CHINA WATCHHow a Fellow of Germany’s Humboldt Foundation Joined China's Military Commission

By Sandra Petersmann, Esther Felden, Naomi Conrad

Published 21 May 2022

Germany’s Humboldt Research Fellowships are very popular with visiting Chinese scientists. Back in China, some of them go on to do research for the Chinese military. According to the Max Planck Society, “around one-third” of all scientific management positions in China today are held by people who were trained in Germany.

This is not a spy thriller. We have therefore deliberately chosen not to name names. This is a story about the ethical gray zone of scientific collaboration between Germany and China.

There is a woman, a physicist, specializing in theoretical particle physics. After obtaining her Ph.D in China, she moves to Europe, initially for two years’ research at a renowned institute of nuclear physics in Italy. She then spends three years at two German universities in Hamburg and Mainz. Scientific cooperation with China is politically desired in Germany. The government in Berlin believes it has “special significance for the long-term stability of bilateral relations.”

But what if scientific cooperation is giving the Chinese arms industry an edge?

Today, the physicist is employed by a Chinese academy best known for its research into nuclear weapons. A scientist who worked with her and other Chinese colleagues in Germany recalls: “They were extremely focused on the technical work. Usually not very visionary, but technically extremely well thought out. And all highly motivated.”

Politics was never discussed, he says. Instead, they collaborated on basic research — the open-ended study of theoretical, rather than applied, knowledge — the practical uses for which are not always immediately apparent. “You need the basic research part for many things. Then it’s always a question of what you choose to use it for later on.”

This researcher has himself spent time at Chinese universities. The standard of scientists there has risen dramatically over the past two decades, he says. “I don’t know what specific goals China has set itself, but basic research is regarded as very strategically important. You see that everywhere.”

China’s Nuclear Weapons Program
The China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), where the physicist now works, also carries out a great deal of basic research. Above all, though, this top academy is the only place where China continues to develop its nuclear warheads. Alex Joske, a China expert in Australia whose research focuses on technology transfer, told DW the CAEP has been “involved in several cases of espionage targeting foreign nuclear technology” and is “probably one of the scariest and most concerning parts of China’s research system.”