Nothing of Interest in a Small Country? Czech-Chinese Academic Exchange in the Age of Military-Civil Fusion

The following article by Filip Jirouš was originally published by Project Sinopsis.

The first systematic survey of Czech academic ties with PRC defense-linked universities, by Sinopsis and Czech Radio, has identified dozens of partnerships between Czech universities and institutions assigned to the top risk categories on a database of Chinese defense universities maintained by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deepens its strategy of -civil fusion (军民融合), which aims to further integrate civilian innovation and research with military development, cooperation between Czech academia and multiple PRC defense-linked universities highlights the risk of knowledge and technology transfer to the People’s Liberation Army ().1

Denials that a small European country could have anything of interest to the CCP’s military are signs of a lack of awareness of the scale of the Chinese state’s efforts to obtain dual-use technology, as well as of previous attempts targeting the . As Czech intelligence revealed during this investigation, the institute that makes China’s nuclear warheads once tried to obtain Czech technology by exploiting ordinary academic exchanges with a local university.

The PRC’s use of academic cooperation with foreign academia for military research began to attract international attention with a series of publications by Alex Joske, a researcher currently affiliated with ASPI, and his collaborators. Their work has been followed by reports and news stories detailing instances of such cooperation in Sweden, Belgium, the UK, New Zealand and the US.2 Two ASPI reports discussed the role of cooperation with in defense research using military and civilian universities. ASPI’s China Defence University Tracker, released in 2019, provides a database of Chinese universities with ties to national defense, classified by the assessed level of risk that exchanges with them will help advance the CCP’s defense and security goals.3

Defense universities are not only those directly subordinated to the PLA. The strong international links enjoyed by civilian universities can allow the PLA to gain access to foreign research and technology more easily, thanks to the CCP’s control of Chinese academic institutions and the Xi-era focus on military-civil fusion (军民融合).4 Among the civilian universities most involved in national defense research, the so-called “Seven Sons of National Defense” stand out. These include Beihang University (北京航空航天大学), the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT, 北京理工大学), and Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU, 西北工业大学). The Seven Sons rank among the best funded universities in the PRC, with a large portion of their funding spent on defense research and development.5 Available data shows that in recent years around 30 percent of their students were employed in the national defense system. All Seven Son universities participate in weapons research such as missiles, aircraft carriers and fighter jets.6

Research discussed in this post used the ASPI Tracker to identify potential sources of risk in Czech-Chinese academic cooperation agreements. In a project started in November 2019, the author compared the Czech Ministry of Education’s list of Chinese partners of public universities for 2018 with the ASPI database.7 The data was then used by Markéta Chaloupská and Jana Magdoňová, two journalists with Czech Radio, a public broadcaster, to conduct their own investigation, assessing the possible risks stemming from these ties. Some of the findings appeared in two Czech Radio reports in July 2020.8 Here, we provide further detail on selected cases of Czech-Chinese academic cooperation with links to PRC defense universities, as part of the first study of risks in Czech-Chinese technological research collaboration.

Czech academia and its Chinese defense-linked partners

While no PRC universities subordinate to the military or security agencies are known to have partnered with Czech counterparts, 14 out of 26 Czech public universities have established collaboration with civilian universities the ASPI database assigns medium to very high risk.9 Seven Czech universities have high or very high risk partners, including NWPU, Beihang University, and BIT.10 The highest number of such ties are found among technical schools, but one stands out among general universities, highlighting the link between collaboration with CCP propaganda and defense-related risks. Palacký University in Olomouc, the first university with a Confucius Institute in the country and the one that published a translation of a book by Xi Jinping, has cooperation agreements with, e.g., BIT and Wuhan University (武汉大学), designated as very high risk by the ASPI Tracker.11

Before the research by Czech Radio and Sinopsis became public, Czech universities showed low awareness of this issue, with some signing partnerships without adequate knowledge of their counterparts’ background. PRC institutions appeared to be treated as standard scientific bodies, as if they enjoyed the independence and academic freedoms taken for granted in democratic countries.12

