equipment, and defence research organisations, which are institutes run by defence conglomerates or the military that are responsible for breaking through research bottlenecks and developing key components, universities undertake research at the frontier of defence technology.8
Military–civil fusion is tied to the government’s Double First-Class University Plan (世界一流大学和一 流学科建设 or 双一流) to build 98 of China’s best universities into world-class institutions by 2050.9
A 2018 policy document about the plan states that universities should integrate into ‘the military–civil fusion system’ and ‘advance the two-way transfer and transformation of military and civilian technological achievements’.10 The importance of international collaboration and foreign talent to the Double First-Class University Plan means that military–civil fusion, the improvement of China’s universities and research collaboration are becoming inextricable.11
While military–civil fusion doesn’t mean that barriers between the military and other parts of PRC society have vanished, it’s breaking down those barriers in many universities. At least 68 universities are officially described as parts of the defence system or are supervised by China’s defence industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND, 国家国防科技工业局).
At the same time, universities around the world are expanding their collaboration with PRC partners. Much of that collaboration is mutually beneficial, but it’s clear that many institutions have not effectively managed risks to human rights, security and research integrity. While universities already have systems in place to manage these issues, they should be revisited and strengthened.
Recent cases have demonstrated gaps in universities’ management of research collaboration. For example, the ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre’s 2018 report Picking flowers, making honey: the Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities highlighted concerns about the high level of international research collaboration involving the PLA.12 Between 2007 and 2017, the PLA sent more than 2,500 of its scientists to train and work in overseas universities. Some of those scientists used civilian cover or other forms of deception to travel abroad. 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 returned to China when instructed.
This report uses the ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre’s China Defence Universities Tracker to explain how many of the concerns raised by collaboration with the PLA increasingly apply to defence-linked Chinese universities, security organisations and industry conglomerates. The wedding of the military and the civilian in China’s universities has important consequences for policymakers and overseas universities engaged with partners in China.
To help universities, companies and policymakers navigate engagement with research institutions in China, the China Defence Universities Tracker is a database that sorts institutions into categories of very high, high, medium or low risk:
- 92 institutions in the database have been placed in the ‘very high risk’ category
- 52 People’s Liberation Army institutions
- 8 security or intelligence-agency institutions
- 20 civilian universities
- China’s 12 leading defence industry conglomerates.
- 23 institutions—all civilian universities—have been placed in the ‘high risk’ category.
- 44 institutions—all civilian universities—have been placed in the ‘medium’ or ‘low’ risk categories.
The database is designed to capture the risk that relationships with these entities could be leveraged for military or security purposes, including in ways that contribute to human rights abuses and are against Australia’s interests. It provides overviews of their defence and security links and records any known involvement in espionage or cyberattacks, inclusion on end-user lists that restrict exports to them, and several measures of their involvement in defence research. While this project has uncovered large amounts of previously inaccessible information on PRC universities and research institutions, continued due diligence and research are required.
Research for the tracker was undertaken over the course of 2019. It focused on identifying key indicators of defence and security links at each university and developing reliable methods for evaluating those links. Institutions were included in the project for their military links, security links or known connection to human rights abuses or espionage. This research primarily used online Chinese-language resources from universities or Chinese Government agencies. We have attempted to archive all online sources using the Wayback Machine or archive.today.
China’s civilian defence universities
Many of China’s universities originated as military institutions but have since been developed into civilian universities that are increasingly competitive in global research rankings. However, developments over the past decade highlight the military and security links of more than 60 universities in particular.
The Seven Sons of National Defence
The ‘Seven Sons of National Defence’ (国防七子) are a group of leading universities with deep roots in the military and defence industry. They’re all subordinate to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (工业和信息化部), which oversees China’s defence industry through its subordinate agency, SASTIND.
The depth of the Seven Sons’ integration with the military suggests that it would be more accurate to describe them as defence universities than as civilian universities. In fact, they call themselves ‘defence science, technology and industry work units’ or parts of the ‘defence system’.13
Each year, more than 10,000 graduates from the Seven Sons join the defence research sector—just under 30% of their employed graduates. PhD graduates from these universities are particularly sought after, and as many as half of them go into the defence sector (Figure 1).14 State-owned defence conglomerates specialising in aircraft, missiles, warships, armaments and military electronics are among their top employers, alongside high-tech companies such as Huawei and ZTE.15
Figure 1: The percentage of employed 2017 or 2018 graduates of the Seven Sons working in the defence system
Note: Figures for Northwestern Polytechnical University and Harbin Engineering University are for 2017. The remaining figures are for 2018. Source: university graduate employment quality reports (毕业生就业质量年度报告).
The Seven Sons stand at the forefront of defence research in China. Hundreds of their scientists sit on PLA expert advisory committees and assist or even serve in major military projects, such as fighter jet or aircraft carrier programs.16 They dominate the ranks of defence research prize and defence technology patent recipients.17 One Chinese study of military–civil fusion in the university sector estimated that more than half the academics at the Seven Sons have been involved in defence projects.18 All seven have been accredited at the institutional level to participate in research into and the production of top-secret weapons and defence equipment.
