By Kirsty Needham and Stine Jacobsen
SYDNEY/COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – A Chinese professor at the University of Copenhagen conducted genetic research with the Chinese military without disclosing the connection, the university told Reuters, in the latest example of how China’s pursuit of military-civilian technology is tapping into Western academia in the strategically sensitive area of biotechnology.
The professor, Guojie Zhang, is also employed by Shenzhen-based genomics giant BGI Group, which funds dozens of researchers at the university and has its European headquarters on the university’s campus.
Zhang and a student he was supervising worked with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory on research exposing monkeys to extreme altitude to study their brains and develop new drugs to prevent brain damage – a priority the PLA has identified for Chinese troops operating on high plateau borders.
Zhang co-published that paper with a PLA major general in January 2020. At the time the study was published, the university was “not familiar with the fact that the paper also included authors from Chinese military research institutions,” Niels Kroer, head of its biology department, told Reuters in an email.
Zhang confirmed that he did not inform the university of the link because the university didn’t require researchers to report co-authors on scientific papers to it, which the university confirmed. BGI said the study with the PLA lab “was not carried out for military purposes” and brain research is a critical area for understanding human diseases. China’s government science academy said the study had national defence and civilian benefits on the Tibetan plateau.
Concerns about China’s fusion of military and civilian technology, and about universities transferring sensitive technology to China that could help its military, have grown in the United States in recent years. Washington agreed last month to work with the European Union on the issue under a new joint technology and trade council. A U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military power this month flagged concern over Beijing using biotechnology to enhance its soldiers’ performance.
The Danish incident, reported here for the first time, shows how China’s pursuit of biotechnology with a military use has also become an issue for universities in Europe.
The European Commission says it is developing guidelines on “tackling foreign interference” at higher education institutions; a 2020 report from the Leiden Asia Centre, an independent group affiliated with Leiden University in the Netherlands, found at least five countries in Europe had concerns about the risks of research collaboration with China. Some universities, including Copenhagen, have long had close science ties to China.
Copenhagen university and two large Danish foundations who funded some of Zhang’s work said they discovered China’s military was involved only after one of the foundations saw it had been credited, incorrectly, with financing the monkey study. The work was funded by the Chinese government and military, the paper said.
The discovery came as Denmark’s intelligence agency, PET, warned Danish universities in May of the national security risks of being unwittingly involved in foreign military research, citing “a number of espionage activities and other foreign interference,” and a student who co-authored research into 5G technology with an engineer from a Chinese military university. It declined to comment on specific cases.
The Chinese Academy of Science, where Zhang also has a genetics lab, said of the study at the time that brain damage and death caused by high altitude on the Tibetan plateau had severely hindered “national defence construction.”
Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science declined to comment on the altitude study, but said export control rules apply to some technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. The Danish Business Authority said most types of gene technology are not on its export control list.
The ministry said it had launched a broad review of the risks of international research cooperation, led by top university heads, to conclude at the start of next year.
The University of Copenhagen expects the review of “ethical and security policy limits” for collaboration will result in new rules for universities – and greater focus on the risks, its deputy director for research and innovation Kim Brinckmann told Reuters in an email.
“We are very proud to have Prof. Zhang … as one of our very highly performing researchers,” he said. The university did not respond to a question about how much funding BGI provides it.
China’s foreign ministry said it urged Danish institutions to “abandon ideological prejudice and end groundless accusations and smears,” and treat their research cooperation rationally “to accrue positive energy in the development of bilateral relations and practical cooperation.”
Zhang and the head of the PLA laboratory for high-altitude research, Major General Yuqi Gao, designed the study, which also lists BGI founders Wang Jian and Yang Huanming as co-authors. BGI’s other joint research with Gao has involved soldiers in Tibet and Xinjiang, Reuters reported in January.
That report was cited by two U.S. senators who called in September for BGI to be sanctioned by the United States as a military-linked company. Gao’s research has directly improved the ability of China’s rapid-advance plateau troops to carry out training and combat missions, according to the Chinese military’s official news service.
