On the hows and whys of our China investigation

Academic collaboration with China is under debate now that the country is clearly using research for its army. Is this happening at TU Delft? We went in search of answers.

Which links are there between China and TU Delft? (Artwork: Liam van Dijk)

  • This is the journalistic statement of accountability related to a series of four research articles written by Annebelle de Bruijn and Tomas van Dijk.
  • In these articles they expose TU Delft’s close ties with five universities that have tight links with the Chinese army.
  • Experts warn of the undesirable knowledge transfer to these universities.
  • In this series, we sketch how TU Delft entered into more and more ties with China and while doing so, did not have a complete picture of these.
  • And we give administrators and academics the space to express their thoughts.

Experts are warning universities around the world to be more conscious of the potential for misuse of scientific knowledge by China. This has been an issue for many years. The intelligence agency AIVD had already warned about technological and scientific espionage in 2011, but the concerns became greater since President Xi Jinping’s plans for the future became clear. Since 2016, the term military-civil fusion has taken a more prominent place in his policy. His goal is that China should have the strongest army in the world by 2049, and Chinese universities and companies have a major role in achieving this.

Simply said, military-civil fusion boils down to technologies which are developed in the civilian world that can also be applied by the military. China is not the only country that is working with this notion, but it does go further than other countries.

National and international warnings have not gone unnoticed by the seat of Government in The Hague. Politicians are asking critical Parliamentary Questions and the Dutch media is covering it widely: keep an eye on China. After years of relative openness and hope under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, this is now a completely different China. One with which the Netherlands and the West have to strike a new balance, is increasingly the discourse.

No overview
TU Delft too has to find its way in this minefield. In June 2019, one month after the Rutte Cabinet published its advisory China bill (in Dutch), Executive Board member Rob Mudde expressed the dilemma in Delta: working with China is interesting academically and is needed financially given low national research funding levels, but there are risks associated with it. “We need to jointly determine the areas that involve potential risks. If you do not define these properly, you will only suffer as all sorts of interesting alliances will no longer possible.”

Interesting alliances. Are there any examples? During the interview, we did not get a clear picture. And it was not only us. Despite all the attention being paid to China, there is little clarity about the academic lines between China and the Netherlands. Should universities here have a clear overview, they seem reluctant to display it for all to see. While researching the opportunities and risks of working with China, Ingrid d’Hooghe of the Leiden Asia Centre saw that most universities gave little away of their collaboration with the country. TU Delft is no exception. Up to the end of last year, TU Delft did not want to share a list of collaborative endeavours with the ‘Financieele Dagblad newspaper (in Dutch, link only available with login).

The facts listed
This made it difficult to have a nuanced discussion and to avoid thinking in terms of friends and foes which could cause unnecessary problems for Dutch and, in particular, Chinese researchers. At present, TU Delft, other universities and the Government are sitting at table to jointly define a China policy, and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is working on a ‘checklist framework’ for individuals. At the same time, experts are pointing more frequently to the naivety of universities. This led us to attempt to list the facts ourselves.

We hope to contribute to a well-considered debate

Most of the examples that we give are from a few years ago. We are aware that the subject has received greater attention since then. At the same time, these examples give some clarity on the collaborative ties that still exist. This suggestion was also made by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency in a report entitled ‘Verkenning wetenschappelijke samenwerking Nederlandse en Chinese kennisinstellingen’ (in Dutch) in which it suggests that a bibliographic analysis be done of the universities that have the most collaborative ties with China: Wageningen University and the Technical University of Delft.

Highest risk profile
While the TU Delft academics who spoke to us believe that almost all Chinese partners bring potential risks, Delta focused specifically on five universities: Beihang University, Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Institute of Technology, Northwestern Polytechnical University and the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT). The first four universities together with three others are known as the Seven Sons of National Defense.

Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank believe these universities to have the largest implications on academic collaboration. They are all assigned the highest risk profile in the China Defense University Tracker, a tool in which ASPI evaluates universities on the basis of their ties with the Chinese Government and the People’s Liberation Army. The Dutch Government uses this tool (PDF, in Dutch) to estimate the level of risk in collaborating with the Chinese universities. The NUDT is a People’s Liberation Army University and ASPI asserts that its policy is explicitly to send scientists to universities abroad to acquire knowledge that can be used for the military. Of all the universities in the Netherlands, TU Delft has hired the highest number of people from NUDT, an ASPI analysis of academic literature revealed.

The ASPI is co-financed by the Australian army, American industry and by international embassies in Canberra such as the Dutch embassy. We are aware of this. We have checked the information from ASPI’s China Defense University Tracker and added to it as best we can. In the end, only a small part of our research was based on the Tracker.

Months of research
To get a picture of the cooperation agreements of TU Delft with Chinese universities, we carried out extensive research on Chinese, English, Dutch and other language policy documents, university websites, research reports and newspaper articles. For the research into academic publications, Delta used both Western and Chinese academic databases. The editors also had contact with TU Delft academics who co-published with Chinese colleagues from the Seven Sons universities. Apart from using factual information from the past and now, we gave them plenty of space for their considerations and dilemmas. It is not our intention to judge, but to contribute to a well-considered debate that is based on facts and circumstances.

In this series, we consciously do not name some Chinese and TU Delft academics to avoid jeopardising their academic careers. Some academics did not respond to our questions despite repeated attempts to contact them. As their examples also illustrate how closely their research can be connected to the People’s Liberation Army, the editors opted to include the research. In these cases, we tried to find both sides of the story from the supervisors or research groups of the academics in question.

And finally, we of course recognise that most Chinese students and doctoral candidates come to TU Delft as do any other student. They are attracted by the good academic climate, the high level of English, the good air quality etc. They do their research, contribute to science, and after a few years find a job in the Netherlands or return to China. “They want to go abroad to gain experience and increase their job opportunities,” says Ingrid d’Hooghe of the Leiden Asia Centre. Hopefully this will stay the case, facilitated by the new China policy being compiled by the Government and universities.

By Saskia Bonger and Annebelle de Bruijn

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

  • The Sons: about how TU Delft inadvertently helps the Chinese army. 
  • The military: about Chinese military scientists who come to TU Delft to acquire knowledge for the Liberation Army.
  • Striking a balance: TU Delft scientists talk about their considerations in working with Chinese counterparts.
  • The history: about how the view of collaboration with China has changed over the years. (still in translation)
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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