They’re also among China’s best-funded universities. In 2016, the Seven Sons spent a total of ¥13.79 billion (A$2.88 billion) on research. In 2018, four of them ranked among China’s top five universities for funding per research staff member.19
Approximately half of their research spending goes towards defence research. Harbin Institute of Technology spent ¥1.973 billion (A$400 million), or 52% of its total research budget, on defence research in 2018.20 Beihang University spends roughly 60% of its research budget on defence research.21
Harbin Institute of Technology’s defence research spending alone is comparable to the Australian Department of Defence’s. The Australian Government’s most recent defence science and technology budget was just under A$469 million. Under current plans, that figure is estimated to decrease to A$418 million by 2023.22
Like the Seven Sons of National Defence, the ‘Seven Sons of the Arms Industry’ (兵工七子) are a group of Chinese universities previously subordinate to the Ministry of Ordnance Industry (兵器工业部), which was dissolved in 1986.23 Two of them—Beijing Institute of Technology and Nanjing University of Science and Technology—are also among the Seven Sons of National Defence (see box). All of them are still involved in researching and developing weapons.
Universities with national defence characteristics
Recent developments have pushed military–civil fusion far beyond the Seven Sons.24 Research for the China Defence Universities Tracker has identified 101 agreements signed between defence industry agency SASTIND (or its predecessor, COSTIND) and other agencies since 1999 to ‘jointly construct’ (共建) 61 universities subordinate to those agencies (see appendix).25 These agreements encompass leading national universities, such as Tsinghua University and Peking University, as well as provincial universities with strong foundations for defence research.
The Tracker also identifies similar agreements that show how defence industry conglomerates, such as China’s leading ballistic missile manufacturer, supervise nine universities.26 SASTIND’s joint-construction agreements have become far more common in recent years.
Fifty-seven of the 101 agreements were signed in the past five years. In 2016 alone at least 38 agreements were finalised (Figure 2).
Figure 2: SASTIND agreements on the ‘joint construction’ of universities (red bars denote agreements signed by SASTIND’s predecessor, COSTIND)
Through the agreements, SASTIND seeks to build institutions into ‘universities with national defence characteristics’ by expanding their involvement in training and research on defence technology and deepening their cooperation with defence companies.27 Specifically, it works to support the establishment of defence research laboratories, to fund defence-related research areas and to facilitate participation in military projects.28 This has led to the establishment of large numbers of defence laboratories and ‘disciplines with national defence characteristics’ (国防特色学科) in civilian universities, mostly in the past decade. More than 150 universities have received security credentials that allow them to participate in classified weapons and defence equipment projects.29
According to a university supervised by SASTIND, the agency aims to support five to eight defence disciplines and establish one or two defence labs in each university it supervises by 2020 (the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan).30 This hasn’t yet come to fruition and is unlikely to be fully achieved. Nonetheless, it may be the largest push to integrate universities into the defence research system since the beginning of China’s reform and opening, covering as many as 53 universities.31
Developing talent for China’s defence industry is an important objective of military-civil fusion in universities. In 2007, the Chinese government established the National Defence Science and Technology Scholarship to encourage high-achieving university students to join the defence sector.32
Every year, the scholarship is given to 2,000 ‘national defence technology students’ who are each sponsored by defence conglomerates or China’s nuclear weapons program to study in designated fields.33 After graduating, they are required to work for their sponsor for five years.34
The China Defence Universities Tracker has identified more than 160 defence-focused laboratories in civilian universities. It primarily catalogues three types of defence laboratories:
- national defence science and technology key laboratories (国防科技重点实验室)
- national defence key discipline laboratories (国防重点学科实验室)
- Ministry of Education national defence key laboratories (教育部国防重点实验室).
By 2009, the Chinese Government had established 74 national defence science and technology key laboratories, all of which are jointly supervised by the PLA and SASTIND.35 The China Defence Universities Tracker has identified 39 in civilian universities; others are found in defence conglomerates and PLA units.
National defence science and technology key laboratories are the best funded and most prestigious kind of defence laboratory, holding the same status as state key laboratories. For example, Northwestern Polytechnical University’s national defence science and technology key laboratory for unmanned aerial vehicles has received over ¥420 million (A$87 million) in funding since its establishment in 2001.36
Thirty-six national defence key discipline labs, which are lower in status than national defence science and technology key labs and were first established around 2007, have also been identified.37
Ministry of Education defence laboratories are a previously unstudied kind of defence laboratory. Fifty-three of them have been identified at 32 universities. According to Shandong University, which hosts three of the labs, they are:
… approved by the Ministry of Education and entrusted to universities for their establishment in order to expand indigenous science and technology innovation for national defence, cultivate and concentrate high-level national defence science and technology talent, and engage in academic exchange and cooperation on national defence science and technology.38
One of these labs has been accused of carrying out cyberattacks for the PLA (see ‘Espionage’).
