EDWARD LUCAS: Why we only have ourselves to blame for China link probe

With 200 UK academics to be probed over China links… why we have only ourselves to blame, writes EDWARD LUCAS

Chinese spies have been looting British universities for years. That is one scandal. The other – even more outrageous – is that we are only now waking up to it.

The fact that almost 200 leading UK academics are being investigated for their unwitting connections to Chinese weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes is scarcely surprising.

As the think-tank Civitas details in its new report, 20 British universities have relationships with 29 military-linked Chinese universities and nine military-linked firms.

Indeed, China’s interest in our technology has long been overt.

In October 2015, just two years after he became president, Xi Jinping made a point of visiting the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University during his trip to Britain.

Graphene is a great British discovery, the world’s first ‘super-material’. It is one million times thinner than a single human hair, 200 times stronger than steel and more conductive than copper.

In October 2015, just two years after he became president, Xi Jinping made a point of visiting the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University. Pictured: scientist with graphene

It has the potential to transform our lives, used in everything from electronics and biomedicine to transport, defence and energy production.

Manchester marked the Chinese leader’s visit by proudly announcing a research partnership with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant.

Plus ca change! Now we have learned Oxford University is to rename its most prestigious professorship of physics after a Chinese software company which, according to a Pentagon report, has links to the regime’s security agencies.

But such sponsorships, research partnerships and commercial deals between British universities and China are starting to lose their gloss.

Take Huawei, for example. Once seen as a vital partner in Britain’s 5G future, it is now seen as a menace — an out-station of the Chinese Communist Party, and intimately linked with its repression at home and espionage abroad.

In July last year, Boris Johnson announced a ban on the purchase of any new Huawei 5G equipment and ordered all of its existing technology to be stripped from the country’s telecommunications networks by 2027.

The prestigious Wykeham chair of physics at Oxford University (pictured) will now be known as the Tencent-Wykeham chair in honour of the computing conglomerate, sources have revealed

The recent violent crackdown in Hong Kong and the introduction of a draconian new security law, along with claims of genocide against Muslim Uighurs, have accelerated concern.

Belatedly, we are facing up to the reality that, under the guise of academic or commercial collaboration, our scientists and engineers allowed the regime access to our best technology — including aircraft, missile design and cyber-weapons.

We have only ourselves to blame because we have ignored the warnings.

China’s relentless search for foreign secrets was outlined in a series of devastating reports by analyst Alex Joske.

In 2018, he published a groundbreaking investigation called ‘Picking flowers, making honey’ – a reference to the People’s Liberation Army’s own description of its activities: ‘Picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China.’

Since 2007, Joske noted, the PLA (the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party) has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad. Tens of thousands of other Chinese scholars abroad have no overt ties to their country’s armed forces or spy agencies, but they can still be forced to co-operate.

Beijing believes anyone with Chinese ethnicity is duty-bound to help the motherland unquestioningly. Failure to do so invites severe punishment.

And now it is becoming clear the extent to which homegrown academics have been helping them, albeit inadvertently – and often with the blessing of their university authorities and even our own Government.

Universities have been told to haul in lucrative overseas students, to find external funding sources for their research and to commercialise their products wherever possible. In each case, China has been the answer more often than not – part of the ‘golden age’ in Sino-British relations initiated by the Cameron government.

As the Mail reported in July 2020, British universities depend on 120,000 students from mainland China bringing in about £4billion in fees each year.

That hardly encourages university administrators to ask searching questions about other activities.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered all Huawei technology to be stripped from the country’s telecommunications networks by 2027 and has banned purchase on 5G equipment

This paper has also highlighted a series of alarming links, including Cambridge University’s ties to a Chinese military institution blacklisted by the US government, and Nottingham University’s multi-million pound deal with China’s main supplier of military aircraft. During the Cold War, we had a tightly controlled system governing technology exports to the old Eastern Bloc.

The Soviet KGB still stole secrets, but in the USSR’s decrepit planned economy these hard-won successes rarely turned into usable products.

Modern China, by contrast, is a mighty economy. It uses our secrets ruthlessly.

In many respects, such as super-fast quantum computing and applications for artificial intelligence, it is already far ahead.

Moreover, whereas the Soviet Union’s arsenal relied on a narrow range of technologies – chiefly nuclear submarines and missiles – China’s WMD draw on a vast range of scientific research.

Anything that makes materials stronger and lighter – such as graphene – is of potential use. So too are advances in acoustics, fluid dynamics and other fields involving mathematic wizardry. They help keep submarines undetectable.

The breadth of British scientific expertise, in short, is both a triumph and a problem. Whatever China wants to steal, it will find on our shores.

True, Britain’s new National Security Investment Bill, introduced into Parliament last November, now gives extraordinarily sweeping powers to scrutinise and block deals. But right now the sound of doors banging on empty stables is deafening.

The real problem is that Britain is an open society in a globalised world. We thrive – or so we assumed – on free exchange of ideas.

But the Chinese Communist Party is a ruthless rival bent on world domination by 2050. Our universities can no longer ignore the fact that the knowledge and expertise they are ‘sharing’ may be put to malign use.

So how might we counter the threat? Declining sponsorship for chairs in physics is certainly one way. But there are lessons to be learned from the close co-operation between counter-terrorism authorities and universities which has brought considerable success in beating back the radical extremists infesting our campuses.

We have also built close ties between Government experts and universities when it comes to cyber-security.

We need the same model, with discreet advice and warnings flowing in both directions, when it comes to Chinese industrial espionage and intellectual property theft.

If we don’t, the hardmen of Beijing will continue to make hay – at our expense.

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