China and Scientific Funding

Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities are sponsoring high-technology research centers at many universities in the UK. There have been more than 1,000 academic collaborations between British and Chinese academics, a number that has tripled in six years.  The basic issue is that UK scientists and universities have been generating research or cooperating with Chinese researchers, that is sponsored by or is of use to Chinese military bodies.

The facts of academic collaborations between Western, especially British scientists, and Chinese academics and government and commercial bodies are not new.  The UK academic world was warned more than two years ago that hostile state actors were targeting UK universities to steal personal data, research data, and intellectual property, and that these could be valuable for military, commercial, and authoritarian purposes.

In 2019, more than 600 Chinese military scientists, working on technology with military application, were attached to UK universities.  Manchester University for a time had a contract with a Chinese company, Electronics Technology Group, that was used by the Chinese government to produce military aircraft, some used to deal with the Uighur Muslims, a treatment akin to genocide.  Imperial College has worked with the Harbin Institute of Technology, a unit that worked for the PLA. The Henry Jackson Society reported in 2021 that 900 graduates of Chinese universities allegedly linked to the PLA were enrolled in studies at 33 British universities.

Collaboration between China and UK has grown in recent years. British universities have since 2015 accepted 240 million pounds from Chinese institutions for research. Specifically, the Imperial College London has got 44 million, the University of Cambridge 46 million, the University of Oxford 24 million, the University of Manchester 19 million, and the University of Edinburgh 13 million. In addition, the universities also receive income from student recruitment and research grants.   One calculation is that about 120,000 Chinese students account for 2 billion pounds in revenue for UK universities:  nine of them depend on Chinese students for more than 20 percent of their revenue from tuition fees.  Manchester University has more Chinese students than any other in Europe.

It is meaningful that since 2007, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad. The PLA slogan is “picking flowers to gain expertise and training abroad to make honey.”

Reports, including one by Civitas, a think tank based in London, show that at least 20 UK universities have established relations with 29 militarily linked Chinese universities, as well as to nine weapons suppliers or other military-linked companies.  The UK research sponsored by Chinese organizations could have both military as well as civilian uses. The UK research is likely to be of use to Chinese military bodies and may have helped China build weapons of mass destruction. Cambridge University has ties to a Chinese military installation blacklisted by the U.S. Nottingham University has a large deal with China’s main supplier of military aircraft.

The Chinese companies sponsoring UK research include manufacturers that produce rail guns, fighter engines, nuclear warheads, stealth aircraft, drones, tanks, and ships. There is particular concern in the UK about research in two fields: hypersonic technology at a time when China is developing hypersonic missiles and graphite research regarding material used in armed helicopters. This is occurring in a context when China is probably involved in superfast quantum computing and applications for artificial intelligence.

Four questions arise; one is whether the UK has lost any comparative advantage by opening its doors to Chinese academics and handing over what might be considered secrets. Second, does the Chinese connection impinge on national security?  Can China now be considered a greater threat to British interests and security than is Russia? Third, have the recipients in British universities which have got Chinese money lost their moral bearings? And is the collaboration undermining UK strategic interests if sensitive information is being exported to China?

The research on technology to develop rail guns, weapons that use magnetic fields to fire projectiles, drones, fighter jets, and missiles, and other military technology and high-tech aerospace raises the fear is that the joint research between the two countries could be the basis of super weapons for Beijing. Of the total 240 million pounds, 60 million have come from sources sanctioned by the U.S. Of this amount, 40 million came from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

There is some awareness of the impact of these Chinese grants and connections. At Oxford University, the Wykeham chair of physics was renamed the Tencent-Wykeham in honor of Tencent, a Chinese software computing conglomerate, after it offered a 700,000-pound donation to Oxford. Tencent, founded in 1998, is worth 500 billion pounds and received money and support from China’s ministry of state security, the main intelligence agency, when it was founded. It owns WeChat communications which, like TikTok, censors material that the Chinese Communist Party regards as politically sensitive and which keeps tabs on Chinese citizens living abroad. It is taken for granted that Chinese companies pass on information to Chinese security agencies on demand.  

The UK is aware of the issue, as the U.S. has been for some years when in June 2015 it found that hackers linked to China had gained access to sensitive information. The University of Manchester ended its research project with the China Electronics Technology Group after the conservative MP Tom Tugendhat revealed that the technology of that firm was being used against the Uighurs. The license of the China Global Telecommunications Network to broadcast in the UK was withdrawn because the firm was controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2020 Boris Johnson, aware that Huawei was linked to the CCP and had gained access to government security, banned its 5G networks and ordered all its existing technology to be stripped from UK telecommunicators networks.

The time for a reassessment of rules for scientific research and funding involving China is long overdue. That reassessment must consider the stated aim of China to equal the U.S. military by 2027, and to enhance its advanced military technology.

Image: reinhold möller 

If you experience technical problems, please write to