Many of these defence labs obscure their defence links in official translations of their names. National defence science and technology key laboratories often simply call themselves ‘national key laboratories’. For example, the National Key Laboratory of Science and Technology on Micro/Nano Fabrication jointly run by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Peking University was established by the PLA in 1996.39 National defence key discipline laboratories are often known as ‘fundamental science’ laboratories. Ministry of Education defence labs are almost always referred to as ‘Ministry of Education Laboratory (B-category)’ (教育部重点实验室(B类)) or simply as Ministry of Education labs.
Designated defence research areas SASTIND approves ‘disciplines with national defence characteristics’, such as armament technology and materials science, at universities it supervises after an application process. They’re referred to in the China Defence University Tracker as ‘designated defence research areas’. The tracker identifies more than 400 designated defence research areas in universities. Since 2015, at least 280 of these were approved at 53 universities.40
Defence disciplines reflect each university’s specialities for defence research and serve as stepping stones for the establishment of prestigious defence laboratories. Shenyang Ligong University, one of the ‘Seven Sons of the Arms Industry’ supervised by SASTIND, stated that its defence disciplines are ‘a precursor and foundation for the university to apply to establish national defence key discipline laboratories’.41
It’s difficult to find detailed information on the operation of defence disciplines. However, one university wrote in 2018 that it expected to receive approximately ¥7 million (A$1.4 million) on average to develop each discipline.42 If that figure is representative, it indicates a doubling of the funding allocated to each discipline in comparison to a decade ago.43
‘Security credentials’ refers to the ‘weapons and equipment research and production unit secrecy credentials’ (武器装备科研生产单位保密资格) that are awarded to universities and companies at the institutional level. Security credentials are divided into three tiers: first class, second class and third class—roughly equivalent to top secret, secret and confidential clearances, respectively.44
The issuing of security credentials is overseen by National Administration of State Secrets Protection, the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department and SASTIND, or their local equivalents.45
Security credentials allow their holders to participate in different levels of classified defence- and security-related projects. Universities with security credentials are required to meet certain standards in their protection and management of classified research and personnel.46 The credentials indicate a university’s involvement in defence projects, as well as the sensitivity of that work.
A top-secret security credentials plaque awarded to the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Source: Beijing Institute of Technology, ‘Our university passes the secrecy credentials examination and certification’, 24 April 2006, online.
As of November 2017, more than 150 universities had received security credentials.47 The tracker has identified eight universities with top-secret security credentials.
Military units don’t appear to be subject to this security credentials system but use it to scrutinise those they work with. For example, many procurement notices from the PLA require organisations submitting tenders to hold security credentials.48
Case study: The University of Electronic Science and Technology of China
The military links of the Seven Sons of National Defence are more widely recognised than those of an institution such as the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) in Chengdu.
However, UESTC has more in common with the Seven Sons than a typical Chinese university. UESTC’s defence links date back to its earliest days. In 1961, six years after its founding, it was recognised by the CCP Central Committee as one of China’s ‘seven defence industry academies’.49
Since 2000, it’s been the subject of three agreements between defence industry agency SASTIND and the Ministry of Education designed to expand its role in the defence sector.50
In 2006, defence electronics conglomerate China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) also became one of the university’s supervising agencies.51 As part of its agreement to supervise the university, CETC stated that it would work with the Ministry of Education to support UESTC’s management and reforms, involvement in major research projects, establishment of laboratories and exchanges of personnel. CETC, which is expanding its overseas presence at the same time as its technologies enable human rights abuses in Xinjiang, remains one of the primary employers of UESTC graduates.52
UESTC hosts at least seven laboratories dedicated to defence research and has 10 designated defence research areas related to electronics; signal processing and anti-jamming technology; optics; and radar-absorbing materials.53 In 2017, 16.4% of its graduates who gained employment were working in the defence sector.54 Approximately 30% of its research spending in 2015 went towards defence research.55
UESTC also has links to China’s nuclear weapons program. In 2012, it was added to the US Government’s Entity List, restricting the export of US-made technology to it, as an alias of China’s nuclear weapons facility, the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics. This indicates that UESTC had acted as a proxy for China’s nuclear weapons program.56 Its High Power Radiation Key Laboratory is jointly run with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics.57
The university has also been implicated in the rollout of surveillance technology in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Uygurs and other minorities have disappeared into concentration camps. The dean of its School of Computer Science and Engineering runs a company that supplies video surveillance systems to authorities in Xinjiang.58
UESTC’s international partnerships have deepened despite its links to the military, nuclear weapons and potential human rights abuses. Its collaborations naturally align with its specialisations, which are also its main areas of defence research. For example, in 2016, with the University of Glasgow, it established a joint college in China that offers degrees in electronics.59 UESTC also runs the Joint Fibre Optics Research Centre for Engineering with the University of New South Wales in Australia.60
China’s National Intelligence Law requires entities and individuals to cooperate with intelligence operations. However, that doesn’t mean that all PRC entities are equally likely to engage in espionage or related forms of misconduct. Military–civil fusion hasn’t meant that all universities are equally integrated into the military’s efforts. When analysing 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. This can be helpful in establishing a risk-based approach to collaboration with PRC entities.
