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EU academia accepts Chinese money in return for know-how

China provides EU scientists with money in return for the outcomes of their research, experts focusing on Chinese influence in Europe warn, highlighting the risks associated with handing over dual civil-military technologies that could be used to modernise Beijing’s military or suppress human rights

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2022

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

by Aneta Zachova, Laura Miraglia, Pekka Vanttinen and Sofia Mandilara

China provides EU scientists with money in return for the outcomes of their research, experts focusing on Chinese influence in Europe warn, highlighting the risks associated with handing over dual civil-military technologies that could be used to modernise Beijing’s military or suppress human rights.

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

Thanks to the funding of individual researchers in European countries, China can easily obtain sensitive data and knowledge of technologies which might be useful also in the military sector.

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

The authors identified 203 research outputs in the Czech Republic with funding exclusively from Chinese sources. Several projects were funded by the “Thousand Talents” programme, which aims to recruit foreign researchers in key scientific fields. One of the research outputs also got financing from the Central Military Commission, the highest authority in charge of managing the Chinese armed forces.

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

Besides Czechia, the study focused on Austrian and Slovak academics. Data shows that 284 Austrian academics have their research funded from China exclusively, while in Slovak, it was only 18.

EU admits more foreign interference

EU sources admitted that foreign interference in the European research and innovation system had been increasingly reported in the past few years.

In January 2022, the European Commission published a toolkit on tackling foreign interference in the research and innovation sector, which should help institutions to safeguard their academic freedom, including research findings and intellectual assets.

However, experts on Chinese influence still warned that scientists in Central and Eastern Europe tend to downplay security aspects when cooperating with Chinese colleagues or Chinese institutes.

Countering Chinese influence

Some countries have gone one step forward in countering Chinese influence in academia, as EURACTIV learned.

According to the Senior Ministerial Adviser in the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Tiina Vihma-Purovaara, some Finnish universities and scientific institutions have halted cooperation with China for good. Those still doing it prefer multinational projects instead of bilateral ones.

According to the Finnish Ministry, awareness concerning the possibilities and threats of China cooperation has sunk in throughout the university field. The aim remains to enable collaboration and do it smartly by bringing 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, a senior science adviser at the Academy of Finland, emphasised that the situation had changed around 2015, describing the period before as rather “wild”.

Since then, and due to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s alignment, political hygiene and caution with China have stepped in. From the academy’s perspective, activity has decreased on both sides and projects between individual researchers are currently more favoured.

The Italian blindspot

Meanwhile, other countries still do not see any risks in cooperation with China. In Italy, China 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, it was 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 Chinese scholars and students.

Cooperation was strengthened with the Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries in support of the Belt and Road initiative in 2019.

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

The IAI study also pointed out that unlike other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany or the Netherlands, which have taken measures to curb China’s growing influence, Italy has not in any way limited its collaborations or projects with the eastern country at the national level.

“I think any cooperation with Chinese universities should be accompanied by a global assessment of the risks for national security concerns because obviously, they are there,” Dutch MEP Bart Groothuis (Renew) and member of the Industry, Research and Energy committee told EURACTIV.com.

According to an expert on China, Olivier Afiron, a screening mechanism at the EU level should be established to tackle Chinese espionage in the research and development sector.

Next year, the Commission will launch a “Mutual Learning Exercise” to facilitate an exchange of experiences between stakeholders, to raise awareness and prevent foreign interference in the research sector.

As EU sources told EURACTIV, tools to support EU research institutions in carrying out their due diligence and identifying risks that can emerge from international partnerships are also being developed.

*first published in: Euractiv.com

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