162 people at TU/e have ties to (very) high-risk universities in China

At least 162 students and staff at TU/e have ties to institutions in China with a high or very high espionage risk, an investigation by Cursor revealed. According to University Lecturer Casper Wits, this is a problem, because “China sees science as a crucial part of geopolitics.” But both he and Clingendael researcher Ingrid d'Hooghe also say it’s difficult to assess this matter ‘at a general level’. You really have to look at the research field, position, and nature of the tie on a case-by-case basis.

photo NiseriN / iStock

At least 162 students and staff at TU/e have ties to universities in China with a high to very high risk of espionage.

Ingrid d’Hooghe, senior research fellow at Clingendael: “How high the risk of unwanted outflow of knowledge is depends on the nature of the ties, and the position and research fields in which these employees work. In general, it’s definitely important for the university to have a good overview of this and to make a proper analysis of the possible risks.”

Possible ties include having studied at a university, having worked there, having done research there, still working there (at the same time as at TU/e), or doing a research project in which collaboration takes place. The fields of research and backgrounds vary greatly, from AI, photonics, and radar technology, to energy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications.

Geopolitical developments

Casper Wits, University Lecturer East-Asia Studies at Leiden University, sees that China takes an entirely different perspective of science than many other countries in the West. “China sees science as a crucial part of geopolitics. Back in 2021, Xi Jinping already said that science and technology are the foremost arena of geopolitical competition, as quoted by Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau in his opinion piece in national daily De Volkskrant.” This quote by Xi can also be found in an online Chinese source.

“Policy on knowledge security is currently in the hands of universities, but if the Netherlands doesn’t start making government policy on this subject, nothing will change,” Wits believes. “Universities see government pressure to make policy as a limitation of academic freedom.”

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) even published a position paper on the Knowledge Security Screening Act in October of last year. One thing it says is that the open exchange of knowledge is essential to science and that maximum efforts should be focused on raising awareness. "Do not screen researchers on the basis of disciplines or technologies,” the document reads. “I have a different view on this,” says Wits. “I do think it’s necessary to keep scrutinizing one’s scientific collaborations.”

The Leiden-based researcher points to a 2022 article by investigative journalism platform Follow the Money, which describes how European researchers have helped China to build the world’s most modern army. "That’s what happens if you leave it up to the universities themselves. I understand scientists want to spend time on science rather than on geopolitics. But that means the government must intervene to prevent things from getting out of hand.”

Seven Sons of National Defence

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) developed a list that is internationally used to classify universities into different risk categories. The Seven Sons of Defence consist of seven universities that have close ties to the Chinese defense industry and are under military control of the army. At least twenty people at TU/e hail from or have ties with a university that’s in the Seven Sons of Defence. Besides the Seven Sons of National Defence, there are more high- and very high-risk universities that can be found in the ASPI database.


It was recently announced that Flanders is putting a total ban on new collaborations with universities belonging to the Seven Sons of National Defence. The reason is that these universities are deeply rooted in the Chinese defense industry and are under military control of the Chinese army.

In 2020, the American government barred Chinese students from the Seven Sons Universities from entering the country. Through this measure, the Donald Trump administration wanted to prevent the theft of American technology and intellectual property by China. 75% of students who graduate at one of the seven universities finds a job in the Chinese defense industry. The Seven Sons of Defence universities invest over half of their research budgets in military projects.

Critical combinations

Applying the ASPI categories (the type of university and the risk expressed as ‘low’, ‘medium’, ‘high’, and ‘very high’) to the students and staff at TU/e reveals that 96 of them have ties with a very high-risk university. In addition, there are 66 students or staff who have ties with a high-risk university. In some cases, it concerned/concerns multiple high or very high-risk universities per person. Some of the scientists are involved in very critical knowledge domains, such as defense, photonics, optics, and cybersecurity, here at TU/e. Experts say that the risk of unwanted outflow of knowledge can vary per field of expertise.

Wits: “It’s difficult to assess this matter ‘at a general level’; you’d really have to do so on a case-by-case basis. If it concerns, say, improving bike helmets, there’s no real issue. But if you have such a big group of scientists with ties to high- or very high-risk universities, a critical attitude is required by default. It emphasizes the importance of making policy in this area.”

Ingrid d’Hooghe, senior research fellow at Clingendael, agrees: “The risk depends on the nature of the ties, and the position and research fields in which these employees work. In general, it’s definitely important for the university to have a good overview of this and to make a proper analysis of the possible risks.”


Which students and researchers have ties to high- or very high-risk universities? In order to protect individuals – source protection always comes first – Cursor gives a limited examples of combinations the editorial staff saw so these cannot be traced back to individuals by outsiders.

Examples include researchers who studied and worked at a university in China that poses a very high risk of espionage and are now at TU/e conducting research into photonics, an important technology for the earning capacity of the Netherlands (both now and in the future), as well as several employees with a history at very high-risk universities that are now working at companies such as NXP, ASML, or Huawei, and researchers with very high-risk ties that are currently working in risk management.

