Among those partnering with American researchers are Chinese scientists involved in stealth technology and classified weapons studies, those employed by the PLA’s General Arms Department and those engaged in work on high-tech naval systems. The report does not say whether any of the studies done with American partners were directly related to weapons development. Regardless, the report questions why so many academies that serve the advancement of China’s military are intent on sending researchers to the United States.
“These cases establish that U.S. scholars and research institutions have been contributing directly to the [People’s Republic of China’s] military modernization,” the report concludes.
Authored by historian Glenn Tiffert, U.S. government researcher Jeffrey Stoff and Kevin Gamache, an administrator who has led efforts to heighten security awareness at U.S. universities, the report is an example of how organizations controlled by the Chinese Communist Party have leveraged the openness of U.S. society to bolster China’s military power.
For decades, the U.S. government and U.S. society were generally sympathetic to China’s rise based on the belief that, as China strengthened, it would embrace Western values. But that mood has shifted, given the wholesale rejection of a more pluralistic society by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The party continues to threaten democratic Taiwan with invasion and is engaged in a widespread crackdown on dissent, not just on mainland China, including in Xinjiang, but also in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.
The Hoover report, “Global Engagement: Rethinking Risk in the Research Enterprise,” identified 254 articles published in scientific and engineering publications between Jan. 1, 2013, and March 31, 2019. The articles were found by searching a Chinese database for scholarly articles called the China National Knowledge Infrastructure platform.
The 254 articles were co-authored by U.S.-based researchers and counterparts from institutions that are known in China as the “Seven Sons of National Defense”: the Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The core mission of these institutions, the report says, “is to support the PRC’s defense research and industrial base and promote or execute military-civil fusion policies, which channel civilian research into military applications.” Four of the seven institutions are on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List for export control purposes, but U.S. universities still allow their scientists to collaborate with researchers from those Chinese institutions.
The report does not say that American researchers broke U.S. laws when they participated in projects with their Chinese colleagues. It argues, however, that “it is not in the U.S. national interest to collaborate and assist with the military development efforts of the PRC, a nation that the U.S. government increasingly views as a strategic competitor and military rival.” So, “even if the relevant research is unclassified, considered basic or fundamental, and is ultimately published in open sources,” the report asks, should U.S. institutions really be making these people better at what they do? Its answer is no.
The report calls on U.S. universities and research institutions to acknowledge that there are “systemic flaws” in the way they have approached the challenges of foreign engagement. To remedy those flaws, it says, U.S. institutions need a new paradigm for risk management, one that understands that many threats to national security and economic competitiveness fall below the threshold of explicit illegality.
Underlying the report is a belief that many U.S. universities and research institutions are talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to their engagement with China. On one hand, the institutions argue that U.S. society should be about independence and autonomy and that federal government should leave them alone to partner with whomever they see fit, especially in basic research. At the same time, such institutions contend that they are not equipped to make determinations about individual scholars. But U.S. institutions can’t have it both ways. And in particular, the report says, they need to work harder to ensure that they are not actively involved in helping the People’s Liberation Army.
The report does not particularly criticize China for leveraging the openness of the U.S. system. The United States’ pantry is wide open. If it’s so easy to hide one’s military background from incredulous American administrators, how can we blame researchers from China for walking in and helping themselves?