Brno University of Technology’s (Vysoké učení technické v Brně) Sustainable Process Integration Laboratory (SPIL), led by Jiří Klemeš, boasts several PRC partners the ASPI database labels as medium to very high risk, including the high-risk Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU, 西安交通大学) that hosts a number of defense laboratories.13 The SPIL has several Chinese employees and focuses on research in energy industry, trying to reduce its environmental costs.14 In 2019, the SPIL’s annual conference was visited by Klemeš’s long-time XJTU collaborator Qu Zhiguo 屈治国, whose areas of expertise include heat protection in aeronautics and astronautics.15 According to Qu’s XJTU bio, he has led projects under national-level programs, including the the Central Organization Department’s Top Youth Talents Support Plan (青年拔尖人才支持计划) under the so-called “Ten Thousand Talents Plan” (万人计划). His bio also mentions he has participated in national defense research projects.16 Qu has done projects for the China General Nuclear Power Group (中国广核集团) and the tech company ZTE. As of September 2019, Qu was affiliated with XJTU’s State Key Laboratory of Multiphase Flow in Power Engineering (动力工程多相流国家重点实验室), linked to national defense research.17 Additionally, one of Qu’s postdoc students worked at the PLA logistics research unit 62026 between 2013 and 2017.18 Confronted with this evidence by Czech Radio, Klemeš claimed he knew nothing about it and “d[id] not see any problem” with Qu or XJTU’s defense ties.19 In Klemeš’s view, “the Czech Republic is so tiny” that he does not know “how it could contribute to China’s defense industry.”20 Klemeš’s interview with the Czech Radio ended abruptly with his claim that the journalist worked for Czech intelligence.21

The Czech Technical University (České vysoké učení technické, ČVUT) has worked with the China Aviation Tianye Education Investment Co., Ltd. (CATEI, 中航天业教育投资有限公司) and Czech aviation company F AIR based in Karlovy Vary on a training project for Chinese pilots. CATEI is a part of a private conglomerate that provides pilot training in cooperation with domestic and foreign educational institutions. Its partners include top Chinese academic bodies such as the Sichuan Institute of Industrial Technology, which specializes in “national defense education” and “strives hard to create a national defense education brand.”22 While at least some of the pilot-training projects envisaged under the cooperation have fallen through, the partnership was used to promote links to other universities tied to PRC national defense.23 In 2017, CATEI invited a Czech delegation that included former minister of foreign affairs and then-adviser to the Czech PM Jan Kohout to visit BIT, one of the Seven Sons of National Defense focusing on military research in aeronautics and armaments, where they urged Chinese aviation students to study at ČVUT.24 CATEI also mediated other aviation exchange programs, such as Nanhang University (南京航空航天大学) sending students to the Czech University of Life Sciences.25 CATEI has similar international cooperation with schools and universities in Australia, the U.S., and Canada.26

ČVUT engages with another PRC aviation-focused body — the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics (CSAA, 中国航空学会). In 2018, the organization hosted Peter Vittek from the Czech Aerospace Society (Odborná společnost letecká ČR) and Andrej Lalis from the ČVUT’s Aviation Security Lab.27 CSAA regularly holds recruitment and educational events with the PLAAF.28 A 2019 defense-themed educational event that involved the CSAA and a PLAAF research unit had a ČVUT link. The Shandong province middle school where the training was held specializes in aviation and sends students to study abroad, and in particular to ČVUT itself. The event, during which national-level experts (including an NWPU professor) talked about aeronautics, astronautics, naval and nuclear research, also stressed military-civil fusion.29 This illustrates how the military-civil fusion strategy is communicated to students, including prospective participants in these international cooperation agreements, from early on.

