Foreign Support

U.S. universities retain ties to Chinese universities that support Beijing’s military buildup, new report says

Dan De Luce
December 10, 2021

The relationships are entirely legal and American universities often tout their ties to “sister” Chinese universities as an academic strength.

Dozens of U.S. universities maintain ties to Chinese universities that conduct defense research in support of Beijing’s military buildup, including work related to the country’s nuclear weapons program, according to a new report released Thursday.

The partnerships are part of a broader effort by China to leverage its access to U.S. research institutions to acquire technology and knowledge that could benefit its expanding military, according to the report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

But the relationships are entirely legal and American universities often tout their ties to “sister” Chinese universities as an academic strength, providing students and scholars with an educational opportunity to collaborate and learn about Chinese language and culture.

The think tank report does not provide new evidence that U.S. universities have failed to safeguard sensitive, national security-related research, but it argues that policy makers and university administrators need to take a closer look at relationships with Chinese universities linked to Beijing’s military-industrial complex.

The U.S. government should establish “legal and regulatory guardrails to neutralize China’s ability either to acquire foundational knowledge or to access more sensitive research being conducted on U.S. college campuses,” the report said.

China was focused not only on classified or sensitive material but all relevant information that could bolster its military and technological might, said Craig Singleton, the report’s author.

“While the U.S. government often twists itself into knots determining what is classified or unclassified, the Chinese government often sees little-to-no distinction. Instead, Beijing is focused on collecting and harnessing any and all useful information to power its defense modernization,” Singleton said. “This includes everything from foundational knowledge taught on U.S. college campuses to cutting edge research, much of which is not technically classified but still has potential military applications.”

China’s embassy in the U.S. rejected the accusation that Beijing was trying to exploit academic cooperation between U.S. and Chinese universities.

Education exchanges and cooperation have helped enhance “mutual understanding” and have been “mutually beneficial, above-board and beyond reproach,” Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told NBC News in an email. “We urge relevant people in the U.S. to respect basic facts and stop making irresponsible remarks.”

The report said that not all collaboration between U.S. and Chinese universities poses a risk, and that the main problem was linked to a relatively small number of Chinese institutions that are conducting defense research. Of China’s more than 3,000 universities, roughly 90, or less than three percent, have direct ties to the country’s military and security establishment, according to the report.

The report, citing public documents, said three universities, Arizona State University, the University of Utah and Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state, have partnerships with Sichuan University, which appears on a U.S. government blacklist for allegedly supporting China’s nuclear weapons program.

The Commerce Department’s entity list identifies Sichuan as an “alias” for a Chinese center overseeing nuclear weapons research, the China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP).

Sichuan hosts at least three defense labs that focus on nuclear science and technology, physics and material sciences, according to the report, which cited public documents from China.

The University of Utah plans to “sunset” its Confucius Institute with Sichuan in June 2023, when the current contract expires, said university spokesperson Chris Nelson.

 But the university has not had any concerns about the institute “being a hub for espionage or propaganda,” Nelson said. The institute was initiated by former Utah governor Jon Huntsman after he finished his tenure as ambassador to China, Nelson added.

Other universities maintain ties to Chinese institutions linked to nuclear weapons research, according to the report.

Since 2014, the University of California at Santa Barbara has had a partnership with Shandong University, which works on China’s nuclear weapons program, according to the report.

A spokesperson for UC Santa Barbara said the school closed its Confucius Institute in June and “has no current or planned collaborations, partnerships or affiliations with Shandong University.”

Pacific Lutheran and Arizona State universities did not respond to requests for comment.

Stanford University has an agreement with Peking University, which has close links to the China Academy of Engineering Physics, a center for nuclear weapons research. Peking established a center with CAEP in 2017 on applied physics, and has acknowledged the center serves China’s defense goals, the report said.

A Chinese defense industrial agency has recognized Peking University’s work in nuclear physics, nuclear technology and nuclear chemical engineering as supporting China’s defense industry, according to the report. Peking University signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Chinese navy in 2013.

Stanford University defended its partnership with Peking University, which includes a campus in China.

“We are vigilant to concerns about U.S. national security and our international engagement is guided by university policies and in compliance with federal regulations,” said Dee Mostofi, spokesperson for Stanford.

