How eagerness became critical alertness

TU Delft has links with various Chinese research institutes, even military ones. How did this come about? “It’s all happening in China. That’s where you need to be.”

(Illustration: Liam van Dijk)

  • From 2007 onwards, TU Delft and other Dutch universities put much effort into academic collaboration with China. 
  • TU Delft signed the one cooperation agreement after the other, but barely looked into the backgrounds of the universities.
  • During a meeting with TU Delft Board Members, a Chinese university that has ties with the Chinese army put forward military personnel in civilian clothing.
  • Since 2018, TU Delft has become more aware of the risks of collaborating with China. Yet, no concrete steps have been taken.

Beijing Institute of Technology, building 2, meeting room 233. Eleven Chinese and Dutch university representatives sit at a long wooden table. Laptops open, A4s in front of them. A Chinese flag is in front of the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) delegation and opposite them, behind a Dutch flag, is the TU Delft delegation. On the programme, discussions about research cooperation. Pro Vice Rector Peter Wieringa expresses the hope that the universities can expand their research activities in areas such as computer sciences and electrical engineering to areas such as intelligent robots and electric vehicles. Then is it time for the official photographs (in Chinese).

This meeting on 17 November 2014 is only one of many meetings that TU Delft has held over the last 15 years with Chinese universities. Scientific cooperation between China and TU Delft goes back decades but became more intensive after 2007. China is then a strong emerging economy and as such is the promised land. In terms of science, ‘the Chinese’ want to move fast and Beijing does not think twice about putting large sums of money on the table for academic collaboration. Dutch universities do not want to miss the boat.

“About 10, 15 years ago, people were thinking that cooperating with China was the future,” says researcher Ingrid d’Hooghe. She has mapped the scientific collaboration between China and Europe for various organisations including the Leiden Asia Centre (LAC). Partly under the lead of the Dutch Government, universities were jumping over each other to shake hands with Chinese university directors and turn meetings into crisp new contracts. It bore fruit. The academic collaboration between the Netherlands and China took off. The number of joint publications increased dramatically after 2010.

The graph below shows how the Dutch-Chinese publications increased over the years.


TU Delft is also keen and jumps into the race with other universities with complete conviction. Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen says “At the time, it was still ‘China, the place to be’. Everyone believed that they had to join in.” In 2008, Dirk Jan van den Berg became Chair of the Executive Board of TU Delft. He had just come from China where he had served as Ambassador from 2005 to 2008. Van den Berg’s job was to pave the way for the sometimes ambiguous Chinese academia and turn connections into fruitful collaboration. He now describes the early years as a time of ‘optimistic curiosity’. China wanted to learn from the world and sought a path to a new future, while other countries were curious about the quickly emerging power.

TU Delft Executive Board Chair Van den Berg was initially tasked with further expanding contacts in China, he explains when we spoke to him. “We consciously did not opt for a campus such as Yantai (the campus where the University of Groningen initially did see potential, Eds.). We started with dedicated areas, research areas where TU Delft excels in, with universities and partners with whom we already had contact,” says Van den Berg. Chinese delegations fly to TU Delft and in turn, TU Delft deans, business managers, strategic advisors, full professors and professors were received with ceremony at Chinese universities. They talk, shake hands and carefully drop phrases such as ‘closer cooperation’. These contacts lead to work that TU Delft is proud of: four joint research centres (in Dutch) in the fields of water research, geo information, LED lighting and infrastructure. Chinese and TU Delft scientists have worked together in these fields since 2012.

Seven Sons
During this period, TU Delft Board Members also signed the first agreements with the universities that are collectively known under the umbrella name of Seven Sons of National Defense. They are attractive partners for TU Delft because they are among the top academic institutions in China. But there is another side of the coin. According to American and Australian researchers, these educational institutions are also deeply rooted in the Chinese defence industry. Their scientific research activities contribute heavily to both the Chinese army and to its defence industry.

Contacts with the Seven Sons were sometimes made before 2008, as they were with the joint research centres. In the summer of 2006, a delegation from the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering did a scoping visit (in Chinese) to Beihang University, and in 2007, Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an sought contact with TU Delft. The then Dean of 3mE, Marco Waas, and a TU Delft business manager visited Xi’an – the beating heart of the Chinese aviation industry – with a representative of the municipality of Delft. The municipality’s alderman, Ronald Vuijk, reported (in Dutch) enthusiastically on the ‘successful mission’. He makes a passing comment how TU Delft and representatives of the AVIC First Aircraft Institute – that designs both military and civilian aircraft – are making plans for joint aerospace research. By then, according to the mission report, TU Delft had already signed an agreement with China Aviation Industrial Base, de birthplace of at least 30 civilian and military aircraft.

De Flying Leopard, is a jet fighter developed by China Aviation Industrial Base. (Photo: Door Alert5, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Under the lead of Van den Berg, TU Delft further extends contacts with the Seven Sons. “It was a question of joining existing collaboration and from there, work it out in detail and make it official.” Making cooperation official was preferably done in formal ceremonies in which directors – under the watchful eyes of local and national governments – signed memorandums of understanding, a sort of gentleman’s agreement. “The Chinese love these sorts of ceremonies,” says Van den Berg.

We did not produce any reports on whether the people working there met our political criteria

The two other Seven Sons with whom TU Delft signed documents — Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) and Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) — first made contact with TU Delft in 2009 and 2010 (in Chinese) respectively. At the time, TU Delft did not screen the people around the table. “We did not produce any reports on whether the people working there met our political criteria,” says Van den Berg about the Seven Sons.

