UK taxpayers may be funding research for China’s defence project

Katherine Rushton
A security officer stands guard as plainclothes personnel march in formation outside the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing - AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Experts fear British taxpayers could inadvertently be contributing to funding the Chinese defence programme, after millions of pounds of public funds were poured into technology research undertaken in collaboration with controversial Chinese universities known for their military links.

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council distributed more than £6.5 million to British universities including Manchester for technology studies that were undertaken with these controversial Chinese institutions, according to disclosures on academic papers.

While the research programmes focused on technologies that could be used for civilian purposes, experts have warned that they also have the potential to be used for military applications, prompting fears that taxpayer-funded research by British universities could be exploited by Beijing.

In two cases, researchers even stated on their grant application forms that the technologies they were looking at could have “both civilian and military applications” or be used for “military controlling”.

The disclosure comes days after The Telegraph revealed that Huawei has also backed a string of research projects linking British universities with Chinese defence institutions, which focused on these so-called “dual use” technologies.

Huawei denies any wrongdoing.  

Experts have now warned that the studies funded by the EPSRC may be part of a worrying pattern of partnerships between British universities and Chinese universities that are known for their strong military ties – and that they could be used to fuel both China’s controversial surveillance regime and its declared ambition to become the world’s most powerful military force by 2049.

On Sunday night, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith said the collaborations were “tantamount to transfer of technologies to the Chinese government” and accused the EPSRC and British universities of “living in a naïve world”.

“You cannot say that there is any [Chinese] institution that is safe from the reach of that government… If they take technology as part of a market position, they can use it for other things.”

His warning comes as Beijing faces growing international hostility over its handling of the coronavirus crisis and attempts to crush dissent in Hong Kong.  

The EPSRC defended the payments. Executive chairwoman Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said: “These grants were fully consistent with government policy. All UK funding was directed to fund research by UK universities.”

A spokesman added that it allocates funding to research projects rather than individual papers “through the lens of the quality of academic research”, and that it is for individual universities to decide who they work with as long as there is no legal breach and the other universities cover their own costs. 

A Telegraph investigation identified seven papers that were undertaken by British institutions in partnership with Chinese universities, as part of research programmes that accessed EPSRC grants totalling £6,637,875.

The funding body is one of nine organisations that make up UK Research and Innovation, which states on its website that it is “principally funded” by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Two of the papers were co-authored by researchers at China's so-called "Seven Sons of National Defence", universities tasked with developing China's defence programme, and six were undertaken with the in-house academy for the People's Liberation Army.

Of the money dished out by the EPSRC, £305,891 went to the University of Manchester for research it undertook with Beihang University – an institution sanctioned by America for its work on rockets and drones.

The grant application to EPSRC boasted that it would could be used for “environmental monitoring or military controlling".

A spokesman for the University of Manchester said: “We carry out due diligence on all research collaborations and we have clear ethical and intellectual property polices and guidelines which all our researchers, overseas and domestic, must adhere to as part of their professional contracts.”

Six of the papers were also funded by Huawei, and the remaining one was worked on by its researchers. The company has insisted that they all focused on “common areas of research for telecoms equipment suppliers”, and that it has strict rules to ensure the research it backs is not used for military purposes.

“We do not conduct military research either directly, or indirectly, nor do we work on military or intelligence projects for the Chinese government or any other government,” a spokesman said.