The Confucius Institute at Stanford, part of its partnership with Peking University, focuses on Chinese art, literature, history and culture, according to Mostofi. The institute operates without restrictions or influence by the Chinese government over personnel or the content of instruction, the spokesperson said.

The institute was set up with a one-time irrevocable gift from the Office of Chinese Language Council International and the university does not rely on any annual contributions from China, Mostofi said. “Because their contribution is an irrevocable gift, they have no leverage to infringe on academic freedom at Stanford, nor have they tried,” Mostofi said.

“Stanford continues to support the conditions that foster the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, including the exchange of people and ideas with domestic and international collaborators,” she added.

China has funded the establishment of Confucius Institutes at college campuses across the U.S. and around the world, portraying them as a way to promote instruction in Chinese language and culture. But the U.S. government and lawmakers have labeled the institutes as vehicles for propaganda, and accused China of using the centers to restrict dissent among Chinese students abroad.

Congress has restricted Defense Department research funding for universities that host Confucius Institutes. The legislation and more scrutiny from politicians prompted the closure of dozens of institutes, with the number dropping from 113 to 34 since 2018, according to the report.

But among 78 universities that announced they were shutting their Confucius Institutes, 28 have maintained or expanded their relationships with Chinese sister universities, including many that have links to China’s defense industry, the report said.

Purdue University shut its Confucius Institute in 2019 but has kept its academic partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). The Chinese university hosts three defense laboratories, has an agreement with the Chinese military’s academy of military science for joint military research, and the dean and chief professor of its school of information security previously worked for the Chinese military, according to the report.

After receiving a briefing recently on the FDD report’s findings, Purdue reviewed its arrangements and canceled some of its programs with SJTU, including a doctorate-level program, according to the report.

“Several of the identified partnerships were either dormant or had not yet yielded any activity, and after extensive risk-based reviews, we formally terminated two agreements and shuttered a dual-degree program that had not yet begun accepting students,” Purdue University spokesperson Tim Doty told NBC News.

“Protection of national security is Purdue’s primary interest, and the university is a nationally recognized leader for its efforts in research security,” Doty said.

The university’s engagements were developed in accordance with U.S. government policies and regulations, and Purdue values its diverse international population of faculty, students and other scholars, he said.

He added, “We do not and will not hesitate to take action and exit any agreement which threatens national security.”

Texas A&M closed its Confucius Institute but has preserved its partnership with China’s Ocean University. The Chinese university has a secret-level Chinese security clearance, allowing it to conduct classified defense research. Ocean University has cooperative agreements with the Chinese navy and has collaborated with the navy’s submarine academy, according to the report.

A university spokesperson said programs that were not part of the Confucius Institute have continued to operate.

“Notably, they involved non-sensitive information such as climate simulation. This relationship is part of a much larger international program focused on gathering non-sensitive data for fundamental climate science,” the spokesperson said in an email.

“Texas A&M is committed to the highest level of research integrity and engagement of global partners. We embrace a culture that values diversity in thought and an environment that promotes innovation and creativity in research,” the spokesperson added.

Conflict of Interest Foreign Support

NSF Updates to the Research Performance Progress Report

On September 28, the National Science Foundation announced the additional of new questions, effective October 5, to their Project Reporting System which is where awardees prepare and submit performance progress reports for their federally funded research projects and research-related activities. The edits include the following questions: (1) Has there been a change in the active other support of the PI/PD(s) since the last reporting period?; (2) What was the impact on teaching and educational experiences?; (3) What percentage of the award’s budget was spent in a foreign country?; and (4) Has there been a change in primary performance site location from that originally proposed?

Depending on these answers, PIs could also upload follow-up supporting documents. Finally, the changes also include the addition of further guiding text to clarify instructions where needed.

Additional Information


Foreign Support

Ranking House members request information on foreign donations to colleges

On August 3, three ranking republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to six colleges around the country to demand further disclosure regarding foreign donations in the last 4-5 years. These letters were sent to Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Delaware. In total, the letters reference $227 million in donations from China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. The letters were sent by Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Virginia Foxx (R-NC), and James Comer (R-KY), the ranking members of the House Judiciary, House Oversight and Reform, and House Education and Labor committees, respectively.