Alarm bells
While the BIT and HIT were strengthening their ties with TU Delft, the first doubts were being raised in the Netherlands about the interest of China in certain technologies. The in its 2011 annual report (PDF, in Dutch) the AIVD explicitly warned about technological scientific espionage for the first time. The intelligence agency also wrote that China was actively recruiting Chinese scientists with work experience at international knowledge institutions. ‘By using knowledge acquired from Dutch companies and institutes, these scientists are thus used to strengthen the relevant sector in China’, reports the AIVD. In the meantime, travel between TU Delft and Chinese universities continued.

One event that stands out is a meeting between representatives of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering and Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in 2011. During this meeting the NPU, at the request of TU Delft (in Chinese), invites Chinese aviation companies, including the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center. The employees at the Center are military personnel, asserts the think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute. But, the think tank continues, they conceal that military identity.

While TU Delft expands collaboration with Chinese universities contract by contract and a Chinese research institute even arrives in Delft, the face of China is changing. The rather staid President Hu Jintao makes way for the ambitious Xi Jinping in 2013. It soon becomes clear (in Dutch) that he will not be as much of a broad-minded reformer as his father, the communist leader Xi Zhongxun who fell out of favour and was later rehabilitated. Xi Jinping strongly attacked civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, academics and other free thinkers. He even strengthens his power base within the Communist Party. Anyone that is not loyal to Xi is either silenced or leaves the stage. Under his leadership, the Party starts a new personality cult. The President presents himself as ‘Xi Dada’, or Father Xi, to the Chinese people. He creates the image of a strict but just father that has the best intentions for his people at heart.

This song is part of the cultus surrounding Xi Dada. 

TU Delft and Chinese faculties also seek each other out in the China of Xi. The Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management signed a contract in 2014 for joint research (in Chinese) with Beihang University, one of the Seven Sons. One year later, the then Dean of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering signed (in Chinese) a similar agreement with the same university.

After the current Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen took over from Van den Berg in 2016 the TU continued with establishing new contacts, strengthening existing ties and renewing contracts. In 2016 and 2017, at least 11 contracts were signed by various faculties including the Faculties of EEMCS and AE as well as at central university level. These were sometimes accompanied by ceremonies (in Chinese) with much pomp and ceremony, speeches by dignitaries, shiny plaques, showy bouquets (in Chinese) and flashing cameras. And sometimes they were small meetings in a back room of a Chinese university faculty.

By now, Xi has the Communist Party under control and has enough control over society to make new promises. One of these is that by 2049, the anniversary of the People’s Republic, China is to be an exemplary country. It is to be a supreme power with a large middle class, have an iron strong economy, a knowledge economy that others will be jealous of, and have the strongest army in the world. To achieve this last point, Beijing not only pumps billions of euros into the army, but Xi has also dusted off an old term: military-civil fusion. This term will play a significant role in the strategic policy plans of the Communist Party, especially after 2016, which will have implications for Chinese universities and companies. Their role in the development of the army and the defence industry is prioritised more than ever.

Data theft
In 2017, the Executive Board appoints its first China Ambassador, Rob Fastenau. According to China researcher d’Hooghe, TU Delft barely considered any risks at that time. “Fastenau was aware of some risks, but it was his job at first to work on any opportunities that would lead to collaboration,” she says. This changed after 2018 when alarm bells started ringing in the academic world too. In that year, Dutch researchers write that universities were paying too little heed to risks such as data theft or the misuse of research for Chinese strategic purposes, involved in working with China. In the same year, researchers from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) issue warnings too. The Australian think tank asserts that the military identity is being concealed and that some of the Chinese doctoral candidates intentionally came to international universities to acquire knowledge for the Chinese army. Despite the first worrying reports, TU Delft continues forging new alliances. It signed an agreement with Huawei in 2018 about research into practical applications for 5G technology. In the same year, EEMCS also signed an agreement (in Chinese) with the Beijing Institute of Technology, a Seven Sons university, about a dual doctorate course.

In 2019, ASPI produces a new report in which researchers point to the links that Chinese universities have with the army. The 2018 and 2019 reports are extensively covered (in Dutch) in the Dutch media. Critical Parliamentary questions (in Dutch) are raised and journalists repeatedly bang (in Dutch) on the doors of TU Delft. Little by little, the initial eagerness of TU Delft gives way to vigilance.

Turning point
The turning point at TU Delft came in 2019. “The first steps in greater awareness about ties with China were taken that year,” says a TU Delft spokesperson. “In May 2019, the Executive Board agreed to the proposal to establish an organisation for ties with countries such as Brazil, China and India, and in doing so, the importance of needing to state risks and define management measures is set.” TU Delft also appointed a Senior Policy Advisor China for the first time in November that year: Peter Gill. He started working as the right hand of China Ambassador. d’Hooghe says “I believe that the ASPI reports were a great catalyst in increasing awareness.”

It is complicated to deal with this in perspective without discriminating anyone’ 

Still, the measures taken remained limited. In June 2019, in an interview with the news broadcaster Nieuwsuur (in Dutch), TU Delft asserts that it is up to the Dutch Government to take action, while the Government in turn points to the universities in its policy documents. It seems that no one wants to burn their fingers on this issue. That can be expected, says d’Hooghe. “It is complicated to deal with this in perspective without discriminating anyone.”

Since the end of 2020, three Dutch ministries and all the universities in the Netherlands have united. It is finally the Government that will take the lead. “It is a good thing that the first step has been taken,” says d’Hooghe. The universities and ministries are working on national guidelines for working with China. As do academics and the current Executive Board, former Executive Board Chair Van den Berg believes that it is not wise to break all academic ties with China. “We are facing large, global challenges that no single country can solve on its own. It is in everyone’s interest that academic communities are in touch with each other. Make sure you talk about your concerns, but always maintain a dialogue with each other.”

Annebelle de Bruijn

This article is part of series about academic cooperation with China. Read our other stories too:

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