The Chinese government is secretly enrolling the country’s prize military scientists in Western universities to gain expertise in such areas as “hypersonic missiles and navigation technology,” according to a new report.
The report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which has links to the Australian defense ministry, claimed that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has paid for “more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad,” with many of them concealing their official ties to China’s defense community.
A key target of Beijing’s program, the institute suggests, are universities located in the so-called “Five Eyes countries” — the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — that have established a close intelligence-sharing network.
“Dozens of PLA scientists have obscured their military affiliations to travel to Five Eyes countries and the European Union, including at least 17 to Australia, where they work in areas such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology,” said the report published this week, warning that “it’s not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon.”
“Most scientists sent abroad by the PLA appear to be open about which institutions they come from,” but in some cases the scientists “use various kinds of cover, ranging from the use of misleading historical names for their institutions to the use of names of non-existent institutions,” the report said.
It cited the case of scientists from the PLA Rocket Force Engineering University — a key Chinese military research operation — who reportedly claimed “to be from the Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology, which appears to only exist on paper.”
“PLA members also claim to be from real civilian institutions in the same regions as their military units,” the report said. “Those who haven’t been forthcoming about their military affiliations may engage in espionage or steal intellectual property while overseas.”
While tension has risen between the U.S. and China in recent years, analysts say geopolitical friction between Australia and China is even more intense, fueled by concerns of Chinese infiltration of and influence over Australia’s economy and politics. Australian recently infuriated Beijing by barring Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from operating Australia’s new 5G network.
Fears of Chinese influence over Australian politics were underscored when the government in Canberra late last year banned all political donations from foreign sources. Then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was acted after allegations of a Chinese campaign to interfere in the nation’s politics.
The claims in this week’s report by the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which is financed in part by the Australian Department of Defence, reflect a wider Australian fear that the Chinese military is covertly inserting itself into the nation’s scientific research community.
Australian and U.S. universities have ignored risks, in part because the influx of Chinese students has bolstered their coffers with tuition and grant money from Beijing.
“While countries such as Australia and the U.S. pride themselves on their scientific achievements, their universities and research institutes face limited or declining domestic funding,” the report said. “To address these issues, many universities have turned to China — an emerging scientific powerhouse that has sought to build ties to scientific communities around the world.”
The number of Chinese students pursuing degrees at Western universities has soared in recent years. Most estimates put the number in the U.S. at about 350,000, up from just 70,000 just a decade ago.
The same period has seen a surge in donations to public and private American universities from wealthy Chinese donors. The total amount of money flowing in ranges far beyond security-related fields and is difficult to pin down because of privacy around some donations.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2016 on donations from private Chinese individuals, including a $115 million donation from Chinese billionaire Chen Tiangiao and his wife to fund a neuroscience institute at Cal Tech. Other significant donations went to Yale Law School and MIT.