The Chinese military is cooperating extensively with European scientists to expand its army with new knowledge. This is shown by an international paper “Chinese Science Research” with the participation of Correctiv, Süddeutsche Zeitung and nine other media outlets.
The researchers have worked with their Chinese colleagues from the military establishment on about 350 scientific publications with German participation. It covers the period between January 2000 and February 2022. Germany ranks second in Europe in terms of the number of such studies – only the United Kingdom has surpassed it with 1,400 studies, followed by the Netherlands with 288 studies.
Journalists have encountered about 3,000 such cases across Europe. Scholars and universities in Germany ignored or “occasionally willfully” accepted the fact that studies boosted the expansion of the Chinese military – because projects offered prestige, money, or career opportunities.
The research team found 48 German universities and institutes that work with academic institutions in China despite their potential proximity to the military. It includes the institutes of the Max Planck Society, the Ruhr University in Bochum and the Technical University of Berlin.
Some German universities, for example, actively cooperated with the Association of Chinese Universities “Seven Sons of National Defense” – although this is closely related to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Most publications appeared in the fields of computer science, physics, and materials science, followed by nuclear physics, artificial intelligence, and lasers.
New surveillance technologies for the Chinese state?
German-Chinese research work brought, among other things, new insights into encryption and decryption technology, robotic navigation or digital tracking of groups of people.
To this end, researchers from the University of Bonn, the University of Stuttgart and the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research worked together with the top military university “National University of Defense Technology”. It plays a major role in Chinese military research and also works on high-speed technology or supercomputers.
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Sharing these new findings is challenging, not only because the Chinese military uses German knowledge, but also because the Chinese state has been violating human rights on a massive scale for years. Particularly affected was Xinjiang, where the predominantly Muslim minority Uyghurs live.
There, the authorities in the cities set up a huge surveillance apparatus, forcibly placed the Uyghurs in reeducation camps, and it seems that they too were tortured. After human rights abuses became known, the European Union imposed sanctions on officials in China, which will run until the end of the year.
So the risk is real that scientific cooperation will also enhance China’s repressive apparatus — among other things, through new findings in decryption technology and digital tracking of groups of people.
At first glance, the rejected studies may seem unclear because their results can be used for civilian purposes. However, according to the experts interviewed, these are situations in which the military could also benefit. Then there’s talk of so-called “dual-use” apps.
Thomas Hoffmann, rector of the Technical University of Munich, explained that the cooperation between his university and the top military university, Harbin Institute of Technology, “is not a notorious thing,” he explained to the international research team. Many innovations can be used both civilian and military at the same time. “No sharp division is possible.” Communities around the world will benefit from the research.
TU Berlin refers to the civil clause
Among the universities in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, TU Berlin actively cooperates with seven major military universities, and FU Berlin claims to maintain similar cooperative relations. “Technical University of Berlin, its university management and researchers are aware of the scope of the topic,” university spokeswoman Stephanie Terp said of the Daily Mirror. “In its civilian clause and in its mission statement, TU Berlin has clearly defined itself not to allow weapons-related research,” says Terp.
However, there is cooperation with Chinese universities: with the seven major military universities (Seven Sons) in recent years at least seven research projects, from mechanical engineering to space and energy technology. Cooperation with Chinese institutions is based on the principle of universal university and freedom of research.
Unlike other large technical universities in Germany, TU Berlin adopted a civilian clause in 1991. Applicants for research projects must state that the projects in question do not serve military purposes. TU’s in-house research funding does not provide any funds for armaments-related research.
A Central Research Ethics Committee (KEF) also examines and evaluates research projects – beyond statutory requirements – for ethical acceptability and assesses the compatibility of research projects with the civil clause of TU Berlin.
The Berlin University of Applied Sciences (HTW) has also issued ethical guidelines that essentially exclude research for military purposes and specify special duties of care for dual use. “In addition to the many positive aspects of international cooperation, we are aware of the potential risks,” a spokeswoman said.
Do not tolerate human rights violations
Humboldt University also maintains as an “excellent and famous university” international contacts with Chinese universities, according to Heliopolis University spokesperson Hans-Christoph Keller, but none with the seven military-oriented Universities of the Seven. There is also no direct funding from China. “Of course, Heliopolis University has long been aware of the risks involved in working with universities and research institutes in authoritarian societies.”
German university spokesman Carsten Witt told Tagesspiegel: Since the beginning of this year, there has been a Chinese advisory board at FU, which is interested in cooperation projects and institutional partnerships with China and makes recommendations to the university’s executive committee.
FU strategically cooperates with Peking University, which is not counted among the seven sons. The university receives direct (start-up) funding from China in connection with a professor from the Confucius Institute of the Free University. According to Witt, no one knows that researchers at the university are involved in cooperation with the Chinese military.
FU has dual use on the agenda
Third party funding must always be reported to FU in advance. Researchers will also be informed in publications when research is relevant to security and what is important, for example, on the topic of foreign trade in a scientific context. Last winter, FU devoted a whole series of public lectures to the topic of “dual use”.
FU spokesperson Witt also notes that the university created a document on academic freedom in 2021, which provides for self-declaration by scholars on projects in a security-related field and for cooperation with institutions in authoritarian countries.
The Technical University of Brandenburg in Cottbus-Senftenberg cooperates with eight Chinese universities in the field of student exchange. According to the BTU, there are no military research purposes.
In addition, the BTU has adhered to the DFG’s Code of Honor (“Guidelines for the Protection of Good Scientific Practice”): “It does not tolerate any violation of human rights and supports academic freedom in all respects, but does not Military Research,” a spokeswoman for the Tagesspiegel newspaper said.
European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) maintains cooperation with Sichuan University of International Studies in Chongqing in the field of German studies, which is largely limited to student exchange. As with all partnerships, partnerships with Chinese institutions will also be extensively vetted beforehand. “This is also due to the fact that the scope of cooperation is very small,” a spokeswoman said.
Risk awareness in Potsdam
The University of Potsdam currently does not have any active and direct institute cooperation or other service relationships with Chinese universities. “Within the University of Potsdam there is the necessary awareness of the risks regarding the importance of foreign trade to one’s own research activities,” a spokeswoman said. For this reason, a guideline is being developed to ensure compliance with all foreign trade regulations, sanctions regulations and ban lists. In particular, this includes checking the collaboration partners and third-party funding providers before starting the project.
The researchers themselves will also participate in the testing process and receive appropriate training. There was only recently a university-wide course on the topic of ‘Export Control in Science’. “Last but not least, the University of Potsdam’s Ethics Committee is dealing with questions about the potential use of research findings for non-peaceful purposes,” she said.
There are no clear rules for military research
There are still no clear rules and penalties for military research in universities and scientific institutions. Jens Brandenburg (FDP), Secretary of State in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), explained that risks “related to research espionage and unwanted technology flows” would be closely monitored. The BMBF insisted on the independence of the universities and relied on “raising awareness”.
Kai Gering, a science expert with the Bundestag’s green parliamentary group, believes it makes sense to cooperate scientifically with China and keep channels of exchange open in light of the challenges of the present. “But at the same time we must act with caution and in a measured manner in order to protect German and European technological sovereignty and defend our compass of values,” Gering said.
“Because China’s offensive military policy – especially towards its neighbors in the South China Sea – is known to all and this makes some cooperation in the areas of security and research impossible.”
It is in Germany’s interest to protect against espionage of knowledge and unfair cooperation as well as from reprisals against the freedom of scientists: “Neither mass formation nor credulity are recipes for international scientific cooperation.”