A Chinese professor at a top European university is reported to have cooperated with his country’s military without revealing the matter to his superiors. He is said to have been involved in conducting genetic research intended to help Chinese soldiers cope with high-altitude deployments.
The professor, Guojie Zhang, worked at Denmark’s University of Copenhagen and is also employed by BGI Group, a Shenzhen-based genomics giant that sponsors dozens of researchers at the university. The company also has its European headquarters on the university’s premises.
Zhang, along with a student under his charge, worked with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory on an experiment that involved exposing monkeys to high altitudes to study their brains, with the broader aim of producing new drugs to prevent brain damage. The PLA had established this as a prime concern for soldiers deployed at the high plateau frontiers.
In January 2020, Zhang co-published his paper on the topic together with military general Yuqi Gao, the head of the PLA’s altitude research laboratory. The paper also listed two of BGI’s founders as co-authors.
University unaware of Zhang’s research
Niels Kroer, head of the biology department, told Reuters in an email that the university was “not familiar with the fact that the paper also included authors from Chinese military research institutions.”
Zhang stated that the details of the link were not disclosed to the university. This is because the university doesn’t obligate the researchers to report co-authors of scientific papers.
BGI claimed that the research at the PLA lab was not carried out on military grounds and a systematic study of the brain was crucial to gain knowledge on human illnesses. China’s government science academy claimed the study was advantageous for civilian and national defense on the Tibetan plateau.
Two Danish foundations and the Copenhagen University, which sponsored some of ZHang’s work, only came to realize that China’s military was involved in the research after one of the foundations discovered they had been falsely credited with funding the study. According to the paper, the work was backed by the Chinese government and military.
Kroer stated that the university had no idea of “claims that BGI has connections with the PLA.” Other than Zhang’s salary as a professor, the university claimed that no Danish funds were used for the study.
Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science refused to address the altitude study. However, they claimed that regulations on export control are applicable to certain technologies that can be used for both military and civilian purposes. A comprehensive study on the risks of international research cooperation will be conducted by the ministry. It will be presided over by top university leaders and conclude at the start of next year.
One of Europe’s oldest genetics institutes is located at the University of Copenhagen. According to science papers, it is also BGI’s largest international research partner. There are over two dozen BGI-funded researchers pursuing health and science doctorates.
China’s integration of military and civilian technology as well as the acquisition of sensitive technologies from foreign universities have raised concerns in the U.S. Under a new joint technology and trade council, Washington decided to work with the European Union last month to tackle this problem.
The use of biotechnology by China to boost the performance of its soldiers was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Defense this month. The development in Denmark also shows how China’s quest for biotechnology for military uses is becoming a problem for European universities.