Understanding Ties Between China’s Research Institutions and the PLA | Kharon The Kharon Brief

Understanding Ties Between China’s Research Institutions and the PLA

By Edmund Xu and Robert Kim

April 25, 2023

A variety of academic research institutions in China work with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or internal security organizations, including those seemingly unrelated to the Chinese military or state. Western universities and research institutes seeking to collaborate with Chinese counterparts face a challenge in identifying institutions connected to the military as their governments aim to counter efforts by China to benefit its security forces. 

The Use of Aliases by State Research Institutes 

In China, research institutes and academies affiliated with state-owned defense companies often use an external-facing alias that does not include any references to their parent organization. China’s leading defense conglomerates in aerospace, armaments, aviation, electronics, and shipbuilding control hundreds of institutions nationwide that publicly go by names that lack clear indications of military affiliation.

The 48th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) was added to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List in February 2023 for its involvement in China’s surveillance balloon program. CETC, one of China’s state-owned defense conglomerates, operates dozens of research institutes nationwide, many of which have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. 

The 48th Research Institute, however, also uses the name Changsha Semiconductor Process Equipment Research Institute, which does not include the institute’s affiliation with CETC. The Entity List notice for the 48th Research Institute did not mention this alternate name. 

Civilian Universities Conducting Research for Military End Use

Some of China’s civilian universities are known for research in areas with military applications, such as armament science or aerospace, and have established relationships with entities tied to the PLA. Other universities have departments or labs that present risk of military end use. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), “knowledge of [a] university’s military-related activities is relevant and should be taken into account” when undertaking a transaction, and relevant parties are responsible for the risks if they have such knowledge.

Kharon has previously outlined in a white paper several considerations to take into account when determining military end-use risk tied to Chinese academic and research institutions, including identifying an institution’s governance structure, research areas, and partnerships.

Xidian University, located in the city of Xi’an, is a public research university focused on engineering and computer science. China’s defense industry regulator, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), formally began oversight over the university in 2008. The university has also won at least seven bids since 2020 to conduct research on various types of high technology equipment for China’s government and to supply them to PLA units, records reviewed by Kharon show. 

While some departments at Xidian University focus on research fields with no direct military significance, such as foreign languages or economics, other departments carry potential risks related to military end-use. For example, the university hosts the National Defense Key Laboratory of Antennas and Microwave Technology, which is jointly managed by SASTIND and the Equipment Development Department – the PLA's research and development and procurement arm. As of 2019, there were at least 60 similar "national defense key labs" located at various civilian universities across the country.

The governments of Western countries have launched outreach programs to raise awareness of the threat of exploitation by foreign partners and help research and academic institutions to identify risks. The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center has the Safeguarding Science initiative, which seeks to prevent the theft or misuse of sensitive research information by foreign military and security organizations. Similarly, the government of Canada has its own Safeguarding Science initiative, and has issued National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships to assist in identifying national security risks in research collaborations. 


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