A congressional committee focusing on national security threats from China said it has « serious concerns » about a research partnership between the University of California, Berkeley, and several Chinese entities, arguing the collaboration’s advanced research could help the government China to gain an economic, technological or military advantage.
In a letter sent last week to officials of the Berkeley system and the University of California, the House Select Committee on the Communist Party of China requested extensive information about the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute, a collaboration started in 2014 with the prestigious Tsinghua University Chinese and the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The letter pointed to the institute’s research into some « dual-use technologies » that both civilian and military institutions employ, such as advanced semiconductors and imaging technology used to map terrain or drive autonomous cars.
The committee also questioned whether Berkeley had adequately disclosed Chinese funding for the institute, and cited its partnerships with Chinese universities and companies that have come under U.S. sanctions in recent years, such as the National University of Defense Technologytelecommunications company Huawei and Chinese drone maker DJI.
He also said that Berkeley faculty who serve at the institute have received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other US funding to develop military applications, raising concerns about China’s access to such experts.
In April, for example, a team from a Shenzhen-based lab that describes itself as supported by the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute said it had won a contest in China to optimize a type of advanced chip technology that the US government is now trying to prevent Chinese companies from acquiring, the letter said.
It’s unclear what role the university played in that project, or whether the partnership, or the institute’s other activities, would violate US restrictions on China’s access to the technology. In October, the United States set meaningful limits on the type of advanced semiconductor technology that could be shared with Chinese entities, saying the activity poses a threat to national security.
“PRC-backed Berkeley collaboration with Tsinghua University raises many red flags,” the letter said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It was signed by Representatives Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and committee chair, and Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, chair of the education and workforce committee.
In a statement to the New York Times, UC Berkeley said it took national security concerns « very seriously » and was committed to fully complying with laws governing international academic engagement.
« The campus is reviewing past agreements and actions involving or related to Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute » and « will fully and transparently cooperate with any federal requests, » he said.
The university also said it has responded to requests from the Department of Education with detailed information about gifts and contracts related to the institution, that it is committed to fully complying with the laws governing such agreements, and that it is « following the lead set by Congress and federal regulators in evaluating proposed research relationships with foreign entities.
The universities also pointed out that foreign governments may have little to gain from infiltrating such partnerships, since academic researchers focus on fundamental research which, while potentially valuable, is readily published in academic journals for all to see.
« In principle, Berkeley conducts research that is published openly for the entire global scientific community, » the university said in its statement.
The letter, and other allegations of members of Congress on US universities with partners in China, point out how a rapidly evolving US-China relationship is putting new pressure on academic partnerships that have been set up to share information and break down barriers between countries.
The Chinese government has sought to enhance the country’s technological capacity through legitimate business partnerships, as well as espionage, cyber theft and coercion. These efforts — coupled with an agenda to merge military and civilian innovation — have led to a backlash in the United States against ties to Chinese academic institutions and private companies that might have seemed relatively innocuous a decade ago.
The select committee, set up this year, describes its mission as building consensus on the threat posed by the Communist Party of China and developing a plan to defend the United States. The bipartisan committee, led by Republicans, can make legislative recommendations but cannot legislate alone. He has been busy naming and shaming big companies and others for ties to China in hearings, investigations, and congressional letters.
Tensions between the United States and China are running high, and some lawmakers have called for the decoupling of the two economies. But severing academic ties is a tricky prospect. American universities are geared towards open and collaborative research and count many Chinese scholars in their workforce. China’s significant technology industry and huge number of science and technology doctorates make it a natural magnet for many research collaborations.
However, the rapid expansion of export controls in the United States is placing further restrictions on the type of information and data related to advanced technologies that can be legally shared with individuals and organizations in China. Under the new rules, even bringing a laptop with a certain chip design to China or giving a Chinese citizen a tour of an advanced chip lab in the United States could violate the law.
The House committee asked the university to provide extensive documents and information by July 27 on the partnership, including funding, structure and technology work; the current and past affiliations of its alumni; and its compliance with US export controls.