The China Defence Universities Tracker has identified at least 15 civilian universities that have been linked to espionage, have been implicated in export controls violations or have been identified by the US Government as aliases for China’s nuclear weapons program. Four of the Seven Sons of National Defence have been implicated in espionage or export controls violations. Harbin Engineering University alone has been linked to five cases, including the theft of missile technology from Russia.61
One of the Seven Sons has been accused of collaborating with the Ministry of State Security to steal jet engine technology. In 2018, US authorities arrested an officer from the Jiangsu State Security Bureau, Xu Yanjun, who allegedly sought to steal engine technology from GE Aviation. The US Department of Justice’s indictment of Xu describes how an executive at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA) helped Xu identify and cultivate overseas targets.
Intelligence officer and part-time NUAA student Xu Yanjun after his arrest.
Source: Gordon Corera, ‘Looking for China’s spies’, BBC News, no date, BBC.
According to the indictment, the NUAA co-conspirator reached out to a GE Aviation engineer, inviting him to give a lecture at the university’s College of Energy and Power Engineering.62 The NUAA official then introduced the engineer to Xu, who used an alias and claimed to be from the Jiangsu Association of Science and Technology. Xu began cultivating the engineer and asked him to share proprietary information about fan blades for jet engines. NUAA has confirmed that Xu was also a part-time postgraduate student at NUAA.63
The establishment of defence laboratories fosters close relationships between researchers and the military that can be used to facilitate and incentivise espionage. For example, Wuhan University’s Ministry of Education Key Laboratory of Aerospace Information Security and Trusted Computing has been accused of carrying out cyberattacks on behalf of the PLA.64 The laboratory is one of the Ministry of Education’s ‘B-category’ laboratories that focuses on defence research and doesn’t appear on Wuhan University’s main list of labs on its website.65 One Taiwanese report, citing unnamed intelligence officials, claimed that an office in Wuhan University is in fact a bureau of the PLA’s signals intelligence agency.66
The same Wuhan University lab has collaborated with and even sent a visiting scholar to an Australian university. A professor alleged to be the lab’s liaison with the PLA has co-authored research with a University of Wollongong cryptographer.67 One of the lab’s associate professors visited the University of Wollongong in 2010, participating in an Australian Research Council project.68
Public and state security links
As the NUAA espionage case shows, some Chinese universities work closely with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s civilian intelligence and political security agency. The ministry was established in 1983 by merging units responsible for foreign intelligence, economic espionage, counterintelligence, political security and influence work.69 It has since grown into a well-resourced agency believed to be a prolific perpetrator of cyberattacks and intelligence operations against companies, governments and universities for political influence and economic espionage.70
The MSS operates at least two universities: the University of International Relations71 in Beijing and Jiangnan Social University72 in Suzhou. These universities train intelligence officers and carry out research to support the MSS’s work. The University of International Relations has exchange agreements with universities in Denmark, the United States, France and Japan.73
The MSS also leverages civilian universities for training, research, technical advice and possibly direct participation in cyber espionage. For example, a big-data scientist at Hunan University, which hosts the PLA’s Tianhe-1 supercomputer, serves as a ‘Ministry of State Security specially-appointed expert’.74 A professor at Tianjin University has been awarded a ‘Ministry of State Security Technology Progress Prize’.75 A professor at Southeast University has been awarded two projects under the MSS’s 115 Plan, which is a research funding program.76 Cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect identified links between Southeast University and a hack of Anthem, one of the US’s largest healthcare companies.77
The same attack was separately linked to the MSS by another cybersecurity firm.78 The MSS recruits hackers from top universities such as Harbin Institute of Technology, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and Zhejiang University.79
The Ministry of Public Security (MPS), China’s police agency, is also building links with civilian universities. The China Defence Universities Tracker includes entries on several universities that operate joint laboratories with the MPS. Those laboratories carry out computer science and artificial intelligence research to assist the MPS’s policing capabilities. The ministry’s pivotal role in the abuse of ethnic minorities, religious groups and political dissidents makes it nearly impossible to separate legitimate and illegitimate uses of that research.
The overseas expansion of China’s nuclear weapons program and defence industry
Employees of military aircraft manufacturer AVIC graduate from Cranfield University in 2013.
Source: Zhang Xinguo, ‘Cooperation progress between AVIC & UK universities’, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, 5 May 2016, online.
China’s nuclear weapons program and defence industry have expanded their presence in foreign universities. State-owned defence industry conglomerates have established joint research and training programs in Austria, Australia, the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland. Scientists from China’s nuclear weapons program have been identified in universities across developed countries.
At least four of China’s 12 state-owned defence industry conglomerates (defence state-owned enterprises, or defence SOEs) have a substantial presence in overseas universities. Their work covers military electronics, aviation technology and missiles. These companies seek to increase their access to world-class training, expertise and technology through exchanges and joint laboratories with foreign universities (Table 1). Many of the collaborations involve organisations that are subject to export restrictions by the US Government, raising concerns about the effect they may have on military technology and human rights violations in China.
