How China’s military–civil fusion policy ties into its push for world-class universities
19 May 2021|

When the University College Cork in Ireland withdrew from a partnership with Minzu University of China (MUC) in 2021, speculation cited concerns linking MUC with human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This included the arrest of a Uyghur professor at MUC who was accused of separatism and escalating ethnic tensions.

The speculation, however, failed to unveil MUC’s direct involvement in developing technologies used to oppress ethnic minorities in China.

MUC and Xinjiang University are two universities under the ‘double first-class university plan’ which is intended to provide 42 elite Chinese universities with resources to become ‘world-class’ universities. Both are working on speech– and facial-recognition technologies used to target ethnic minorities.

These two universities host joint research institutes with iFlytek, a Chinese company sanctioned in October 2019 after being implicated in human rights violations against Uyghurs, and faculty members have worked on projects commissioned by the company.

Xinjiang University and iFlytek jointly run a speech and language research laboratory, through which iFlytek leverages the university’s Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Arabic language expertise contributing to China’s ‘speech and language information industry’.

The lab’s research could enhance iFlytek’s speech-recognition technology, such as its ‘voiceprint’ system that can compare a recording from a phone or app against a database of tens of millions of voices.

The face- and speech-recognition technologies developed by these universities are powered by artificial intelligence, a high priority technology under China’s military–civil fusion (MCF) strategy. Through MCF, China seeks to leverage the research and development capabilities of universities to advance both the country’s domestic economy and national defence apparatus.

The double first-class universities plan works to integrate universities into this MCF research and development pipeline where they’re expected to serve as an integral source of science and technology innovation, bolstering research outcomes in the military and civilian sectors.

The plan evolved from previous initiatives, including the 211 project and the more selective 985 project, established in 1995 and 1998. All 39 of the universities in the 985 project were selected as double first-class universities, indicating that they’ve been cultivated for this type of work for more than two decades.

A new update to ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre’s China Defence Universities Tracker, built by then ASPI analyst Alex Joske in 2019, has added 15 new universities. They include 11 of the remaining 42 double first-class universities not originally covered in the tracker, in addition to Guangdong University of Technology, the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dalian Maritime University and Southern University of Science and Technology. As well as the addition of new universities, we have also updated existing university entries on the tracker.

China’s top universities, especially those under the double first-class plan, are intended to excel in scientific research to enable the two-way transformation of military and civilian science and technology. Several have established transfer centres that facilitate the development of technology for MCF.

Guangdong University of Technology, for example, jointly founded the Guangdong National Defence Science and Technology Application Promotion Centre, which produces equipment including military robots, automatic anti-aircraft missiles and other missile defence systems. Because universities are positioned to collaborate on research, these technology transfer centres can apply research outcomes from international cooperation to their own R&D.

Southern University of Science and Technology leverages its overseas cooperation to improve research outcomes for its technology transfer centre. The centre explicitly seeks to collaborate with overseas research institutes including California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich and the National University of Singapore, among others.

Zhengzhou University, one of the 11 double first-class universities identified above, has integrated very effectively into the MCF system. It has close ties with the Information Engineering University, which is affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army and known to carry out offensive cyber operations.

The two universities signed an MCF cooperation agreement in the field of cybersecurity and informatisation in 2018 with plans to establish a joint cybersecurity centre.

Zhengzhou University also hosts the National Supercomputer (Zhengzhou) Centre which, in April, was added to the list of entities considered to be conducting activities ‘contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States’ because of its work on ‘supercomputers used by China’s military actors, its destabilizing military modernization efforts, and/or weapons of mass destruction programs’.

The updated tracker now includes entries on nearly 100 civilian universities, 50 PLA institutions, China’s nuclear weapons program, three Ministry of State Security institutions, four Ministry of Public Security universities and 12 state-owned defence industry conglomerates.

As these universities continue to accelerate their integration into China’s MCF system, it will be important to continue to monitor their activities and contributions. It’s equally important for governments, universities and private companies around the world to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to inform their collaboration with, and funding of, Chinese research institutions.

The tracker (and accompanying report)—which has become ASPI’s second-most-visited research product of all time—has attracted a global audience with enormous traffic from the US and China, followed by Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, France, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Russia and India. With this audience, the tracker aims to build understanding of the implications of the expansion of China’s military–civil fusion.

The tracker continues to be a free, public tool to help universities, governments and the business community conduct better due diligence as they navigate their engagement and collaboration with entities from China.