Knowledge gained at TU Delft by Chinese researchers may end up in the Chinese army.
A still from a promotionvideo of the National University of Defense Technology. (Photo: Youtube)

Knowledge gained at TU Delft by Chinese researchers may end up in the Chinese army. But the Government will not run stringent screening procedures and produce blacklists.

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This is what Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven wrote (in Dutch) in a response to Parliamentary questions posed by the political party PVV after reading a series of investigative stories published by Delta. The Cabinet is sticking to an existing ruling concerning greater ‘knowledge security’.

In March this year, Delta revealed that knowledge gathered at TU Delft may fall into the hands of the Chinese army. TU Delft researchers work with the so-called Seven Sons of National Defense, top Chinese universities that, according to Australian and American researchers, have close links with the army and specialise in subjects such as aerospace and weapon systems. TU Delft even signed cooperation agreements with four of the Seven Sons at faculty or central level. On top of this, in recent years, at least 29 doctoral candidates and guest researchers from the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) military university carried out research at TU Delft.

The articles are the latest addition to a list of concerns of Dutch politicians about cooperation with China in education and research. The House of Representatives had previously voiced concerns about the role of the Confucius Institutes (in Dutch) and a major research project (in Dutch) carried out in cooperation with tech giant Huawei.

Opportunities and risks
This time, the PVV wanted answers. The party fears a ‘Chinese invasion’ at TU Delft and believes that both a screening process is needed for ‘all future and current Chinese researchers’, as well as a ‘blacklist’ of Chinese institutions that the Netherlands should refuse to work with.

But the Government has no plans to go down that road. The law provides no basis for such a screening, writes (in Dutch) Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven on behalf of the Government, stating that this would be at odds with the principle of non-discrimination.

And, as she often does in answering Parliamentary Questions about China, she emphasises the high level of autonomy of Dutch institutions, meaning that it is entirely up to them to decide who to work with. However, she does recognise that she need to weigh up the ‘national security perspective’, says the Minister. She also writes that before entering into cooperation, universities need to do a risk analysis. Her interest is that knowledge institutions check ‘the interests that should be protected, any threats to these interests, and the extent to which these risks are manageable (through existing measures) or can be made manageable (by adopting new rulings).’

In March, former Executive Board Chair Dirk Jan van den Berg informed Delta that in his time, TU Delft did not screen Chinese universities. Since 2019, TU Delft has been working on creating ‘greater awareness about cooperation with China’. A policy advisor appointed that year has since produced a manual entitled Partnering with China — Concrete Tools for TU Delft. In more than 30 pages, the document helps TU Delft academics decide which Chinese partners to enter into partnerships with.

Seven Sons
Over the years, security services such as the AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service) have repeatedly warned about spying at Chinese knowledge institutions. Espionage by China is a point of concern for the Cabinet, writes the Minister. The fact that Chinese PhD students and researchers have links to the army may not be against the law, ‘but there may still be risks to national security’.

Apart from that, the Minister writes that she is concerned about scientific collaboration with the Seven Sons. ‘When institutions in the Netherlands work with these universities, there is a risk of technology transfer, certainly in areas where there is a large knowledge gap compared to the Netherlands. This type of technology transfer can lead to undesirable usage, for example for military or surveillance purposes.’

Country-neutral approach
The Government does not rule out that cooperation with China ‘may have led to an undesirable transfer of technology in certain situations’. Since last year, the Government has been working on a number of plans to ensure greater ‘knowledge security’ in higher education and research.

One of these is an inventory which will be performed to gain more insight into which areas of expertise should be scrutinised more closely in light of national security. The Government is also working with institutions to reach ‘administrative agreements’ on their safety policy.

It should be noted that the Government does not want to focus on one specific country. In her letter, the Minister emphasises about five times that this is a ‘country-neutral’ approach. The House of Representatives can expect to hear more on the topic in the autumn.

TU Delft only answers partially
In answering one of the Parliamentary questions, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has involved TU Delft. However, the answer is incomplete. In answer to enquiries about the research activities of the 29 NUDT guest researchers and doctoral candidates, TU Delft is only prepared to say that at present there are 10 doctoral candidates at TU Delft who are studying for their master’s at the NUDT. In supplying information, TU Delft is leaving the guest researchers and doctoral candidates who have already left and the double doctoral candidates – those who are doing their PhD research at both TU Delft and NUDT – out.

Regarding the warnings issued by Australian researchers about NUDT researchers, the Minister writes that ‘in these cases’ it was not concretely ‘said that knowledge and technology flowed from TU Delft to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army)’. But she continues that ‘it does show that there are risks in the academic cooperation between the Netherlands and China which may have led in certain cases to undesirable technology transfer.’

How many Chinese PhD students and researchers are actually currently employed by Dutch institutions? The Minister writes that these figures are not available, although universities are currently working on a nationwide registration system for PhD students. However, data about nationality will not be included for privacy reasons.

HOP Evelien Flink/ Delta