Table 1: Defence SOE joint laboratories or major investments in foreign universities
AECC = Aero Engine Corporation of China; AVIC = Aviation Industry Corporation of China; BIAM = Beijing Institute for Aeronautical Materials; CALT = China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology; CETC = China Electronics Technology Group Corporation; COMAC = Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China.
a: Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, ‘New hi-tech deal great for Victorian jobs’, media release, 24 October 2019, online.
b: Monash University, ‘Monash University and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China sign MOU to accelerate aircraft development’, media release, 16 May 2017, online.
c: University of Technology Sydney, ‘New joint IET research centre with CETC’, media release, 26 April 2017, online.
d: University of Manchester, ‘Partnership with the Aero Engine Corporation of China’, media release, no date, online; BIAM – Manchester UTC, About us, no date, online.
e: BIAM – Manchester UTC, Research, no date, online.
f: University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute, Sino-British Joint Laboratory on Advanced Control Systems Technology, no date, online.
g: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), Sino-British Advanced Control System Technology Joint Laboratory, 14 May 2016, online (in Chinese).
h: University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute, Our research, no date, online.
i: CALT, The Rocket Institute has built 4 overseas R&D institutions, 13 May 2016, online.
j: The University of Birmingham is listed as the coordinator of the EMUSIC project. See EMUSIC, Participants, no date, online.
k: EMUSIC, Efficient Manufacturing for Aerospace Components Using Additive Manufacturing, Net Shape HIP and Investment Casting (EMUSIC), no date, online.
l: EMUSIC, EMUSIC mid-term report shows progress being made on improving manufacturing efficiency, 16 January 2018, online.
m: BIAM is a consortium member of EMUSIC. BIAM representatives are listed as project coordinators with members of the University of Birmingham, which is the university that leads the EMUSIC program. See EMUSIC, Contact us, no date, online; EMUSIC, Participants, online; European Commission, ‘Efficient Manufacturing for Aerospace Components using Additive Manufacturing, Net Shape HIP and Investment Casting’, Cordis, no date, online; EMUSIC, ‘Efficient Manufacturing for Aerospace Components Using Additive Manufacturing, Net Shape HIP and Investment Casting’, TRIMIS, no date, online; ‘Efficient Manufacturing for Aerospace Components Using Additive Manufacturing, Net Shape HIP and Investment Casting’, Cimne.com, no date, online.
n: EMUSIC, Efficient Manufacturing for Aerospace Components Using Additive Manufacturing, Net Shape HIP and Investment Casting (EMUSIC).
o: Department of European Affairs, ‘Zhongao Electronic Technology Innovation Center was established in Graz’, news release, Ministry of Commerce, PRC Government, 4 December 2015, online (in Chinese).
p: Das Land Steiermark, ‘Chinese IT giant is becoming a global player from Graz’, news release, 2 November 2016, online (in German).
q: European Sustainable Energy Innovation Alliance, ‘Cooperation with CETC on the internet of things and new energies’, news release, 21 October 2014, online.
r: CALT, Sino-British Joint Laboratory of Advanced Structures and Manufacturing Technology, 14 May 2016, online (in Chinese); University of Exeter, ‘Annual review 2015’, Issue, 5, online.
s: ‘Versarien PLC: Term sheet with Beijing Institute of Graphene Tech’, Financial Times, 15 April 2019, online.
t: University of Manchester, Partnership with the Aero Engine Corporation of China, no date, online.
u: CALT, The Rocket Institute has built 4 overseas R&D institutions; CALVT, Artificial assisted heart overseas research and development institutions, 14 May 2016, online (in Chinese).
v: CALT, The Rocket Institute has built 4 overseas R&D institutions.
w: CALT, Artificial assisted heart overseas research and development institutions.
x: CALT, The Rocket Institute has built 4 overseas R&D institutions; CALVT, Artificial assisted heart overseas research and development institutions.
y: Imperial College London, AVIC Centre for Structural Design and Manufacture, no date, online.
z: University of Strathclyde, Space Mechatronic Systems Technology (SMeSTech) Laboratory, no date, online.
aa: University of Nottingham, ‘Chinese aerospace business funds £3m University Innovation Centre’, media release, August 2012, online.
bb: University of Nottingham, Composites Research Group, no date, online.
cc: The centre was administered by AVIC before the creation of AECC in August 2016 and was called the ‘AVIC Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling’. A formal change of name took place on 12 July 2017. See Imperial College London, AVIC Centre, no date, online; Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Visit of BIAM delegation (31 October 2018), online; Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Events, no date, online.
dd: Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Visit of BIAM delegation (31 October 2018), online.
ee: The centre was administered by AVIC before the creation of AECC in August 2016 and was called the ‘AVIC Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling’. A formal change of name took place on 12 July 2017. See Imperial College London, AVIC Centre, no date, online; Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Visit of BIAM delegation, 31 October 2018, online; Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Events, no date, online.
ff: Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, no date, online.