This action follows a similar request addressed to the Education Department in May, and likewise, the current letters point to a growing national security threat as the reason for the inquiry. For example, one of the lawmakers’ arguments is that governments like Qatar label their donations as “trade secrets” to prevent its disclosure as otherwise required by U.S. law. This viewpoint is compounded by the belief that the gifts are later used as leverage upon the recipients for some type of benefit, all while staying protected in anonymity.

All in all, these universities were now given an unrealistic timeline of one week to produce all unredacted records of gifts, contracts and agreements with foreign governments since January 2015. It is unclear at this time how the affected parties will decide to respond.

Additional Information


Foreign Support

In the News: Ohio State University Professor Arrested and Charged with Grant Fraud

July 9, 2020

Professor Song Guo Zheng allegedly was fleeing the country via a charter aircraft after learning his university was investigating whether he was complying with the terms of his NIH grants.   The Attorney General for National Security, John C. Demers noted the professor …”allegedly and deliberately fail[ed] to disclose his relationship with a Chinese University and receipt of funds from the Chinese Government in order to obtain millions of dollars in U.S grant money. […] This case, like too many others, should serve as a reminder that the United States Government takes seriously the obligation of truthfulness and transparency on grant applications, and those who violate the law to benefit China or any other foreign nation will be held accountable.”

Link to Justice Department for Additional Information

Foreign Support

Harvard Chemistry Chair Charged with Making False Statements About His Participation in a Chinese Talent Program

January 28, 2020

“What worries Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the Massachusetts district, is that Lieber was allegedly paid to carry out research in China, which, combined with his failure to disclose those relationships, makes him potentially vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government to do its bidding at some future point.  “It was the amount of money involved that drew our attention,” Lelling says, referring to a 2012 contract included in court documents that indicates Lieber received $50,000 a month in salary and millions of dollars in research support. “That is a corrupting level of money.” Federal investigators were also alarmed, Lelling says, by how Lieber “brazenly” hid that relationship from Harvard and from the federal agencies that for decades have been funding his research on inorganic nanowires. “When people begin to hide things, that’s when law enforcement authorities get all excited.””

See also related article: “U.S. Prosecutor Leading China Probe Explains Effort that led to Charges Against Harvard Chemist,” Science, February 3, 2020, in which the prosecutor in the Lieber case discusses the reasons behind his charging decision.

Link to Justice Department for Additional Information

Foreign Support

Department Of Justice Reaches $5.5 Million Settlement With Van Andel Research Institute To Resolve Allegations Of Undisclosed Chinese Grants To Two Researchers

December 19, 2019



The Department of Justice announced today that Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) has agreed to pay $5,500,000.00 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting federal grant applications and progress reports to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in which VARI failed to disclose Chinese government grants that funded two VARI researchers.  The settlement further resolves allegations that in a Dec. 21, 2018 letter, VARI made certain factual representations to NIH with deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth regarding the Chinese grants.

Andrew Birge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said, “Our local institutions, like VARI, serve a vital role in raising West Michigan’s profile as a national player in cutting-edge biomedical research, but institutions everywhere must deal honestly and transparently when applying for U.S. government funding and respond appropriately when compliance issues arise. It’s unfair to other grant applicants and to the NIH for any institution to withhold requested information about whether the research that an institution wants the NIH to support may be getting funding from outside sources, specifically including foreign governments. False Claims Act penalties are harsh by design. I sincerely hope the word gets out on the importance of full disclosure with the government.”

“It is imperative that recipients of NIH grant funds properly report all sources of research support, financial interests and affiliations of individual researchers to ensure the proper and effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Lamont Pugh III, Special Agent in Charge of HHS-OIG’s Chicago Region.  “HHS-OIG will continue to investigate allegations of failures to properly report information to ensure the integrity of Departmental programs.”

Obtaining research funding from NIH is a highly competitive process, with only a small portion of eligible applications receiving funding each year.   Nondisclosures and false statements to granting agencies are especially harmful because they distort competition, disadvantage applicants who play by the rules, and undermine agencies’ decision-making on the use of their limited resources.

As part of its grants application process, NIH requires recipient institutions to disclose all financial resources—including any other research grants—that are available to researchers and other key research personnel in support of their research endeavors (known as “Other Support” disclosures).  Other Support disclosures allow NIH to independently evaluate, among other things, whether research submitted for taxpayer support is being funded by another source.  During the term of a grant, NIH also requires recipient institutions to disclose whether certain aspects of federally-funded research will be, or have been, performed outside of the United States (known as “Foreign Component” disclosures). Research institutions, which apply for NIH grants on behalf of researchers and groups of collaborating researchers, make these Other Support and Foreign Component disclosures on or in connection with NIH forms.