Czech universities’ reactions

The Technical University of Ostrava (Vysoká škola báňská – Technická univerzita Ostrava, VŠB-TUO) has partnered with, e.g., BIT and Shenyang Aerospace University (沈阳航空航天大学) (high risk). VŠB-TUO declined to discuss these ties with Czech Radio.30 This stance is consistent with those it assumed during previous rounds of debate on cooperation with the PRC. In 2019, while institutions such as ČVUT reviewed their cooperation with Huawei, VŠB-TUO stated that it intended to continue to work with the company as before, including on EU-funded projects.31 If anything, the university is seeking to deepen its cooperation with controversial PRC organs, e.g., upgrading its Confucius Class to a full Confucius Institute, against a global trend of disengagement from that Party-led propaganda and influence operation.32 The university’s Center for Advanced Innovation Technologies runs a Czech-China Center that participates in Hubei Province’s 100 Talents Plan, cooperating mainly in metallurgy and material science.33 Talent plans are government-run programs to obtain foreign technology and know-how that combine legal and illegal methods and are facing increasing global scrutiny. Most notably through the plans’ structure and mechanisms have been described in a recent report by Joske.34

In contrast, the universities in Pardubice and Hradec Králové responded to the Czech survey by stating that they would use the Tracker to vet their Chinese partners.35 The vice president of ČVUT told the radio that “every technology can be abused” and that they “take the problem seriously.”36 Despite this stated awareness, ČVUT collaborates with Beihang University, which spends close to 60 percent of its research budget on defense research, ČVUT has also had high-level contacts with NWPU, a university with several national defense laboratories: among them, only the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) laboratory received over 61 million USD in research funding between 2001 and 2019.37 In 2018, it hosted a delegation from the Ningbo Enterprise Successors Union (宁波市“创二代”联谊会), an association of young entrepreneurs under the supervision of the Ningbo United Front Work Department.38 The delegation listened to an exclusive Industry 4.0 presentation by then university president Petr Konvalinka,39 and visited the robotics department, reportedly ignoring a request not to take photographs.40

PRC interest in Czech defense technology

The fact that the PRC is interested in Czech research is underscored by Chinese cyber-attacks against local academic institutions that have been on the rise, attempting to acquire data and know-how in fields such as biotechnology, drones, or agriculture. According to one cyber-security expert, the attacks have been precisely targeted, indicating a good understanding of the Czech academic world.41

The country’s counter-intelligence agency BIS has disclosed a 2004 attempt to recruit a Czech scientist by the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (中国工程物理研究院), responsible for designing and building the PRC’s nuclear warheads.42 The operation allegedly sought to obtain advanced nanotechnology through a Chinese student on a scholarship program at an unidentified Czech university.43 While this scheme was thwarted, other evidence points to long-term PRC interest in Czech defense technology. The CETC YLC-20 emitter locating system is based on the Czech Věra system, a planned sale of which to China was canceled in 2004 after US pressure.44

These examples show that the PRC seeks to obtain Czech technologies and know-how in niche fields such as drones and nanotechnology. Under the military-civil fusion strategy, technologies obtained through legal, officially civilian academic cooperation could be used for military purposes.45

Conclusion

While cooperation between Czech and Chinese research institutions remains limited, the publicly known cases showing the PRC’s interest in Czech military or dual-use technology should alert the country’s universities to the inherent risks of cooperation with defense-linked institutions in China. These include technology transfer through talent recruitment programs, military use of know-how obtained through civilian collaboration, and exploitation of research for human rights abuses. Responses from the Czech universities confronted with these facts largely point to a lack of awareness of the issue and of tools for vetting risky partnerships with the PRC universities. Czech academic institutions appear to treat their Chinese counterparts as regular scholarly establishments, when in reality they are ultimately controlled by a political party, lack academic freedoms, and often keep much closer relations with the military and security apparatuses than is disclosed in their external messaging.

This underlines the need to conduct background checks using Chinese sources, where information about these ties is often more readily available, as well as the emerging body of research on the topic. Rather than simply rely on counter-intelligence agencies, research institutions should proactively work to prevent technology theft and problematic knowledge transfer.

As the Czech case shows, smaller countries are not exempt from becoming targets of the PRC defense system’s technology acquisition efforts. These states often develop comparative advantages in specific — if niche — fields, where they focus expertise and funding. In the Czech Republic, those include, e.g., nanotechnologies and UAVs, which the PRC has already shown interest in. Taking this issue seriously is essential in order to protect both property and personnel. Positive responses to the findings from Czech universities, stating they would conduct background checks on Chinese partners using such materials as the ASPI database, show the potential for good practice and the possibility of changing a rather passive attitude toward due diligence.

For full footnotes, please visit the original text on Project Sinopsis’ website.

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