What’s also striking is that some researchers went back to working at a high-risk university in China after their time in the Netherlands, or seem to be working there and here at the same time – this isn’t always easy to determine. The fields and backgrounds vary: from AI, photonics, and radar technology, to energy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications.

National policy

As opposed to the US and Flanders, the Netherlands doesn’t have government policy that focuses on the screening of students from high-risk universities. The General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) says it’s not working on a list of universities that require extra screening for collaborations or that are simply banned from collaborations.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science says that “the Netherlands doesn’t have lists of Chinese knowledge institutes or persons that are banned from collaborations. Knowledge institutes themselves are responsible for making a risk analysis when entering into international collaborations.”

TU/e aware of risks

TU/e spokesperson Ivo Jongsma says the university is aware of the risks in critical knowledge domains. “In recent years, the importance of knowledge security at universities increased. Although academic values – such as open science and worldwide collaboration – still serve as the foundations for successful universities, the awareness of risks grew. We take the subject of knowledge security at TU/e very seriously.”

“On the national level, TU/e has close collaborations in the area of knowledge security,” says Jongsma. “We’re a member of the working group on knowledge security of umbrella organization Universities of the Netherlands. We comply with the national guideline on knowledge security. We have a knowledge security advisory team and a mailbox to which TU/e staff can submit questions about knowledge security (knowledgesecurity@tue.nl).”

The new Knowledge Security Screening Act that is currently being developed also has the university’s attention. “We made an active contribution to the dialogue between the Ministry of Education and the knowledge institutions in preparation of the Screening Act,” says Jongsma. “We’re also working on improving our governance in the area of knowledge security and on creating a broad assessment framework.”

Clingendael researcher d’Hooghe knows that “developing policy in this area is complicated and requires a significant time investment. In comparison to the other universities of technology in the Netherlands, TU/e isn’t leading the way when it comes to the development of policy on knowledge security.” Together with Xiaoxue Martin, d’Hooghe recently published an article on CSC PhD students and the unwanted outflow of knowledge.

Advice from the ministry

The ministry indicates that Dutch universities, when making their policies, can “draw from various public sources, such as the Chinese Defence Universities Tracker by the Australian Strategy Policy Institute and the Canadian list of Named Research Organizations,” which also includes the database Cursor used. “Of course, institutions can also use the National Contact Point for Knowledge Security, which supports them in making a risk analysis,” says the ministry.

No TU/e policy yet

It turns out TU/e doesn’t have a standard screening procedure for candidates from risk universities, but spokesperson Jongsma does indicate that extra attention is paid to candidates from risk countries. “For vacancy candidates from risk countries, we make a risk assessment. This includes the candidate’s previous affiliations, but also the domain in which the vacancy is set. In case of doubt, we ask the National Contact Point for Knowledge Security for advice.”

As far as students are concerned, Jongsma says “as of yet there’s no TU/e procedure to assess new students’ ties with suspicious institutions, but we are working on one.”

As mentioned before, there are over 160 students and staff within the TU/e community that hail from and/or have ties to universities with a high or very high risk of espionage. This doesn’t mean that these students or staff are themselves engaged in espionage at TU/e. Wits does think that the lack of a national policy in the Netherlands creates a risk of unwanted outflow of knowledge, “either to the Chinese army or to inform surveillance technology.”

European tool

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science: “At a European level, the cabinet is calling for the development of a European instrument to provide insight into the risks involved in scientific collaborations with partners that have an offensive program against the EU. This could take the form of a European version of the Australian University Tracker.”

If you’re interested in this subject, we encourage you to have a look at investigative journalism platform VPRO Argos’s clear overview of the future screening policy for students and researchers from outside the EU. This also addresses the risk of discrimination, as it’s prohibited to exclude anyone on the basis of their nationality and the EU must take care to avoid doing so in the new legislation.

“Many universities are waiting for the Screening Act before they draw up their own policies,” says d’Hooghe. Click here to read the most recent letter (at the time of writing) to the House of Representatives on this Act.

How did Cursor investigate?

For this investigation, Cursor used the international database of the International Cyber Security Policy Centre from Australia. This database also includes the widely recognized Seven Sons of National Defence. Many universities in China are known under multiple names. This is also something the database takes into account.

Cursor used TU/e’s online research portal and scraped the data contained therein. Subsequently, the database and previous tips were used as a basis for making a manual risk assessment into which students and researchers could have ties to risk universities as determined in the ASPI database. The most likely cases were then manually verified using open sources.

As a result, the conclusion of this investigation should be read as ‘at least 162 individuals with ties to risk universities’, because it’s highly likely that in reality there are more as not all students and staff were studied in depth.

The journalistic investigation didn’t focus on Chinese individuals, but on ties to risk universities. This was relevant because we had received multiple signals that there are employees with ties to risk universities in China at TU/e.

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