VARI is an independent research institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Between Jan. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2019, VARI received NIH grants for two researchers, including a researcher identified here as “Professor 1.”  The government alleged that in applying for the NIH grants, and in submitting claims for federal grant funds, VARI did not disclose any foreign research funding for those researchers or any foreign components of their NIH-sponsored research.  The government alleged, however, that both researchers received research funding from Chinese sources while VARI was applying for and receiving NIH funds on their behalf.  The government specifically alleged that between Jan. 2012 and Dec. 2018, Professor 1 received grants and research support from a variety of Chinese sources, including the People’s Republic of China’s Thousand Talents Program.  The Thousand Talents Program is in place with the purpose of returning talent, research, and technology to China for China’s benefit.

The government claimed that between Jan. 2012 and June 2018, VARI should have known about these foreign grants and disclosed them to NIH.  The government alleged that while VARI had institutional policies and procedures in place to address conflicts of interest, VARI did not take adequate additional steps to investigate the researchers’ foreign funding sources despite receiving specific information about their Chinese affiliations.  The government claimed, for example, that a Chinese institution sent VARI a letter stating that Professor 1 was receiving “generous support” from the Chinese Thousand Talents Program.  The government also alleged that VARI knew that Professor 1 held a directorship at a Shanghai-based research institute—a collaboration between VARI and the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica—that would involve Professor 1 applying for Chinese research grants to support work at the foreign institution.

The government claimed that VARI learned about certain of Professor 1’s Chinese grants in June 2018 while reviewing a press release for one of Professor 1’s publications.  The government claimed that rather than confirming and disclosing the information to the NIH, VARI removed references to those grants from the proposed funding attributions in its press release.  The government alleged that shortly thereafter, VARI received an Aug. 20, 2018 letter from NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. that reminded recipient institutions of the need to disclose “support coming from foreign governments or other foreign entities” for their researchers.  The government alleged that VARI then received a Nov. 30, 2018 e-mail from NIH that cited specific concerns about potential nondisclosures relating to Professor 1.  The government claimed that VARI did not disclose Professor 1’s Chinese grants to NIH even after receiving this correspondence.

The government claimed that VARI instead retained an outside consulting firm, and, relying on that firm’s advice, sent a Dec. 21, 2018 letter to NIH in which VARI stated that it was not required to disclose information about Professor 1’s foreign grants because “there was no undisclosed overlap of any budgetary resources, commitment, or scientific endeavor” between the Chinese grants and the NIH grants.  NIH, however, requires disclosure of all financial resources available in support of an individual’s research endeavors.  The government further alleged that VARI, in representing to the agency that “there was no undisclosed overlap” between the Chinese grants and the NIH grants, did not know whether that statement was true.

U.S. Attorney Birge added that institutions concerned about a prior statement on a grant application should know that it is Department of Justice policy that entities or individuals that make “proactive, timely, and voluntary self-disclosures to the Department about misconduct will receive credit during the resolution of a False Claims Act case.”

This case was a cooperative effort among HHS-OIG, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam B. Townshend represented the United States

The claims resolved by the settlements are allegations only.  There has been no determination of liability.

Link to the original article

Foreign Support

Professor Indicted for Alleged Undisclosed Chinese Links

August 23, 2019


By Elizabeth Redden

Kansas professor faces federal fraud charges for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time appointment at a Chinese university held while receiving government research grants. The indictment comes amid rising tension over Chinese scholars and security.

A professor at the University of Kansas was indicted Wednesday on federal fraud charges for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time employment contract he held with a Chinese university while conducting research at Kansas funded by federal research contracts.

Feng (Franklin) Tao, a chemist and associate professor at Kansas’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of the counts of program fraud.

The indictment against Tao comes amid increasing concerns among federal research agencies and national security officials about alleged efforts by China to steal the fruits of U.S. taxpayer-funded scientific research. Federal scientific agencies have also raised concerns about undisclosed conflicts of commitment in which researchers hold a position with an overseas institution while they are receiving federal grants.

