More than a dozen British universities are under investigation over commercial relationships with the Chinese government that might break laws designed to protect national security and human rights, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The institutions – which include some of the most prestigious universities in the country – could be hit by ‘enforcement notices’ imposed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over alleged breaches of export controls in their dealings with Beijing.
It is understood the security services fear some academics have been sharing pioneering British technology with China that could be facilitating the dictatorial Communist government’s repression of minorities and dissidents.
The MoS has agreed not to identify the universities at the centre of the inquiry on the grounds of national security.
Chinese troops take part in marching drills ahead of an October 1 military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at a camp on the outskirts of Beijing, China, in 2019
The security service investigation, led by MI6 officers seconded to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was launched amid growing concern in Downing Street that academics were engaged in a ‘new gold rush’ to strike deals with the Chinese over cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs.
‘Exporters of military goods and those engaged in transfer of military technology specified in the Export Control Order 2008 – including universities and academics – require a licence to export or transfer from the UK,’ said a Government spokesman.
‘It is their responsibility to comply with the regulations.’
Last week, Manchester University cancelled an agreement with a Chinese military technology company after being warned that it supplied technology platforms and apps used by Beijing’s security forces in mass surveillance of Uighur Muslims.
The university said it was unaware of China Electronics Technology Corporation’s alleged role in the persecution of Uighurs until receiving a letter pointing out the links from the Commons foreign affairs select committee.
The Beijing government is developing swarms of ‘suicide’ drones (file image) to hover in the sky as they locate their target – while communicating with each other and co-ordinating their movements without any human input
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the committee, writes in today’s MoS that ‘some in Britain’s universities have lost their moral bearings and are not promoting academic freedom, but undermining our strategic interests.’
The Tory MP argues that Britain is making a mistake to open up universities too much. ‘We are handing over the secrets that will help an often-hostile country become the greatest military power of the 21st Century.’
The Government investigation came after a report by the Henry Jackson Society last October criticised the Government for failing to prosecute any academics for export control violations.
Independently, a report released tomorrow will expose the astonishing extent of collaboration taking place between British universities and Chinese academic centres, many with deep research links to the People’s Liberation Army. The study by think tank Civitas accuses 14 of the 24 top universities in the UK of having ties with Chinese weapons conglomerates and military-linked research centres involved in nuclear weapons schemes and developing futuristic technology.
It suggests scientific discoveries by our universities risk boosting China’s drive for military supremacy by assisting its development of hypersonic missiles, radar jamming systems, robotics, spacecraft and stealth vehicles.
A hypersonic missile launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, on March 19, 2020, in an image released by the US Navy
‘British taxpayers are paying for research that might unintentionally help China’s military soon attain a potentially dominant position,’ said Radomir Tylecote, the study’s lead author and a former Treasury official. ‘This is strategically incoherent – especially when UK spending on research for its own military needs is so anaemic.’
Civitas reveals the China Electronics Technology Corporation – which has admitted its purpose is to ‘leverage’ civilian electronic systems for the benefit of China’s armed forces – backs work at four military-linked universities in the People’s Republic with ties to seven British universities.
The giant firm is seen as one of the main architects of Beijing’s sinister surveillance state.
The think tank report – entitled ‘Arming China? The Chinese military complex and its potential exploitation of scientific research at UK universities’ – examines the relationships that 20 UK universities have with 29 military-linked universities and nine military-tied firms, which include some of the country’s biggest arms suppliers.
A dozen of the Chinese universities have been deemed ‘very high risk’ by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, while another ten are termed ‘high risk’.
Civitas, which stresses that all the British universities have benevolent intentions, turns the spotlight on some of the country’s most famous academic institutions as concerns grow over China’s increasing belligerence.
The universities all insist their work is for wider benefit to society, that many research results are openly published in scientific literature and that they make strenuous efforts to comply with all rules designed to protect security and intellectual property.
A Dongfeng-41 intercontinental strategic nuclear missiles group formation marches to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, 1 October 2019
Cambridge University, the Civitas report says, has co-operated with the National University of Defense Technology, a military-run research institution that has been sanctioned by the US.