gg: Imperial College London, BIAM – Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling, Projects, no date, online.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) are the Chinese military’s leading suppliers of missiles, carrier rockets and satellites.80 The conglomerates claim to send dozens of scientists abroad every year to train in countries that include Australia, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, the UK and the US.81
CASC has a significant overseas presence through its subsidiary China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), which develops space launch vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.82 CALVT operates six joint labs in Europe and the UK that do research in areas such as additive manufacturing, aerospace materials and control systems.83
CALT scientists sent to work in its overseas labs are often involved in research on subjects such as hypersonic vehicles, missiles and heat-resistant aerospace materials.84 For example, Wang Huixia, who visited a CALVT joint lab at the University of Manchester in 2018,85 has published on missile flight simulation and missile countermeasures.86
CALT has a record of funding civilian technology with dual-use applications for missile systems. In 2013, it set up an ‘artificial assisted heart overseas research and development institution’ in collaboration with Germany’s RWTH Aachen University and Switzerland’s Northwestern University of Applied Sciences.87 State-owned news agency Xinhua noted in an article on CALT that the technology in artificial hearts is very similar to that in missile control systems.88
The Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) are the primary suppliers of aviation technology to the PLA. AECC develops aircraft engines, while AVIC enjoys a monopoly in the supply of military aircraft to the PLA.89
Both AECC and AVIC have expanded their relationships with foreign universities by establishing joint laboratories, training programs and partnerships in Europe.90
AECC was established to develop China’s own aircraft engine supply chain.91 China’s military aircraft have long depended on other nations’ jet turbine technology, so the CCP hopes to build indigenous capabilities in this area, which may be advanced by its joint labs. An AECC subsidiary, the Beijing Institute for Aeronautical Materials (BIAM), operates three joint laboratories in the UK—two at the University of Manchester and a third at Imperial College London.92 All three labs study aerospace applications of materials such as graphene.93
AVIC has established two joint labs with the UK’s Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham.94 Its lab at Imperial College London focuses on topics related to aircraft design and manufacturing, such as ultralight aviation components and metal forming techniques.95 The lab is headed by a participant in the Chinese Government’s Thousand Talents Plan (a controversial scheme to recruit scientists from abroad), who explained that the university’s collaboration with Chinese companies can help them become ‘technology leaders’.96
The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), which is described as a defence industry conglomerate by the Chinese Government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, has also expanded its ties with foreign universities.97 Monash University entered into a memorandum of understanding with COMAC in 2017, agreeing to host COMAC researchers and conduct collaborative research on aerospace materials.98 Through this partnership, the university supplied components for COMAC’s flagship aircraft, the C919, which many China analysts believe could be converted into a military surveillance aircraft.99
China’s defence aviation companies are also building ties in Europe and Australia through research collaboration and training programs. More than 700 AVIC engineers and managers have been sent to train at British, Dutch and French universities in the past 10 years.100 By 2020, the conglomerate plans to send a total of 1,200 of its researchers to study at institutions including Cranfield University, the University of Nottingham and the Institut Aéronautique et Spatial in France.101 In 2016, the Australian Research Council awarded A$400,000 to a joint project by the University of Adelaide and AECC on ‘superior rubber-based materials’.102
China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) is China’s leading manufacturer of military electronics such as radars and drone swarms. The conglomerate is a leading supplier of integrated surveillance systems, facial recognition cameras and mobile applications that have been linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.103 Hikvision, a major manufacturer of security cameras, is part of CETC’s stable of subsidiaries.
Since 2014, CETC has expanded its relationships with foreign universities, establishing joint laboratories in Europe and Australia. Its partnership and joint laboratory with Graz University of Technology in Austria, covering electronic information technology, laid the foundations for the establishment of its European headquarters in Graz.104
CETC’s relationship with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has attracted significant media scrutiny.105 The two began discussing a formal partnership in 2014 and agreed to establish a joint centre on information and electronics technologies by 2017.106 The centre was originally poised to receive up to A$20 million in funding from CETC over five years. Aside from its research on artificial intelligence, quantum information and big data, the centre was also set up as a training centre for CETC staff.
The partnership is still ongoing after a review in 2019, but UTS reportedly abandoned three of its joint projects with CETC after Australia’s Department of Defence raised concerns.107 Commentators have also drawn attention to the potential for UTS’s collaboration with CETC on ‘public security video analysis’ to contribute to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.108
Nuclear weapons program
The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP) is responsible for research into and the development and manufacturing of China’s nuclear weapons.109 It’s also involved in developing lasers, directed-energy weapons and conventional weapons.110
CAEP is expanding its international presence in order to attract leading talent to assist China’s development of nuclear weapons. Since 2000, CAEP researchers have published more than 1,500 papers with foreign co-authors.