“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the U.S. government by unlawfully receiving federal grant money at the same time that he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university — a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a news release announcing the charges. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”

The indictment alleges that Tao failed to disclose that he signed a five-year contract in 2018 with China’s Fuzhou University to be a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor, a position that the contract describes as full-time. The Changjiang Scholar program is sponsored by the Chinese government to attract and recruit scientific talent.

The indictment alleges that Tao, who studies a surface chemical analysis technique known as ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, failed to disclose the Changjiang contract to Kansas and that he falsely certified to the university that he did not have any conflicts of interest.

“By not disclosing his position at Fuzhou, and certifying an absence of conflict, Tao was able to continue his employment with KU. His employment with KU allowed Tao to have continued access to U.S. government grant or contract funds, which included funds not only for research but also for Tao’s salary,” the indictment states.

Tao’s research at KU was funded through two Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts. Tao is accused of fraudulently receiving more than $37,000 in salary paid for by DOE and NSF.

Court papers did not list a lawyer for Tao, and his published KU office number was not working Thursday. Messages sent Thursday to his KU email account, a LinkedIn account in his name and a phone number located via a public records search were not returned.

The University’s Response

Douglas A. Girod, the university’s chancellor, said in a statement about the fraud charges that Kansas “learned of this potential criminal activity this spring” and reported it to authorities. Tao has been placed on paid administrative leave.

In his statement, Girod cited a recent op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed by the presidents of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities affirming the vital role Chinese and other international scholars play in America’s research enterprise.

“At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies,” Girod said. “We remain vigilant in our own internal efforts to maintain the integrity and security of our research, including the research we undertake on behalf of federal research-granting agencies and, ultimately, U.S. taxpayers,” Girod said. “Our Office of Global Operations and Security serves as an important resource for faculty and staff to help them conduct international work in a safe and secure way. The office works to manage and mitigate risk and protect intellectual property while synchronizing efforts related to international work, export compliance and security operations.”

“After the formation of that office in summer 2018, we looked at our policies and procedures that regulate how we conduct research and exchange information in an increasingly interconnected world and considered ways they could be improved,” Girod added.

Many if not most major research universities have recently begun revisiting their policies and protocols governing federal research grants and protection of intellectual property in response to the increased attention from federal law enforcement officials to academic espionage-related issues and the threat posed by China in particular.

The increased scrutiny has raised concerns in academe about whether ethnically Chinese scholars are being racially profiled and targeted for additional scrutiny. In a June statement, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif reported that “faculty members, postdocs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge — because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”

As U.S.-China relations worsen, some have also raised concerns about whether scholars stand to be penalized for forms of scientific collaboration with China — such as participation in the Chinese government’s talent programs — that were previously considered by many to be within the bounds of normal academic collaboration.

The former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Division, Bill Priestap, told a congressional panel last December that the talent programs “encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions.”

Such programs, Priestap said, “offer competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities and honorific titles, luring both Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts alike to bring their knowledge and experience to China, even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so.”

“I have no firsthand knowledge of the case and no opinion about Franklin Tao’s innocence or guilt,” said Robert Daly, an analyst who has been tracking these issues and is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “I do know that Washington’s concern with China’s talent re-recruitment programs emerged only recently and that the new security issues involved are not fully understood by many American universities. One result of this disconnect is that American faculty of Chinese origin who ‘didn’t get the memo’ and continue to behave as they did before the issue appeared — especially by taking undisclosed dual appointments at Chinese institutions — may now be cast as criminals when they are merely guilty of moonlighting and careless paperwork.”

“To protect faculty from unfounded accusations, it is essential that American universities orient their scholars about the FBI’s concerns and the need for full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest,” Daly said. “To date, public reports don’t make clear that KU gave this vital information to Professor Tao. If he was not informed of these issues by his employer, 50 years in prison and a million-dollar fine seem like heavy penalties for a case in which no espionage or intellectual property theft is alleged.”

KU’s policies governing conflicts of interest can be found online, and the policy relating to conflict of time commitment appears to have last been updated in 2017.

“All KU employees are informed of their disclosure obligations during onboarding, and they are reminded each year during the annual reporting period,” a university spokesman said. “Additionally, researchers are required to certify that their compliance reporting is up to date before submitting every proposal. Research integrity staff who facilitate conflict of interest reporting deliver in-person training to departments and centers upon request and through the annual research administration training program.”

Link to the original article