Durham University has connections with 12 state-controlled Chinese universities linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), nuclear weapons research and industrial espionage, a Palatinate investigation can reveal.
These links range from visits by University grandees and department-led research partnerships, to student exchange agreements and wider research collaboration.
The findings come after an investigation by the think tank Civitas which details the scale of British universities’ research and funding links to institutions directly controlled by the Chinese state, though Durham is not mentioned at any point.
Half of the universities identified by Palatinate were named by the Civitas report, and all 12 are directly controlled by China’s government or participate in its military research programmes.
Chinese universities are constitutionally obligated to share all new technologies with the state as part of Junmin Ronghe, or military-civil fusion, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategy which aims to “advance the two way transfer and transformation of military and civilian technological achievements”.
Some of Durham’s strongest links to such institutions are in communications and radar research.
Since 2016, a senior Durham academic has co-authored 15 articles on radar technology with three academics at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA), one of whom visited Durham’s interdisciplinary Centre for Communications Systems (CCS) in 2016.
NUAA’s extensive involvement in military research has cemented its position as one of China’s “Seven Sons of National Defence”, as per the Civitas report. It is home to China’s only national defence laboratory for helicopter technology and its students are barred from entering the United States after alleged theft of American aerospace technology.
CCS, which Durham’s website claims has “designed and developed” state-of-the-art technologies for 5G propagation, hosted seven Chinese academics through its scholarship scheme between 2013 and 2016. Four of these came from two universities named in the Civitas report: Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an and Beijing Jiaotong University (BJU). A “high-level delegation” from BJU also visited CCS in 2014-15.
Four of the universities Palatinate has identified are allegedly linked to nuclear weapons research, and each of these are year abroad partners of Durham University.
Durham’s Law School claims to have “extensive links” with Jilin University, an institution designated “very high risk” by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank due to its work on secret state research projects.
Durham’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (Global) Prof. Claire O’Malley visited the University in 2019 to discuss a postgraduate articulation agreement – a form of student exchange – in archaeology.
Shandong University, an academic and student exchange partner which signed a “cooperation agreement on scientific research” with Durham in 2010, has a number of defence laboratories linked to China’s nuclear weapons programme.
Both Jilin and Shandong work with the Chinese Academy of Elements, China’s national development facility for nuclear warheads.
In 2016 the Vice-Chancellor himself, Prof. Stuart Corbridge, visited another year abroad partner with links to nuclear research, Peking University (PKU). According to ASPI, the Chinese state has designated three research areas integral to its nuclear weapons programme to PKU: nuclear physics, nuclear technology, and nuclear chemical and fuel engineering.
Civitas states that Zhejiang University also participates in China’s nuclear weapons programmes, and is accused of cyber and economic espionage in the US. Applicants for its year abroad programmes are required to demonstrate “a love for the socialist motherland”.
Another four universities identified by Palatinate are connected to China’s military, the PLA.
These include the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) and Fudan University. Controlled by the PLA’s Central Military Commission, Durham academics gave talks on the CANARY and CHOUGH telescope projects at NUDT in 2017, while Fudan is home to one of Durham’s international DBA Business School programmes. ASPI states that Fudan “appears to engage in high levels of work for the military on materials science, including stealth technology”.
Furthermore, ASPI also notes that Dalian University of Technology and Shanghai Jiao Tong University both collaborate with the PLA’s navy and are subordinate to the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry (SASTIND), a body which sits within the national State Council.
Durham has an articulation agreement in physics with the former and, in 2019, three Durham academics spoke at a conference hosted by the latter.
One former Durham student, an expert on China now working in Hong Kong, told Palatinate: “ASPI is a highly respected think tank, and the fact that they judge some of these institutions to be high risk in their links to China’s nuclear programme is clearly grounds for Durham to cut all ties with these universities”.
A Chinese Studies student at Durham agreed, saying “it would be better to be assertive […] China is buying up the whole world now and we are appeasing it”.
There is no evidence to suggest that any Durham academics have passed research secrets to China, or that the research which has been undertaken has compromised national security.
Concerns about research links with China, however, have become increasingly relevant in recent weeks.
The Mail on Sunday last week claimed that an investigation into academics sharing technology with China had been commenced by MI6 officers seconded to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It did not name the academics “on the grounds of national security”.
Meanwhile, last Monday’s Times reported that the British government is “preparing to send enforcement notices to up to 200 UK citizens” at British universities. If found to have breached the 2008 Export Control Order on highly sensitive intellectual property, individuals could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
When presented with Palatinate’s research, a spokesperson for Durham University said: “Like many leading and globally facing universities, we recruit staff and students internationally, including scholars from China.
“We also have research, teaching and exchange links with a number of Chinese establishments. These are subject to a robust and standard institutional assessment process and are regularly reviewed.”
“Our students benefit from high quality exchange partnerships with Chinese universities which considerably improve their language skills and cultural experiences of China,” the spokesperson continued.
“Our research links are helping tackle global challenges, such as earthquake risk reduction, and furthering scholarship in areas as diverse as cosmology and archaeology, including our flagship partnership with The Palace Museum, Beijing.
“We have recently launched a webinar series with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, called Knowledge Across Borders, to encourage collaboration between researchers of all academic disciplines from around the world.”
Image: Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge in a 2016 visit to Peking University, which carries out extensive nuclear weapons research (Peking University)