KU Leuven cooperates with disputed Chinese universities: 'But we are taking safety measures'


'Russia sends its spies, China its professors and students,' minister of Justice Paul Van Tichelt recently said in De Standaard. Chinese espionage at universities captures the imagination. Yet, according to some security experts, its danger is both underestimated as well as invisible.

China is an important partner for any country, company or university. But the academic world is more intertwined with politics in China than in Belgium — spying on other countries, knowledge theft and research into military applications are rife in the People's Republic. This raises questions about the safety of collaborating with the country.

Disputed partners

Some of KU Leuven’s Chinese partners with whom the university has structural collaborations may be controversial . In Australia, where Chinese espionage has been a more obvious problem for some time, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) drew up a special list of Chinese universities with a risk profile. 

Veto still found some individual collaborations between researchers in Leuven and Chinese colleagues from one of those controversial universities

According to that list, KU Leuven is currently cooperating with numerous universities that have a ‘high risk’ profile. For example, the Faculty of Science collaborates with Xia Tong University, which has a reputation for espionage. 

These collaborations are all the more unconventional considering that the Flemish government has recommended universities to take into account the ASPI list when choosing partners. This resolution was announced in a recent Parliamentary answer by Flemish Minister of Economy Jo Brouns (CD&V) to Member of Parliament Karl Vanlouwe (N-VA). 

Peter Lievens, Internationalisation vice-rector, says KU Leuven is wary of controversial universities like Xia Tong University, but does not believe the situation is cause for concern . According to Lievens, such collaborations are checked individually through screenings, including a screening by the ethics committee for dual-use research. Spying is rather rare, he continues.

Seven Sons of National Defence

Politicians however are more concerned about the matter: recently, Flanders banned the funding of Flemish funds in collaborations with the controversial 'Seven Sons of National Defense' – a group of Chinese universities notorious for its espionage and its entanglement with the Chinese military. 

Yet Veto still discovered a number of individual collaborations between researchers in Leuven and Chinese colleagues from one of those universities, such as Beihang University. 

According to Lievens, this is not forbidden, since the university has no structural links with those universities. Again, he stresses that collaborations are mainly judged on the subject of the specific collaboration, not necessarily on other university characteristics.

The anti-espionage policy is difficult

Cind Du Bois, professor at the Royal Military Academy, explains that Chinese interference lies on a broad spectrum: 'It caninvolve an actual criminal risk when technology and information is point-blankly stolen, but it could just as well come down to cultural influence. 'The Chinese Communist Party’s goal is to be a superpower in the scientific field by 2049: 'And they don’t shy away from any means to achieve that,' says Du Bois. 

According to vice-rector Lievens, the University security policy is adequate: 'In recent years, we have committed to carrying out the policy by implementing a committee for dual-use research and a human rights test, but also creating awareness through campaigns among researchers.' The dual-use committee ethically assesses individual projects with potential military or civilian applications. 

Anti-espionage policy mainly takes place outside the walls of the university, all the more so because of a lack of overview: 'State security relies on data from the Immigration Department that assesses doctorates, for example. After a student is admitted to study here, they lose the overview,' Du Bois explains. 

A clear improvement on the Flemish or federal level would be the implementation of a central knowledge desk that companies and knowledge institutions can consult and use to exchange information. A similar initiative already exists in the Netherlands. In any case, the Flemish government aspires to create one in Flanders too. On European level, a lot is going on when it comes to knowledge security as well.

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