When the U.S. Commerce Department expanded its blacklist by 77 institutions last Friday, it added five Chinese universities: Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Tianjin University, and Beijing Institute of Technology. Sanctioning schools might seem strange or severe at first glance, but the Chinese Communist Party relies heavily on universities in its broader strategy of technology acquisition from abroad and military-civil fusion. The sanctions illustrate why U.S. companies must step up due diligence when collaborating with Chinese universities.
Some have questioned the move, insisting there is no harm in working with educational institutions. After all, it is in the United States’ interest to preserve an open and collaborative global research environment; international partnerships are the lifeblood of the U.S. science and technology ecosystem. However, a number of Chinese institutions pose clear risks to U.S. national security, and it’s long past time that U.S. companies operating in China recognized this fact.
In a recent report for Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, we confirmed that a group of seven institutions in particular—the “Seven Sons of National Defense”—spearhead research into dual-use technologies, recruit top-tier scientists from abroad, and disproportionately train students who become defense industry engineers. Until Friday, three of these were unfettered by any U.S. export controls, and more than a dozen U.S. tech companies had established cooperative training programs with their students and faculty members. Specifically, we found that leading U.S. tech companies—including IBM, Microsoft, Synopsys, and Texas Instruments—had developed course curricula, trained faculty members, and built new laboratory facilities for defense-affiliated universities in China, which could accelerate the country’s military modernization efforts.
Moreover, U.S. companies are helping Chinese universities develop technologies that are the linchpins of geopolitical competition in the 21st century, including artificial intelligence, semiconductor design, and quantum computing. For decades, Beijing has tried to source the knowledge and equipment to stand up its own advanced semiconductor industry, prompting the United States to adopt stringent export controls on semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Yet our research indicates that from 2018 to 2019, numerous technology companies have provided training sessions on the subject for faculty at China’s Seven Sons of National Defense, in addition to Chinese military academies.
Selectively adding these universities to the Entity List is an overdue, if imperfect, policy response. Coerced technology transfer extends well beyond the Seven Sons, but at least by placing them on the Entity List, the U.S. government has taken steps to curb partnerships that pose the clearest risks to U.S. national security.
It can’t stop there, though; it will take more than sanctions to head off risky partnerships. In the past, even government blacklisting has not prevented U.S. companies from coauthoring research, licensing software, or training faculty members at universities affiliated with the Chinese military and defense industry. And beyond the Seven Sons, several leading, ostensibly civilian Chinese universities hold advanced security credentials, receive funding from China’s Ministry of State Security, or contribute directly to PLA-led research projects.
Despite pressure from the Chinese government and the lure of market access, it is incumbent upon U.S. companies operating in China to take due diligence seriously. Vetting potential partners is tricky, particularly due to language constraints. However, more and more research institutions are producing informative resources that companies and universities should use to assess risk prior to entering into collaborations.
The U.S. government is playing a perpetual game of catch-up, as it lacks the bureaucratic agility to keep up with China’s highly adaptive and ambitious technology acquisition strategy. U.S. companies and universities therefore need to be more proactive in assessing the risks involved in collaborating with institutions in China, or they may inadvertently compromise their intellectual property, related supply chains, and even national security.