In 2012, CAEP established the Center for High Pressure Science and Technology Advanced Research (HPSTAR) to better leverage foreign talent.111 The Beijing-based centre claims that it’s ‘committed to science without borders’ and uses English as its official language but doesn’t mention on its English-language website that it’s affiliated with CAEP. HPSTAR is run by a Taiwanese-American scientist who was recruited in 2012 through the Chinese Government’s Thousand Talents Plan—a scientific talent recruitment program that CAEP has used to hire at least 57 scientists from abroad.112
CAEP also sends large numbers of its employees to study abroad. In 2015, one of the academy’s officials claimed that hundreds of young CAEP researchers are sent to study abroad every year, which has ‘had clear results for building up young talents’.113
For example, Zhou Tingting, a researcher at CAEP’s Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, recently worked as a visiting scholar at Caltech University’s Materials and Process Simulation Center in the US. The institute specialises in design and simulation computation for nuclear warheads and has been involved in at least two espionage cases. It’s been included on the US Government’s Entity List since 1997.114 While at Caltech, Zhou published research on polymer-bonded explosives that was funded by the US Office of Naval Research. Polymer-bonded explosives are used to detonate the cores of nuclear warheads.115
Zhou’s background also illustrates how China’s civilian universities serve as feeder schools for the nuclear weapons program. Before joining CAEP, Zhou studied at Beijing Institute of Technology—one of the Seven Sons of National Defence. As a student, she also visited the same Caltech centre to carry out research on explosives. Her supervisor at the Beijing Institute of Technology was an adviser to the PLA and the government on warheads and hypersonic vehicles.116
Figure 3: China’s twelve Defence Industry Conglomerates
Areas for further research
While the China Defence Universities Tracker includes entries for roughly 160 universities, companies and research institutes, it’s far from comprehensive. We intend to update and expand the tracker when that’s possible. In particular, there’s room for further research on the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its dozens of subordinate research institutes. Twelve of China’s defence conglomerates are included in the database, but their hundreds if not thousands of subsidiaries haven’t been publicly catalogued.
Nor have private companies and other major suppliers of equipment to the military and security apparatus been included in this project. Further research on the role of universities in supporting state surveillance and on companies that develop surveillance technology used in human rights abuses would be valuable.
Engaging with research partners in China
Better managing engagement with research partners in China will help ensure that collaborations align with Australia’s values and interests. A deeper understanding of PRC universities and the CCP will strengthen this engagement. Engagement should be built on robust risk management efforts, rather than on efforts to, on the one hand, cut out or, on the other hand, uncritically embrace interactions with PRC entities. Effective risk management won’t prevent collaboration between Australian universities and China. It won’t affect the vast majority of Chinese students studying in Australia.
Due diligence on research collaboration or visiting scholars and students should primarily take into account:
- the nature of the engagement, such as the potential uses of a technology
- the nature of the foreign partner.
University researchers are generally well placed to understand the nature of a technology and different ways a technology could be applied. This, in part, has led to a disproportionate focus on whether or not technologies have military or security applications; that is, whether they’re ‘dual-use’ technologies.
However, it appears that universities have insufficient expertise, resources and processes for understanding foreign research partners. Universities and researchers won’t be able to effectively scrutinise research collaborations without building better understanding of research partners. They should avoid collaborations with Chinese institutions on technologies that are also defence research areas for those institutions or could contribute to human rights abuses. Furthermore, some technology specialists aren’t used to considering ethics, values and security as a standard procedure when carrying out their research. The argument that research that leads to published papers is not of concern doesn’t consider the range of ways in which research, training and expertise can be misused by foreign partners.
Universities should set the bar higher than compliance with the law. As important civil society institutions, they should embody liberal values, especially in their interactions with overseas partners. As recipients of large amounts of public funding, they have an obligation to avoid recklessly harming human rights or national security, such as by training scientists from nuclear weapons programs or working with suppliers of surveillance technology used in Xinjiang. Universities should approach research collaboration as a way to promote ethical compliance, integrity and academic freedom rather than allowing collaborations to compromise their commitment to those values.
Recommendations for universities
1. Assess the situation.
- Revisit existing collaborations, commissioning independent due diligence of concerning ones.
- Review existing mechanisms for supervising collaborations and partnerships.
- Apply particular scrutiny to engagement with high risk entities identified in the China Defence Universities Tracker.
2. Build capacity.
- Establish an independent research integrity office:
- The office should report directly to the vice chancellor.
- It should be resourced to carry out due diligence and compliance work and be able to do country-specific research.
- It should write annual reviews of research integrity in the university.
- It should serve as an interface between security agencies and the university.
- University research integrity offices or relevant staff members should form a working group across the university sector to share information and discuss threats.
- Dedicate greater resources to due diligence and compliance work, including linguistic and country-specific capabilities.
3. Build a culture of proactive awareness of risks.
- Hold briefings that are open to all staff on China, research collaboration and security by the government, university due diligence staff and scholars.
- Encourage researchers to consider unwanted outcomes of research collaborations, such as contributions to human rights abuses.
- Encourage researchers to consult the China Defence Universities Tracker when they’re considering collaboration or applications from visiting scholars and students.
4. Develop better systems for managing engagement with China.
- Create general guidelines for informal and formal collaboration with PRC entities.
- In all agreements with PRC entities, introduce clauses on ethics, academic freedom and security with provisions to immediately terminate partnerships if they’re breached.
- Establish a travel database for staff that’s accessible to university executives and research contract, due diligence and research integrity staff.
- Refine the approval process for collaborations with foreign entities:
- Collaborations should consider risks to the national interest, national security, intellectual property, reputation and human rights.
