The more than ninety researchers come from a university directly under the People’s Liberation Army, China’s Army. The vast majority of military researchers who come to the Netherlands come from the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT).
‘Chinese army is to our knowledge’
In the Netherlands, they conducted PhD research into hypersonic weapons, high-quality computer technology and special concrete that is resistant to ammunition impacts. But they also focus on nano- and quantum technology and artificial intelligence, techniques necessary for modern warfare.
“The Netherlands has high quality knowledge in these areas,” says Swillens. “And that’s what the Chinese military is after.” The military researchers receive a scholarship from the Chinese state and are then allowed to study abroad, but there is something in return, warns the head of the Dutch army’s intelligence service. “Namely, that you use your acquired knowledge to benefit the strategy of the Chinese state.”
China’s ultimate goal is to be the most powerful country in the world technically, economically and militarily by 2049. To achieve this, the country is seeking high-tech knowledge.
Mainly research at TU Delft
Delft University of Technology has employed the largest number of Chinese soldiers: 43. In second place is the University of Amsterdam with 17, followed by Leiden University with nine and Eindhoven University of Technology with seven soldiers. Erasmus University Rotterdam, the University of Twente, VU University Amsterdam and Utrecht University employed a total of 13 Chinese military scientists. The other four were affiliated with another scientific institute such as KNMI.
Hypersonic arms race
For example, last year a Chinese soldier obtained his doctorate from Air Force Engineering University, an army university, at TU Delft. He researched the control of hypersonic aircraft. The special thing about this weapon is that it can not be intercepted by anti-aircraft aircraft due to its high speed. These weapons fly more than five times the speed of sound.
Experts to whom we have presented this researcher’s studies say that his work clearly has military application. “China has been working very hard to develop and test hypersonic weapons for more than ten years,” said Mark Voskuijl, professor of weapons and aviation systems at the Dutch Defense Academy (NLDA).
Russia, the United States and China are involved in a hypersonic arms race where they want to be in front of each other.
Back to China with knowledge of TU Delft
It is important to keep such an aircraft properly controlled so that it can hit its target and it is complex at such high speeds. The technique that the Chinese soldier describes in his research at TU Delft is necessary for this, says Voskuijl. The researcher in question has since returned to China, where he works for the military Air Force Engineering University.
“Such a person has built up expertise and can make himself useful at such an academy or for the Ministry of Defense,” says Voskuijl. This involves huge programs involving billions and involving thousands of people. It is unclear whether the technique was actually applied to the DF-17, as seen in the image above, or to another hypersonic weapon.
Special bunker concrete
The Chinese military is not only concerned with high-quality computer technology. In 2020, for example, a Chinese soldier obtained his doctorate from Eindhoven University of Technology for a study of an ultra-strong concrete with synthetic fibers. According to Klaas van Breugel, professor emeritus professor of concrete modeling and material behavior at TU Delft, the material could have a military use. “This so-called UHPFRC concrete offers protection against bullets and everything that has to be collected at high speed as a result of explosions.” Applications are bunkers that provide protection to humans or nuclear installations.
Remarkably, the Chinese military researcher used the defense facilities of the Knowledge Center for Weapon Systems and Ammunition for his practical experiments with ammunition. The Ministry of Defense says in a reply that it would like to know what the added value of this particular concrete is when it is fired with ammunition. The test was performed by defense personnel, and the Chinese researcher was only allowed to attend the shooting tests.
After his Ph.D. in Eindhoven, this researcher returned to the university she came from, the National University of Defense Technology.
The fact that the whole world can read these scientific studies does not make the problem any less. “Those papers are pretty short, so it’s hard to understand all the details,” says Professor Mark Voskuijl. “The real knowledge and the trick to apply the techniques that really belong to the researcher himself, and he goes back to China.”
Not prohibited, but risky
Dutch universities and scientists decide for themselves who they collaborate with. It falls under academic freedom. There are hardly any laws in the Netherlands that prohibit or restrict collaboration with foreign universities and institutes. Not even with military universities abroad. The only thing that is not allowed is collaboration with North Korean and Iranian scientists in the field of nuclear research and missile programs.
The Ministry of Education has published a ‘National Guide to Knowledge Security’. It is intended that all knowledge institutions in the Netherlands will examine their contacts with China on the basis of this guideline.
Collaboration with foreign parties is interesting for Dutch universities because it allows them to conduct high-quality research with the best researchers. In addition, many foreign PhD students bring their own funds for their research, for example in the form of grants from the Chinese universities to which they are affiliated.
In a reply, Dutch universities have expressed that they value academic freedom, but also that in recent years they have actually been aware of the risk of high-tech knowledge seeping away.
The TU Delft professor for the Chinese scientist, who received his doctorate in the control of hypersonic aircraft, says in a reply that the researcher passed the screening procedure in 2015. But says he would have made a different decision now. He emphasizes that this is basic scientific mathematical research that cannot be used directly in real aircraft.
According to his supervisor, the Chinese military researcher who researched concrete at Eindhoven University of Technology was an exception. He points out that the collaboration also benefits the Dutch construction industry.
For this research, Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws have made use of scientific publications included in the ‘Lens’ database. A selection has been made of all Dutch universities and Chinese military universities. The latter are universities belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The military does not work for the state, but is in the service of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the period 2013-2022, we encountered 93 PhD students. Before coming to the Netherlands, they obtained their master’s degree at a Chinese military university. Of the 93 military researchers affiliated with a Dutch university, at least 48 returned to a Chinese military university or research laboratory. We established this by searching for new publications that show which institution they are currently affiliated with.