Beijing has boasted this collaboration will ‘greatly raise the nation’s power in the fields of national defence, communications and… high precision navigation’.
A Cambridge spokesman told the MoS: ‘All of the university’s research is subject to ethics governance and export control regulations.’ Imperial College, another world-leading British scientific centre, has three research units sponsored by major Chinese weapons manufacturers. ‘Science is a global endeavour, and we are proud to work with our peers in academia and industry all over the world,’ said a spokesman.
Civitas accuses Manchester University of having provided ‘China’s main nuclear missile conglomerate with a UK taxpayer-funded research centre’. A subsidiary of this firm – under US sanctions – also funds a unit at Strathclyde University, which plays a leading role in British space research.
Manchester also co-operates with Chinese funders to exploit graphene, the revolutionary new material that won two of its researchers the Nobel Prize and is seen as having huge military potential given its immense strength and flexibility. Both Manchester and Strathclyde insist they work closely with relevant authorities to ensure they are fully compliant with all policies and export protocols.
Queen Mary of London has established a ‘collaborative partnership’ with China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), praising the ‘particular strengths in aerospace and marine engineering’ of a university that describes itself as ‘devoted to improving and serving the national defence science and technology industry’.
NPU has at least 13 defence laboratories into areas such as jet propulsion, space technology and torpedo guidance. ‘We are proud of our transnational educational and research partnership with NPU,’ said a Queen Mary spokesman, adding it followed ‘rigorous procedures’ regarding security and ethics.
Southampton, according to the Civitas report, has links with Harbin Engineering University that were praised for helping the Chinese institution build a ‘world class’ position in naval architecture. It plays a key role in China’s ambitions to build the world’s biggest and best-equipped navy.
A Southampton spokesman said their collaborations had ‘potential to create wide-ranging societal benefits’, adding that they followed Government advice and the Harbin partnership simply replicated their undergraduate studies. Harbin is also one of 15 Chinese civilian universities that have been implicated in cyber-attacks, illegal exports or espionage operations. China has a long history of weapons sales to some of the world’s most repressive regimes such as Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.
Lianchao Han, a former Chinese government official and now leading pro-democracy activist, said Beijing had long seen academic exchange programmes as a way to modernise its military through exploitation of open Western research institutions. ‘China has invented all kinds of programs from inviting Western professors to lecture in the country through to hiring them for consulting work and funding joint research projects between universities. These schemes enable it to acquire dual-use technologies for both civilian and military gain and build a formidable army. Sadly, most Western universities and research institutions are shortsighted and still fail to see China’s strategic intent.’
British universities have looked increasingly to China as a source of income, having more Chinese students than any other country, paying £1.7 billion a year in tuition fees, and for research funding as they developed a network of academic links in both nations.
Yet concerns have grown over such ties since hardline President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. He has ramped up nationalist rhetoric, spent massively on armed forces, silenced dissidents, unleashed genocide in Xinjiang and showed far more foreign policy aggression – as seen with China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong.
Many leading Chinese universities have long been linked to the military, whether through their own research labs or via funding from conglomerates – often state-owned – that dominate the country’s weapons industry.
These ties have been strengthened under Xi through a policy called ‘military-civil fusion’ designed to maximise military power. This includes a constitutional obligation for all new technologies to be shared with the 2,250,000-strong People’s Liberation Army.
China’s Communist leadership is intent on matching US military might within six years – and then use advanced technology to win the battle for global supremacy by 2049, centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The Civitas report calls for a register of Chinese firms and institutions with military ties that should be barred from supporting research in Britain, an audit of university sponsorship policies and a new agency to monitor academic relationships.
One British defence contractor, who has removed all Chinese-made parts from his firm’s products as a precaution in case of conflict, said he thought some universities might be missing the key point of rules designed to stop misuse of technology.
‘People fall into the trap of arguing that they only designed the product for civilian use, neglecting the fact that the regulations say “can be” used for military purposes.’
