WASHINGTON—Researchers in the U.S. have engaged in extensive collaboration with counterparts affiliated with the Chinese military, potentially boosting China’s potency as a rival, according to a new report published Thursday by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
The report, from the conservative think tank, identifies 254 papers in a publicly accessible Chinese government-backed academic database. They were written by researchers from 115 U.S. universities and government research labs working with counterparts from seven key research universities and institutes with ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Papers cover a range of topics, from material science to naval engineering, and the Hoover report found instances of the Chinese researchers allegedly hiding or not making clear their defense affiliations.
The report concludes that any collaboration and assistance that could boost China as a strategic and military competitor are inimical to U.S. interests “even if the relevant research is unclassified, considered basic or fundamental, and is ultimately published.”
The report, which studied papers published between January 2013-March 2019, details an apparent widespread effort by China to get access to U.S. research and technology by using Chinese researchers with links to the country’s military.
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The report’s authors include a top Defense Department analyst and national security experts from Hoover and the Texas A&M University System.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. In recent weeks the foreign ministry has called Trump administration allegations that China is exploiting U.S. research institutes to get access to technology exaggerated and unwarranted, saying Beijing’s efforts are normal and aboveboard.
China’s use of researchers with undisclosed ties to the military went little noticed until groundbreaking 2018 research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-backed think tank. It found the PLA had sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad over the past decade, at times without their host schools’ knowledge.
Since then the U.S. has taken quickening actions to deal with the issue. Those include a May executive order from President Trump to ban visas for Chinese graduate students and researchers who work or used to work with entities involved in building up China’s defense sector.
Last week U.S. officials cited improper coordination by Chinese consular officers with military researchers as among the reasons for shutting down China’s consulate in Houston. The Justice Department also highlighted four recent cases charging Chinese scholars with visa fraud for allegedly lying about their status as PLA members while conducting research here. The FBI has recently done interviews with suspected undeclared Chinese military members in more than 25 U.S. cities, the Justice Department said.
The Hoover report recommends that U.S. research institutions create common moral and ethical standards to prevent collaborations that could help authoritarian governments or violate democratic values. The report also suggests such institutions create a shared blacklist of foreign partners deemed “off limits for collaboration.”
The seven Chinese universities and research institutes the report focused on are among China’s leading scientific and engineering schools, considered integral to the country’s defense and industrial base. While none have “defense” or “military” in their names, their ties to the military are well known in China and the group is referred to as the “Seven Sons of National Defense.”
The co-authors of the papers reviewed in the report are from university departments working with the PLA’s General Armament Department, which oversees weapons development; the PLA Rocket Force, which manages China’s nuclear missile arsenal; and defense companies.
The report found that some authors hid their military affiliations by using more innocuous-sounding names such as “state key laboratory” instead of “national defense key laboratory.” In other cases, the English-language websites of the authors’ university departments didn’t disclose defense-related subdivisions, the report said.
The Harbin Institute of Technology was the most frequent collaborator, with the report finding 106 papers by academics at 63 U.S. institutions co-authored with counterparts affiliated with HIT. Researchers affiliated with the Energy Department-sponsored Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Columbia University and the University of Texas at San Antonio were among the co-authors of the papers, the report said.
The topics of the papers at issue in the HIT collaborations ranged from largely civilian projects like zero-energy buildings to those with potential military applications, including transportation automation and lithium-ion battery development, the report said.
A spokesman for UT-San Antonio said the researcher in question hasn’t been affiliated with the university since August 2019. Representatives for HIT, the Lawrence Berkeley lab and Columbia University didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
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