- The China Defence Universities Tracker should be used to inform decisions. Universities should avoid collaborating with Chinese institutions on technologies that are also defence research areas for those institutions.
- Develop a policy on collaboration with foreign militaries, security agencies and defence companies
- Use the China Defence Universities Tracker to improve the vetting of visiting scholars and students.
- Visitors from the PLA, defence conglomerates or other high risk entities should be subject to greater scrutiny in light of their defence and security links.
5. Ensure the implementation of supervisory systems.
- Enforce contracts and policies on conflicts of interest and external employment.
- Introduce annual reviews of engagement with China and the management of research collaborations.
- Introduce annual reviews of research integrity across the university.
Recommendations for the Australian Government
1. Increase and refine the allocation of government research funding, strengthening the government’s ability to encourage universities to better manage research collaboration.
- In general, the government should seek to ensure that its research funding is being used in ways that align with Australia’s values, needs and national interests.
- Federal funding agencies such as the Australian Research Council and the Defence Science and Technology Group should use the China Defence Universities Tracker to help investigate and consider the foreign military or security links of current and future funding recipients.
- Federal funding agencies should ensure disclosure of conflicts of interest by grant application assessors.
- Federal funding agencies should ensure that its policies on conflicts of interest and external employment are being followed by grant recipients.
2. Issue clear and public guidance to universities on specific areas of research with important security, economic or human rights implications that should be protected from unsupervised technology transfer.
- The University Foreign Interference Taskforce could serve as a platform to begin developing this guidance in consultation with university representatives.
3. Reform the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012, developing solutions to the Act’s failure to control technology transfer to foreign nationals and foreign military personnel in Australia.
4. The Australian Federal Police and Department of Defence should enforce the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Prevention of Proliferation) Act 1995, which restricts the provision of services to assist weapons of mass destruction programs.
5. The Department of Home Affairs should incorporate the China Defence Universities Tracker into its screening of visa applicants.
- PLA officers, PRC defence conglomerate employees and members of PRC security agencies should by default not be given visas if they intend to study dual-use technology in Australia.
- The military and security links of university researchers, particularly those from universities whose government links have been identified in the China Defence Universities Tracker, should be scrutinised.
6. Establish a national research integrity office.
- Its remit should cover universities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, medical research institutes and any other recipients of government research funding
- It should be mandated to produce public reports evaluating efforts to ensure research integrity across the higher education sector
- It should be empowered to carry out investigations into research integrity
- It should produce annual reports on research integrity across Australia
- It should report to the Education Minister
- It should conduct outreach to universities and researchers and consult them on the development of research integrity guidelines
7. Encourage the establishment of independent research integrity offices in universities.
- The government should introduce a start-up funding program for universities seeking to establish independent research integrity offices.
8. Create an annual meeting of education ministers from Five Eyes countries to deepen research collaboration within the alliance and coordinate on research security.
9. Work with Five Eyes partners to establish a joint centre on managing sensitive technologies.
- It should be resourced to monitor and assess the full course of China’s technology transfer activity, tracking China’s technology priorities and efforts to exploit resources in Five Eyes countries in service of those priorities.
- It should identify where research on sensitive technologies is being carried out within Five Eyes countries and coordinate both innovation and security efforts.
10. The National Intelligence Community should increase resourcing for efforts to study China’s technology priorities and technology transfer efforts.
Appendix: Universities supervised by SASTIND
- Anhui University
- Beijing University of Chemical Technology
- Central South University
- Changchun University of Science and Technology
- Chongqing University
- Dalian University of Technology
- East China University of Technology
- Fuzhou University
- Guilin University of Electronic Technology
- Hangzhou Dianzi University
- Harbin University of Science and Technology
- Hebei University
- Hebei University of Science and Technology
- Hefei University of Technology
- Heilongjiang Institute of Technology
- Heilongjiang University
- Henan University of Science and Technology
- Huazhong University of Science and Technology
- Hunan University
- Hunan University of Science and Technology
- Jiangsu University of Science and Technology
- Jilin University
- Kunming University of Science and Technology
- Lanzhou University
- Lanzhou University of Technology
- Nanchang Hangkong University
- Nanjing Tech University
- Nanjing University
- North China Institute of Aerospace Engineering
- North China University of Science and Technology
- North University of China
- Peking University
- Shandong University
- Shandong University of Technology
- Shanghai Jiaotong University
- Shanghai University
- Shenyang Aerospace University
- Shenyang Ligong University
- Shijiazhuang Tiedao University
- Sichuan University
- Soochow University
- South China University of Technology
- Southeast University
- Southwest University of Science and Technology
- Sun Yat-Sen University
- Tianjin Polytechnic University
- Tianjin University
- Tsinghua University
- University of Electronic Science and Technology of China
- University of Science and Technology Beijing
- University of Shanghai for Science and Technology
- University of South China
- Wuhan Institute of Technology
- Wuhan University
- Xi’an Jiaotong University
- Xi’an Technological University
- Xiamen University
- Xiangtan University
- Xidian University
- Yanshan University
- Zhejiang University