China’s growing interference in European universities

China pays EU scientists money in return for their research results, according to experts on Chinese influence in Europe. They pointed to the risks associated with the transfer of civilian-military dual-use technologies, which could be used for the modernization of the Chinese military or the suppression of human rights.

A new study published by the Association for International Affairs reveals that the EU lacks a coherent approach to protecting science and research from Chinese espionage.

Indeed, thanks to the funding of individual researchers in European countries, China can easily access sensitive data and knowledge of technologies that could be useful also in the military sector.

“Chinese documents are very clear about the areas the country is interested in overseas. These include artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, integrated circuits, space research, research into new materials, neuroscience and biotechnology”said study author Ivana Karásková.

The authors identified 203 research projects in the Czech Republic whose funding came exclusively from Chinese sources. Several projects have been funded under the “1,000 talents” program, intended to recruit foreign researchers in key scientific fields. One of the research projects was also funded by the Central Military Commission, the highest authority in charge of managing China’s armed forces.

“Given the fine line between civilian and military research, some technologies could be used for the modernization of the Chinese military or as a tool for repression of human rights”warned data analyst Veronika Blablova, who contributed to the study.

Apart from the Czech Republic, the study focused on Austrian and Slovak academics. The data indicates that 284 Austrian academics have their research funded exclusively by China, while in Slovakia the figure is only 18.

EU recognizes more foreign interference

EU sources have admitted that cases of foreign interference in the European research and innovation system have been increasing in recent years.

The European Commission published in January 2022 a toolbox for the fight against foreign interference in the research and innovation sector. This should help institutions preserve their academic freedom, including research results and intellectual property.

Experts on Chinese influence, however, still warned that scientists from Central and Eastern Europe are inclined to downplay security aspects when cooperating with Chinese colleagues or institutes.

Counter Chinese influence

Some countries have taken a step in the fight against Chinese influence in academia, according to information from EURACTIV.

According to the senior ministerial adviser of the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Tiina Vihma-Purovaara, some Finnish universities and scientific institutions have permanently stopped their cooperation with China. Those that still do favor multinational projects rather than bilateral ones.

The Finnish ministry believes that awareness of the opportunities and threats of cooperation with China has become widespread in academia. The objective remains to encourage collaboration and to do it intelligently by integrating European values ​​and principles.

In March 2022, the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture also published recommendations for academic cooperation with China.

Risto Vilkko, senior scientific adviser at the Academy of Finland, pointed out that the situation had changed around 2015, qualifying the previous period as more ” savage “.

Since then, and due to the positioning of Chinese President Xi Jinping, political caution with China has been imposed. From the point of view of the academy, activity has decreased on both sides and projects between individual researchers are currently more favoured.

The Italian blind spot

At the same time, other countries still see no risks in cooperation with China. In Italy, China has invested heavily in research and development.

According to the study conducted by the think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) on Chinese influence in Italian research, Italy is one of the first Western countries to sign an intergovernmental agreement on scientific and technological cooperation with China in 1978 and to open its universities to scholars and students Chinese.

The cooperation was strengthened by the memorandum of understanding between the two countries in support of the “New Silk Road” initiative in 2019.

China has invested heavily in promoting exchanges, and Italian universities have also launched academic partnerships with the Chinese. The National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (Enea) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Cas) are an example of this cooperation.

The IAI study also notes that, unlike other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany or the Netherlands, which have taken steps to curb the growing influence of China, Italy has in no way limited its collaborations or projects with the eastern country to the national level.

“I think any cooperation with Chinese universities should be accompanied by a comprehensive assessment of national security risks, because obviously they exist”Dutch MEP Bart Groothuis (Renew) and member of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee told EURACTIV.

For Olivier Afiron, an expert on China, a filtering mechanism at EU level should be put in place to fight against Chinese espionage in the research and development sector.

The Commission will launch next year a “mutual learning exercise” to facilitate the exchange of experiences between stakeholders. The aim is to raise awareness and prevent foreign interference in the research sector.

According to information provided by EU sources to EURACTIV, tools to help EU research institutions carry out their due diligence and identify risks that may arise from international partnerships are also being developed. .

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China’s growing interference in European universities


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