A report earlier this month in British newspaper The Sunday Times raised questions about ties between a number of leading Irish universities and Chinese colleges accused of espionage and cyberattacks. Photo: Reuters
A report earlier this month in British newspaper The Sunday Times raised questions about ties between a number of leading Irish universities and Chinese colleges accused of espionage and cyberattacks. Photo: Reuters

Should Europe share US and Australian fears about academic partnerships with China?

  • Reported Irish-Chinese research collaborations highlight greater openness to such connections in Europe, where governments have yet to intervene
Topic |   Education

TOP PICKS

A report earlier this month in British newspaper The Sunday Times raised questions about ties between a number of leading Irish universities and Chinese colleges accused of espionage and cyberattacks. Photo: Reuters
A report earlier this month in British newspaper The Sunday Times raised questions about ties between a number of leading Irish universities and Chinese colleges accused of espionage and cyberattacks. Photo: Reuters

The scrutiny started in the United States and is well under way in Australia. Now concerns are growing in Europe about the links between education institutions there and partners in China.

For example, a report earlier this month in British newspaper The Sunday Times raised questions about ties between a number of leading Irish universities and Chinese colleges accused of espionage and cyberattacks.

The concerns in all countries are broad – ranging from IP theft to military applications of civilian research – but observers say there is a big difference in the way authorities have responded.

Frank Pieke, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said it was clear China was dedicating its resources in Europe toward research that was strategically valuable to the state but until very recently, “nobody [in Europe] really knew much or cared much about any of the possible risks that collaboration with Chinese partners would or could entail”.

READ FULL ARTICLE

“People were of the view that working with a Chinese partner was for the betterment of science, and concerns about the loss of intellectual property were really few and far between, if they existed at all,” Pieke said.

That lack of concern about IP losses was reflected in research by the Netherlands’ Leiden Asia Centre which found that “no overt evidence of actual theft of intellectual property” or “explicit or overt foul play” in European institutions of higher education, Pieke, who was involved in the study, said.

“[The] Chinese counterparts and Chinese government don’t have to engage in foul play [to use research], because European partners are very happy to give it on a silver platter,” he said.

Although there have been cases of European universities ending sensitive or military-related partnerships with Chinese institutions and companies, government action in Europe has largely involved making universities aware of potential risks, analysts say.

Felix Ruechardt, a research affiliate with Project Alpha, a research programme focused on nuclear non-proliferation, sanctions and strategic trade controls at King’s College London, said that while intelligence agencies might have concerns about Chinese links, security measures, such as export controls were not directed specifically at China.

“For example, in Germany, the domestic intelligence agency has been warning for a couple of years that China is using students and researchers to transfer sensitive technologies to China, but this is not a publicly voiced concern when it comes to proposals to upgrade export controls in academia,” he said.

If research falls outside export controls or does not involve a partner with clear military ties, the absence of more stringent government limitations on research gives universities little incentive to cut back on collaborations with Chinese partners, according to Ingrid d’Hooghe, a China researcher at the Leiden Asia Centre.

She said European institutions were “profiting a lot” from collaborative projects.

“For universities, it is not to their own benefit to look very critically at these projects,” said D’Hooghe, author of a Leiden Asia Centre report based on interviews with 65 officials involved in European-Chinese research partnerships.

“For example, with artificial intelligence, China is doing very well and has interesting cooperation projects to offer. The European side profits from the knowledge available, but also from the large amount of data that is always available in China and much harder to get in Europe.

“All of our interviewees said, ‘We can’t not cooperate with China; there are too many benefits for us. We just need to do it more carefully and more strategically.’”

For now, European authorities are leaving universities to themselves – in contrast with the action taken in Australia and the United States over the last year.

In the US, concerns that research collaborations and funding linked to China have led to theft of intellectual property or undue influence have prompted major federal investigations and the drafting of new bills to protect university research from foreign actors.

Government scrutiny has largely focused on researchers not disclosing foreign funding, or illicit intellectual property transfers facilitated by research collaborations.

There, government agency-led investigations have put pressure on American faculties and institutions to monitor foreign collaborations and funding much more closely and, in some cases, cut ties.

Similar concerns about foreign influence were behind the creation of a dedicated intelligence task force in Australia to investigate foreign influence on campuses, announced last month.

The different perception in Europe compared with in Australia or the United States correlates strongly with political climate in each country and their relationships with China, as well as with China’s perceived track record there, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.

“In the US you have seen a complete change in how they are looking at a relationship with China: they are seeing China now as a clear strategic competitor, so what was previously accepted and perhaps encouraged is now no longer acceptable and tolerable,” Tsang said.

“In Australia’s case, you see much more blatant Chinese interference with Australian academia, so it responded much more strongly.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: European concerns grow over Chinese academic tie-ups