On Chinese Influence in Universities, Europe May Be Getting It Right

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 06/03/2024

CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

While campus anti-Semitism has stolen the political spotlight on college campuses in the United States, Europe is increasingly viewing its universities as a battleground with Chinese spies. Earlier this month, Politico reported that European governments are exploring the creation of “liaison officers” to interface between intelligence agencies and universities in order to protect sensitive research in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, biotech, and microchips. After Confucius Institutes (CIs) became an academic anathema across the West, the hard sciences will be the next battleground with China’s influence. While America and Europe hold different outlooks on today’s geopolitical crises, Europe may have an idea that the United States can emulate to protect its colleges and universities from Beijing.

In a May 23 press release, the European Council issued policy recommendations to member states of the European Union (EU) in order to counter the “undesirable transfer of knowledge, foreign influence, and ethical or integrity violations.” The recommendations do not mention China, but what is left unsaid is obvious. In late April, Germany arrested three suspected Chinese spies who were seeking to procure dual-use technologies for Beijing. The spies were targeting Germany’s universities, and even enjoyed a contractual relationship with the Chemnitz University of Technology.

European sensitivity to espionage is well-founded. China economically supports Russia amid its war in Ukraine; at the same time, Beijing is likely also helping Russia collect intelligence. In mid-May, Swiss police raided a chalet owned by suspected Chinese spies stationed next to a base hosting NATO F-35s. In Poland and the Netherlands, authorities raided the offices of a Chinese company supplying security equipment. In early April, Sweden expelled a Chinese journalist over national security concerns. In March, multiple Italian MPs were the targets of Chinese hacking attacks. With most Russian diplomats expelled from Europe after the invasion of Ukraine, China may be filling a needed void not only for itself, but also its Russian partner. The EU’s move to seek “liaison officers” between the bloc’s universities and the security services of member states is not an impulsive overreaction.

Some European universities have worked with intelligence services for years. The rector (a European equivalent of chancellor) of the University of Leuven stated that the school frequently consults with Belgian intelligence. The University of Leuven houses the Imec, an institute of advanced microelectronics research, and works closely with Taiwan, South Korea, America, and Japan after effectively kicking China out of most collaboration. In the Netherlands, the government has worked to create a single contact for universities worried about the integrity of sensitive research. The Dutch effort comes amid increased targeting of the Netherlands’ high-tech sector by Beijing’s intelligence services imbedded within universities.

America may have something to learn from Europe’s effort countering China. Colleges and universities in the United States are a prime target for Chinese collection of dual-use technologies. New York’s Alfred University closed its CI last year after it was discovered in proximity to hypersonic weapons research. Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party opened an inquiry into ties between Georgia Tech and China’s Tianjin University. In January, Georgia Tech announced its successful collaboration with China to create advanced graphene semiconductors.

A “liaison officer” tasked to interface between universities and domestic counterintelligence authorities offers a simple and elegant step to help counter espionage in American higher education. As a policy idea, the liaison officer is substantive, and on the ground where it counts. Europe’s response to academic espionage has proven remarkably aggressive compared to American efforts. Congressional inquiries offer some sense of comfort that America’s fundamental research will not be reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, at high speeds, and over Taiwan or an American city. And yet, China’s universities continue to work with American counterparts on security-sensitive scientific endeavors.

In January, Reuters reported that Chinese universities assisted Beijing in obtaining advanced semiconductors from the tech firm Nvidia, and did so despite export controls. China’s crown jewel of universities, Tsinghua, was among the Chinese entities able to procure the required technology. In another example, the blacklisted Chinese firm Huawei Technologies was reported to be funding sensitive research at Harvard despite the ban. Huawei funneled funds to top American researchers via the Optica Foundation in Washington, D.C. These examples underscore the onslaught of Chinese attempts to penetrate American universities, steal technology, and persuade Americans—an onslaught American authorities appear unable to stop.

A liaison officer who can interface between universities and the intelligence community in a way that allows concerned researchers and graduate students to report suspicious activity solves existing coordination problems for academics who are rightly concerned about China’s access to academia. Currently, no formal mechanism serves to bridge the gap between classrooms and labs on the one hand, and national security on the other. Also, regardless of what proponents of “academic openness” may say, fundamental research can be dangerous and used for war. The goal here should be to make sure that does not happen. Europe appears to be effectively combating Chinese espionage. Americans should take note and recreate those working strategies.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

June 5, 2024


Subpoenas for All!

Ohio Northern University gnaws its teeth with an appetite for vindictive lawfare....

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...