An international investigation led by CORRECTIV and Follow the Money reveals that universities across Europe are actively collaborating with Chinese military institutions.
Chinese leadership is using the knowledge gained from joint research to strategically develop its military. German universities are also actively participating in such collaborations.
Read the DW report here.
The Chinese military is cooperating to a considerable extent with European scientists to build up its army with their knowledge. This is one conclusion from joint research conducted by the non-profit research center CORRECTIV with the Dutch investigative platform Follow the Money and nine other European media, including Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle and Deutschlandfunk. The fact that civilian research is apparently also used for the military is sometimes knowingly ignored by researchers and universities in this country.
Sandra Petersmann, DW Head of Research & Investigations: "Together with our partners, we looked in detail at around 30 CVs of top Chinese researchers in important fields such as physics or chemistry who had spent at least three years in Germany. All of these scientists are now researching and teaching at elite Chinese universities that cooperate closely with the military. Almost half of them came to Germany on Humboldt research fellowships."
Thirty journalists evaluated more than 350,000 scientific studies from the years 2000 to 2022. In about 3,000 cases, the researchers collaborated with Chinese colleagues from military universities. In the process, the research team discovered at least 349 scientific publications with German participation. And at least 48 German universities cooperate with academic institutions in China with a high risk of proximity to the military.
Xi Jinping uses foreign research to strengthen China's power
One such institution is the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), a top military university in China. Scientists from both the University of Bonn and the University of Stuttgart, as well as the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, have worked with researchers at NUDT to publish scientific papers with potential dual use, or "dual-use." This means that the research results can be used for civilian purposes, but also for military purposes. For example, to track people or improve robot navigation. For years, China's political leadership has been pursuing the goal of also using knowledge and technology gained by means of civilian research for the defense sector.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets students the National Defense University in Beijing in November 2019.
German researchers often enter into such collaborations unreservedly, lured by prestige, money and better career opportunities. They seem to accept the fact that, at least indirectly, they are also providing the Chinese army with knowledge. Experts see Western academic openness and transparency as a gateway to diverting knowledge and using it for military purposes. China expert Mareike Ohlberg of the German Marshall Fund has a clear opinion on this: cooperation with institutions that report directly to the military should be categorically ruled out.
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
The University of Bonn was aware of the Chinese researcher's connections to NUDT. However, when asked, it does not see a possible "dual-use" case in his work. The same applies to the University of Stuttgart: A spokesperson told the research team that it was not a dual-use case, and that NUDT was not "directly" involved in the work. The Fraunhofer Institute did not comment on the specific work when asked.
Lack of binding rules - German government shifts responsibility to universities
When asked about this issue, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) argues that universities are independent institutions and that the federal government is limiting itself to "raising awareness" among the universities. "We observe with great concern how on the Chinese side issues such as restriction of research freedom are developing, or even just the use for military purposes," says State Secretary Jens Brandenburg (BMBF) in an interview. The three governing parties refer to China as a "system rival" in their coalition agreement.
In view of the research results, it is questionable whether raising awareness is sufficient. In interviews with both experts and Green Party politician Kai Gehring, chairman of the research committee in the Bundestag, everyone calls for clear red lines in research cooperation with Chinese military facilities. "I don't think this is ethically justifiable," says Gehring.