In the latest example on how the Chinese military is tapping into Western academia in strategic and sensitive area of biotechnology, a Chinese professor at the University of Copenhagen who was conducted genetic research for the Chinese military did not disclose his connections to the PLA.
The Chinese professor, Guojie Zhang, is also employed by Shenzhen-based genomics giant BGI Group, which funds dozens of researchers at the university and has its European headquarters on the university’s campus.
Zhang and a student were supervising a project with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory which was researching the effects extreme high altitude and cold has on the brains of monkeys so that they can develop drugs to prevent brain damage.
This area of research has been prioritized by the PLA for Chinese troops operating on high altitude borders.
Incidentally, China is expanding its land claims with India where its troops face battle hardened high altitude acclimatized Indian troops in the Himalayas.
In January 2020, Zhang co-published a paper with a PLA major general. At that time, the university was “not familiar with the fact that the paper also included authors from Chinese military research institutions,” said Niels Kroer, head of its biology department.
Zhang stated, he did not inform the university of his links with the PLA since the university didn’t require researchers to report co-authors on scientific papers to it, which the university confirmed.
BGI said the study with the PLA lab “was not carried out for military purposes” and brain research is a critical area for understanding human diseases.
Concerns about China’s fusion of military and civilian technology, and about universities transferring sensitive technology to China that could help its military, have grown in the United States in recent years. Washington agreed last month to work with the European Union on the issue under a new joint technology and trade council.
A U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military power this month flagged concern over Beijing using biotechnology to enhance its soldiers’ performance.
This Danish incident, is a classic case in point on how China is pursuing biotechnology with a military use, which has become sensitive for universities in Europe.
In a statement. the European Commission said, it is developing guidelines on “tackling foreign interference” at higher education institutions.
A 2020 report from the Leiden Asia Centre found at least five countries in Europe having concerns on the risks of research collaboration with China. Many universities, including Copenhagen, have had close science contacts with China.
Copenhagen university along with two large Danish foundations, who funded some of Zhang’s work said, they discovered the involvement of the Chinese military only after one of the foundations saw it had been credited, incorrectly, with financing the monkey study.
The research project was funded by the Chinese government and military, states the research paper.
Denmark’s intelligence agency, PET, had warned Danish universities in May of national security risks of being unwittingly involved in foreign military research, citing “a number of espionage activities and other foreign interference”; a student who co-authored research into 5G technology had done so with an engineer from a Chinese military university.
It declined to comment on specific cases.
The Chinese Academy of Science, where Zhang also has a genetics lab, said of the study at the time that brain damage and death caused by high altitude on the Tibetan plateau had severely hindered “national defence construction.”
The University of Copenhagen expects the review of “ethical and security policy limits” for collaboration will result in new rules for universities – and greater focus on the risks, said Kim Brinckmann, deputy director for research and innovation.
“We are very proud to have Prof. Zhang … as one of our very highly performing researchers,” said Brinckmann.
The University of Copenhagen did not respond to querries around the quantum of funding BGI provides it.
Zhang and the head of the PLA laboratory for high-altitude research, Major General Yuqi Gao, designed the study, which also lists BGI founders Wang Jian and Yang Huanming as co-authors.
BGI’s other joint research with Gao also involved soldiers in Tibet and Xinjiang,
The report was cited by two U.S. senators who called for BGI to be sanctioned by the United States as a military-linked company.
According to the Chinese military’s official news service, Gao’s research has directly improved the ability of China’s rapid-advance plateau troops to carry out training and combat missions.
BGI has been working with Gao’s lab to test soldiers arriving in Tibet and identify genes linked to altitude sickness, which does not affect Tibetans. It said preventing altitude sickness helped to “manage border areas where ethnic minorities gather,” and had far-reaching economic and political significance.
“The project using BGI’s technology studied the changes of the pathophysiology and genomics of the human body at very high altitudes,” said BGI’s spokesman.
Gao wrote in 2018 that high altitude disease “is the main reason for reduced combat effectiveness and health damage of soldiers at high altitudes and influences the results of war on the highland plateau,” and noted that drugs could be used in an emergency for the rapid deployment of soldiers. The Indian military has pushed back Chinese land claims in high altitudes Himalayan terrain.