How China Uses Its Universities to Spy on America

Alex Joske, Charlie Lyons Jones

When Xu Yanjun travelled to Belgium in April 2018, he wasn’t there as a tourist but as an officer of China’s Ministry of State Security. Xu had been lured to Belgium by US authorities who then extradited him and are now prosecuting him on charges of economic espionage.

This was a remarkable case for a number of reasons. It was the first-ever arrest of a Chinese intelligence officer—and not simply an agent or asset—by the United States. And the indictment mentioned Xu’s accomplice, a senior executive at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. This man worked with Xu to lure American jet engine experts to China, and then recruit them.

Xu’s partnership with this university in Nanjing reveals the tip of the iceberg in terms of links between China’s universities and its defence and security establishment. In 2018, ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre published Picking flowers, making honey, a report that laid out the Chinese military’s extensive presence within foreign universities, to which more than 2,500 of its scientists have been sent as visiting scholars or students.

Now, the China Defence Universities Tracker website records in unprecedented detail how more and more Chinese universities are becoming integrated with China’s military apparatus, security agencies and nuclear weapons program. This has serious implications for governments and universities in how they approach research collaboration with China.

Picking flowers, making honey described a problem; the China Defence Universities Tracker aims to be part of the solution. While Australia’s universities generally have systems in place to manage collaboration, vet visiting scholars and ensure research integrity, they aren’t working. Media reporting and scholarly research have uncovered numerous cases of universities working with companies implicated in human rights abuses or with the Chinese military and its proxies.

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