Drawing of soldiers withdrawing light from light bulb (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

The Chinese government has launched an ambitious national strategy that breaks down all barriers between civilian and military research — raising enormous challenges for universities, private companies and countries worldwide.

Through a strategy called “military-civil fusion,” the Chinese Communist Party is taking advantage of the freedoms that drive innovation and is stealing others’ technology, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told a January 13 conference of Silicon Valley innovators. Nearly all of the FBI’s 1,000 open investigations into intellectual property theft are linked to China, he added.

“Under Chinese law, Chinese companies and researchers must — I repeat, must — under penalty of law, share technology with the Chinese military,” Pompeo said.

Here are a few reasons why the U.S. is concerned:

Hiding military affiliations

Soldiers marching in formation, carrying rifles and yelling (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)
China’s People’s Liberation Army plays a crucial role in the government’s scientific efforts, including the Rocket Force seen here in an October 1 parade in Beijing. (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)

Dozens of scientists from China’s People’s Liberation Army have obscured their military affiliations to travel to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. These Chinese researchers work in foreign research centers to conduct research in sensitive areas such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank in Canberra.

China’s military also has sent 2,500 scientists to foreign universities since 2008, ASPI revealed in an October 2018 report. The U.S. and United Kingdom have each received roughly 500 of those researchers, while 300 have been sent to both Australia and Canada, and Germany and Singapore have each hosted roughly 100.

“Some of those travelling overseas have actively used cover to disguise their military affiliations, claiming to be from non-existent academic institutions,” ASPI said.

Exploiting the open system of the West

Investigators from the U.S. Senate concluded that China is exploiting the transparency, reciprocity and merit-based competition that has propelled American research for decades. “These values foster a free exchange of ideas, encourage the most rigorous research results to flourish, and ensure that researchers receive the benefit of their intellectual capital,” according to the Senate report issued November 19, 2019.

“China unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain,” Senate investigators said.

For example, in 2019, China General Nuclear Power Corporation, which operates China’s civil nuclear power stations, was added to the U.S. government’s Entity List for its efforts to acquire advanced U.S. nuclear technology and divert it to military use in China.

Listed entities are suspected, on the basis of specific facts, of engaging in activities that pose a risk to U.S. national security.

There is a distinct difference between China’s military-civil fusion strategy and the policies of other nations. Many countries, including the United States, leverage the civilian sector to advance military modernization. But the United States and partners around the world have made assurances through international agreements that dual-use technology will not be diverted to military use.

The military-civil fusion strategy does the exact opposite.

Undermining key values

Pompeo, in his remarks in Silicon Valley, warned that the Chinese Communist Party’s research theft supports not only China’s military but also its increasingly repressive policies.

“Even if the Chinese Communist Party gives assurances about your technology being confined to peaceful uses, you should know there is enormous risk,” Pompeo said. “We need to make sure American principles aren’t sacrificed for prosperity.”