Approximately 2,500 researchers from Chinese military universities have infiltrated Western universities over the past decade, focusing on the so-called "Five Eyes" group of countries, reports the Financial Times, citing a new report from Australian government-funded think tank, the Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

According to the report, many of the Chinese researchers failed to disclose their military affiliations, while publishing a large volume of joint papers with Western scientists which can help Beijing's technological ambitions. 

Over the past five years, researchers affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army published more joint papers with scientists from the UK and the US than with those of any other country.

The findings will fuel the debate raging in some western capitals over how to control the flow of cutting-edge and especially dual-use technology to Beijing — one of the main fronts in their struggle to adapt to a rapidly rising China.

The PLA’s international research collaboration “focuses on hard sciences, especially emerging and dual-use technologies”, said Alex Joske, author of the report that is being published by ASPI today. Dual-use technology has civilian and military applications. -Financial Times

Joske found that the most dominant areas for collaboration between Chinese and foreign researchers were navigation technology, computer science and artificial intelligence (AI)

In one example, several researchers visited UK universities and are continuing joint research on topics such as combustion in scramjet engines, which could power hypersonic aircraft capable of flying at six times the speed of sound. Wang Zhenguo, deputy chief of the PLA’s scramjet programme and head of the department of postgraduate studies at the NUDT, has co-authored 18 papers with foreign scientists. -Financial Times

Another Scramjet researcher and aircraft design expert for the PLA's General Armaments Department, Huang Wei, worked on his PhD while at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010, according to a researcher at the UK university. Another Chinese scramjet expert, Luo Wenlei, wrote his PhD thesis on scramjet engines while at Leeds in 2014. Both Luo and Huang along with Luo's doctoral thesis supervisors have published together with Gen Wang on the scramjet technology. 

Qin Ning, a professor at the University of Sheffield involved in some of the exchanges with Chinese scramjet experts, said their joint research was fundamentally academic in nature. “I have not [been] involved in military related research myself or with the visitors while they [were] at Sheffield. Similarly the visitors [were not] involved in military related research while in Sheffield,” Prof Qin said.

He added that a number of EU-China collaborative projects strongly encouraged by the university — with the participation of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which is administered by the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, China’s weapons industry regulator — had produced “fruitful collaboration”. -Financial Times

One of the most commonly pushed collaborations has come from the PLA's Rocket Force - which includes Beijing's nuclear weapons and missile programs. One of the leading Chinese missile experts, Major General Hu Changhua, spent three months at Germany's University of Duisburg-Essen in 2008, while another RFEU lecturer, Zhou Zhijie, was a visiting scholar at the University of Manchester in 2009. Both Changhua and Zhijie concealed their afficilation with RFEU and instead named the Xi'an Research Institute of High Technology - which doesn't exist. The two continue to publish in English based on this falsified affiliation, according to entries in digital science publication databases. 

The professors in question either did not respond for comment, or denied working directly for the PLA: 

Liu Ling, a professor at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing who works on big data and cloud computing, has co-published papers with scientists from the NUDT according to the digital library of IEEE, a scientists’ association.

She told the FT that her work with NUDT visiting scholars “has been on pure (fundamental) research” and unrelated to military applications, adding: “While I am not familiar with all of Georgia Tech collaborations, I know for sure that I have never worked with PLA directly”. -Financial Times

That, according to defense experts, is splitting hairs. While many of those employed by PLA-affiliated universities are so-called "civilian cadres" who focus on science not intended for combat, they are still members of the PLA, while NUDT is supervised by China's governing military body, the Central Military Commission. In 2015 the US government added NUDT to a list of organizations which require a more thorough vetting before licensing the transfer of any item to them, including technology, under the Export Administration Regulations. 

Meanwhile, in February FBI Director Christopher Wray informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese intelligence operatives have infiltrated American universities, “whether its professors, scientists, students;” the FBI must launch surveillance operations from its fifty-six field offices to monitor the situation. Wray emphasized that China is determined to dethrone the United States as a global superpower through unconventional means. He framed the infiltration as both a governmental and a societal threat to the American empire.

"One of the things we're trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end"

Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray discussed the infiltration of Chinese operatives at America’s most prestigious academic institutions - adding that the vast network of Chinese operatives are very concerning and requires participation from all of the FBI’s field offices across the country. Specifically, Wary stated that the FBI is “watching” programs at dozens of Confucius Institutes, funded by China’s Ministry of Education that are widely embedded within American universities and public schools to teach the Mandarin language.

The Confucius Institute program, which started operations in 2004, has been the subject of vast criticisms, concerns, and controversies during its international expansion. Many such concerns stem from the program’s close relationship to the Communist Party of China.

According to the South China Morning Post, some 350,000 Chinese students are actively enrolled at American universities, which is about thirty-five percent of the one million foreigners, said the Institute of International Education.

Wray describes China’s approach to weaken the U.S. from within. Its “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence and technology, have not just been in the business community of stealing patents but now the disease has infected academia.

“I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray said.

Over the course of a decade, China’s Ministry of Education through its proxy of Confucius Institutes has embedded itself into more than 100 public and private universities, colleges, and even high schools in the United States. What is even more astonishing is that several hundred more Confucius Classrooms teach Mandarin at elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

So far, the Chinese appear to be in the process of systematically dismantling the American empire without firing a shot.