Terrifying missiles so high-tech it’s almost impossible to stop them
China is spending huge sums to create hypersonic missiles that will go so fast (up to twenty times the speed of sound) that military chiefs believe they will be invulnerable to any form of defence.
Indeed, some analysts fear that human capability to respond to such lethal weapons will be inadequate and that the only way to protect against them would be to rely on artificial intelligence and computer systems.
Travelling several miles a second as they deliver surprise attacks within minutes of being launched, they have been described as a ‘game-changer’ for warfare.
Although America, too, has such Star Wars-style weapons in development, General John E. Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, told a Senate committee three years ago: ‘We don’t have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.’
Such missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, would deliver precision attacks on people, vehicles and buildings.
To test such weapons, the Beijing government said three years ago it was building a wind tunnel that simulated conditions up to 25 times the speed of sound. And a contractor has said it has carried out a six-minute test flight for a hypersonic missile.
The complexities of developing hypersonics – using sophisticated sensors, guidance systems and innovative propulsion methods – have been compared to building the atomic bomb.
This is a revolutionary material with enormous defence and manufacturing potential. One atom thick and the thinnest and lightest material known to man, it conducts heat, absorbs light, stretches and is 200 times stronger than steel.
It was invented by researchers in 2004 at Manchester University – with China’s President Xi Jinping having made an official visit to their lab.
Among its military applications are as coatings on ballistic missiles, wiring in hypersonic vehicles exposed to high temperatures, camouflage of vehicles and body armour for troops.
Chinese reports suggest that the Z-10 attack helicopter – a rival to Boeing’s Apache – has been equipped with graphene armour developed at the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials. The institute has ties to three universities in Britain, where it collaborates on two centres specialising in research into the use of graphene in the aerospace industry.
Chinese media have reported plans to use graphene coatings on military installations on artificial islands built in the South China Sea, an area where Beijing has controversially deployed Jin-class ballistic missile submarines armed with nuclear missiles.
One of the most sinister recent trends in China has been the creation of a surveillance state that seeks to control 1.4 billion citizens through a constant watch over their movements, thoughts and words.
People are tracked via a massive network of street cameras, facial recognition technologies, biometric data, official records, artificial intelligence and monitoring of online activities as mundane as things like shopping and takeaway food ordering habits.
The most extreme example is in the Western province of Xinjiang, where Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are under 24/7 surveillance.
Much of the network was developed by the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, which supports work at four Chinese universities with ties to seven British universities.
As part of President Xi’s bid for China’s global supremacy, he has employed a so-called ‘military-civil fusion’ strategy that involves universities playing a central role in maximising the country’s military power.
China’s constitution also stipulates that all new technologies, even if developed by the private sector, must, by law, be shared with the People’s Liberation Army.
A key research institution is the National University of Defense Technology, in Hunan, which is controlled by the military and specialises in hypersonics, drones, supercomputers, radar and navigation systems.
It has links with eight British universities, including a formal collaboration with one world-renowned seat of learning.
Eight other UK universities have ties with the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which spends 60 per cent of its research budget on defence activities.
Another important centre is the Harbin Institute of Technology. It has a joint research lab with the nation’s leading ballistic missile manufacturer and has links with three British universities.
The Beijing government is developing swarms of ‘suicide’ drones to hover in the sky as they locate their target – while communicating with each other and co-ordinating their movements without any human input.
This marks the next era of robotic warfare, with autonomous weapons replacing current drones that have to be pre-programmed or are remote-controlled. The United States and Israel are also working on such technology, while Britain, too, tested a swarm of 20 drones last month with sorties from RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria.
The advanced technology uses computer algorithms – often modelled on biological studies of insects and fish – to create self-navigating drone squadrons.
In total, China is estimated to have 350 nuclear warheads, including 204 on operational long-range missiles fired from landbased launchers, 48 on submarines and 20 ‘gravity bombs’ to be dropped from aircraft. A recent Pentagon report warned that, in its bid to catch up with Russia and the US, Beijing plans to double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade as part of President Xi’s drive towards global dominance.
Many of these weapons are being developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a massive state-owned conglomerate that has links with at least five UK universities.