China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences launched a four-year plan in 2012 for troops to acclimatise and adapt to the low-oxygen Tibetan plateau. That plan said BGI was working with Gao’s lab to test soldiers arriving in Tibet and identify genes linked to altitude sickness, which does not affect Tibetans. It said preventing altitude sickness helped to “manage border areas where ethnic minorities gather,” and had far-reaching economic and political significance.
BGI told Reuters the research with the military university aimed to understand the health risk for all people travelling to and working at high altitude.
“The project using BGI’s technology studied the changes of the pathophysiology and genomics of the human body at very high altitudes,” a BGI spokesman said. “In China, many military institutions … carry out both civilian and military research,” he added.
Gao wrote in 2018 that high altitude disease “is the main reason for reduced combat effectiveness and health damage of soldiers at high altitudes and influences the results of war on the highland plateau,” and noted that drugs could be used in an emergency for the rapid deployment of soldiers.
China’s military has recently increased live fire drills in Tibet after border clashes with India.
The University of Copenhagen has one of Europe’s oldest genetics institutes, and it is BGI’s biggest international research partner by count of science papers.
The ties run deep. Two former BGI chief executives, BGI’s chairman, and the founder of its animal cloning programme previously studied or worked at Copenhagen. The university hosts more than two dozen BGI-funded researchers undertaking science and health doctorates.
Biology head Kroer told Reuters the university had been unaware of “claims that BGI has connections with the PLA.” The university said that other than Zhang’s salary as a professor, no Danish money was spent on the study, which animal rights activists have argued subjected the animals to suffering and distress.
The student Zhang worked with was in China and employed by BGI, the university said. Zhang’s research team was not involved in the animal experiments performed in China, but did analyse the genomic data generated from the experiments, it added.
The Lundbeck Foundation, which primarily funds brain research and was incorrectly listed as a funder of the monkey brain study, “has not supported this area of his research, nor do we have any knowledge about it,” a spokesman said of the monkey brain project. Lundbeck said Zhang had told them he was studying ants and genetics and how this could explain brain processes in humans.
The foundation said it asked Zhang this year to remove its name from the study. The Carlsberg Foundation, which controls the world’s third-largest brewer and said it gave Zhang a DKK 4 million ($623,000) fellowship in 2016, also told Reuters it had been incorrectly listed as funding the project.
The paper was published in a Chinese journal, Zoological Research, which declined to comment.
Zhang is on the journal’s editorial board. He told Reuters the two Danish foundations were mentioned in the paper by mistake. “We did not spend any funding from the grants I received from these two foundations on this project,” he added in an email. The journal published a correction removing the foundations’ names in March 2021.
Lundbeck declined to comment on what impact the discovery might have; Carlsberg has said animal experiments conducted overseas must comply with Danish regulations, but did not comment on the military involvement.
In June 2020, the University of Copenhagen decided to close a think tank it had run with Shanghai’s Fudan University since 2013, saying it had adjusted its overall cooperation strategy.
The decision prompted a debate about China inside the university, documents obtained by Reuters under freedom of information rules show. The university held a meeting in August 2020 to discuss the closure of Fudan and review its collaboration with China.
“China has engaged in a strategic civil-military fusion of research that often blurs the lines to the outsider,” China Studies professor Jorgen Delman said in a note to the university’s head afterwards, recommending better screening of Chinese researchers and consultations with Danish military intelligence to advise on “risks and no-go areas.” He declined to comment further.
Genetic cloning technology was transferred to BGI after a researcher, Yutao Du, received her doctorate in 2007 with a team from Danish universities that created the world’s first pigs using a technique called handmade cloning. She was praised by the Chinese government for bringing the technology to China, which went on to clone genetically modified pigs for the study of human neurological illnesses.
China’s national science programme said cloned pigs were a stepping stone to chimeras, a controversial area where China wanted to lead the world. Chimeras are organisms composed of cells from two or more species that may be capable of growing organs for human transplantation.
Du is now vice president at BGI Genomics Ltd, and won promotion within the Chinese Communist Party, becoming a delegate to its national congress in 2017. She did not respond to a request for comment.
(Kirsty Needham reported from Sydney, Stine Jacobsen from Copenhagen; Edited by Sara Ledwith)