China has long overtaken the United States as the leading nation in the number of scientific publications. In the list of the most cited scientists, China ranks third and Germany fourth and China publishes more and more scientific publications with international partners. With more than half of all registered patents, China also produces the most innovations worldwide and is therefore a promising cooperation partner for researchers from Germany.
Recently various scientific representatives in Germany warned of the ever increasing discrepancy in the applicable rules. For example, the President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Hans-Christian Pape, called for “red lines” in the use of research results and insisted on standards in scientific practice.
The DFG emphasized the constantly changing laws on data security in China and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft warned of the “danger of an uncontrolled flow of know-how”. He warned that Chinese PhD students and in Germany are “not always on the same side as us” when it comes to intellectual property.
In isolated cases, intellectual property has already been stolen, not at universities, but at other research institutions
Chinese Researchers often come up with Dual-Use Technologies
Germany must be vigilant not only in terms of intellectual property, but also in the use of research results from German-Chinese cooperation. As the “Welt” reported, Chinese guest scientists in Germany are often members of the Chinese military. For example, the engineering scientist Professor Hu Changhua worked at the University of Duisburg-Essen without the university knowing that he was a major general of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and head of a military lab for missile tests.
There have been similar questionable Chinese researchers at the Max Born Institute in Berlin, the Helmholtz Center in Dresden and at the Geo Research Center in Potsdam.
“Often enough, European research institutions open their doors very widely to China without even thinking about dual-use”
Pieke also strongly warned against naivety in dealing with China. The country is making research collaborations increasingly strategic and with ulterior motives. Most guest scientists from China would come specifically for “cutting edge” technologies from the natural and engineering sciences – including laser technologies, controllable guided missiles and rocket science – in which Europe might play a pioneering role.
“In the course of its 2025 strategy, China has massively expanded its research sector since 2015 and also specifically developed cooperation between science and industry without making the slightest secret,” said Pieke. Until now, the majority of people in Europe had not been aware of the danger of an outflow of knowledge, neither in universities nor in politics.”
The so-called China strategy of the Federal Ministry of Research (BMBF) expired at the end of 2019. A spokesman for the BMBF announced that a new strategy was not planned. In view of the “dynamic developments” in China and the German-Chinese scientific cooperation, a strategy paper “no longer offers the necessary flexibility” for future cooperation. The Federal Government stands for a “coordinated national approach” in research cooperation, according to the BMBF, in regular exchange with the Alliance of German Science Organizations.
It is also not the task of universities to protect national interests and in many Western countries, security agencies, for example the protection of the constitution, must take China’s actions very seriously. In the meantime, they have warned politicians intensely about known cases of knowledge misuse or data theft by Chinese researchers.
Politicians pass this pressure on to universities and urge them to tighten security measures. “We have to oblige universities to report potential risks to the authorities,” said Pieke but it should come directly from the German Security Agencies such as the Verfassungschutz or even the Bundesnachrichtendienst.
Contracts instead of framework agreements
Pieke reports that other countries – such as the US, Australia or Japan – have had very strict, sometimes aggressive regulations for Chinese research cooperation for some time. There are also penalties there, for example for incorrect information in applications or misuse of knowledge.
“So far, there have been no consequences for offenses committed by visiting scientists in Germany and Europe,” warns Pieke.
“The terms of cooperation described therein are generally very vague. The goal and the intended application are often given very briefly or not at all,” Pieke explains. Pieke nevertheless believes that clearly formulated contracts on the rights to research data are useful and necessary.
Proposals from the Netherlands show what German cooperation strategies could look like. For example, the “Leiden Asia Center” (LAC) has created a checklist that researchers can use to check whether they have considered all aspects of their planned cooperation with China. In a report , the organization also provides detailed information about critical issues. At the same time, the LAC advises to continue working with China, “while being mindful of the dangers of both naivety as well as paranoia”.
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