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MIT Technology Review

How suspicions of spying threaten cross-border science

An intelligence startup warns that China is exploiting Western quantum scientists for military ends. The evidence is thin, but tensions are rising.

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Quantum technology has the potential to alter the face of both cyber and kinetic warfare, with advances like ultra-secure communications, radar that can spot “stealth” aircraft, and new navigation systems. China, the United States, and other countries are pouring billions into their quantum efforts. In the West, there are worries that China will pull ahead.

Now a new report from an American intelligence startup called Strider alleges that China is getting its lead in quantum by “exploit[ing] Western government research funding to train Chinese quantum scientists at Western research institutes.” At the center of this strategy is Jian-Wei Pan, a man known in Beijing as the country’s “father of quantum,” according to the report, viewed by MIT Technology Review.

The report details the close partnership between the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), where Pan works, and Germany’s Heidelberg University, as well as several other Western schools. It also points to several relationships between USTC and Chinese government-funded defense contractors that have recently invested and advanced in quantum tech.

Strider’s conclusion—that China is effectively using European and American funding and cooperation to develop military applications for quantum tech—mirrors in some ways a Senate report from earlier this month.

But the scientists, including Pan and Matthias Weidemüller, dean of the department of physics at the University of Heidelberg, dispute the accusations and warn against closing off the international scientific relationships they have spent their entire careers building. In a series of emails to MIT Technology Review, Pan denied working directly with the Chinese military or the nation’s defense contractors on quantum-related military technology.

The Strider report admits it has no direct evidence of a connection between the scientific researchers and military applications. But it highlights—and plays into—the growing anxiety in Washington about China’s growing technological and military prowess.

How China’s “Talent Plans” got the West worried

Pan’s career, spanning Europe and Asia, has put him at the head of an international team at the USTC that’s made fundamental breakthroughs in quantum technology. Near the top is Micius, a satellite that can transmit secure communications, for which Pan served as chief scientist. He has won praise and attention from China’s president, Xi Jinping.

The Strider report scrutinizes China’s “Talent Plans,” government-funded projects that use signing bonuses, attractive salaries, research funding, and lab resources to attract both Chinese and international scientists. The Thousand Talents Plan (千人计划) has brought thousands of scientists to China—including Pan himself, who had spent several years studying and working in Europe before returning home.

“The level of targeting and coordination in academic collaboration is questionable at best and quite problematic considering USTC’s ties to military research, which are very evident and apparently increasing,” says Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has done extensive work chronicling China’s quantum ambitions.

Strider is a new startup funded mainly by DataTribe, a DC-area venture capital firm famous for spinning out a series of successful companies based on technology from within US intelligence agencies. The founders are two twin brothers, Greg and Eric Levesque, and Mike Brown, former CTO of the marketing analytics firm Comscore. The Levesque twins have backgrounds in US government intelligence analysis and finance.

“Academic openness and collaboration must be protected,” Greg Levesque says. But, he argues, “Universities have an important role to play in protecting their institutions from foreign governments intent on leveraging their researchers, discoveries, and facilities to advance their national strategic interests, especially when this work could enhance an adversary’s military capability.” 

Strider’s report shows that Pan signed a cooperation agreement in April 2018 between USTC and the military contractor China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a company owned by the Chinese government and best known in the West for its policing app in use in Xinjiang. 

Pan says the agreement involved work with USTC’s electrical engineering group, not the quantum group. The Strider report notes, however, that seven months after the USTC cooperation agreement was signed, CETC developed a prototype quantum radar to detect stealth aircraft. The company claims the technology uses the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to identify objects that would otherwise be “invisible” to conventional radar. If true—a big if—it could fundamentally change how a major war is fought.

Another example the Strider report offers is the Micius satellite, which is meant to guarantee the security of transmitted data against even the world’s most advanced eavesdroppers. As that project reached its apex, Pan helped forge an agreement with a Chinese government-owned military contractor, the China Industry Shipbuilding Corporation (CISC), to establish labs in “quantum guidance, quantum communication, and quantum detection.”

Pan told MIT Technology Review that the research from this agreement is for civilian use. Once again, however, there’s suggestive evidence to the contrary. A few months after the USTC-CISC agreement was signed, a CSIC executive, Fan Guoping, told Chinese state media that the defense contracting company was cooperating with Pan’s team “to strive to seize the commanding heights of quantum information technology in the application area of naval defense.” 

“This is all done in the name of ‘international scientific cooperation’ while the same Western-trained Chinese scientists simultaneously collaborate with Chinese defense companies to develop military applications for quantum technologies,” the Strider report says.

Yet despite strong and provocative language about the “compromise” and “exploitation” of Western research institutes, the report stops well short of alleging outright espionage, as the FBI did in the cases of other scientists in a Senate hearing about Chinese talent programs last week.

In fact, on the report’s very last page, there is a footnote that appears to undermine the main report’s key claims: “At this time, Strider does not have any information indicating that these scientists or organizations knowingly or directly contributed to the development of military applications of quantum technologies for PRC defense enterprises or the People’s Liberation Army.”

What Western scientists have to say about working with China

Scientists from different countries who have joined Chinese talent programs talked to MIT Technology Review about the growing suspicion, particularly in the United States, of their cross-border work. They said that despite the fears, the open and transparent science they engage in benefits the Western world as much as its benefits China, and they strongly deny being “compromised” or knowingly participating in any overarching Chinese military strategy.

“In basic science, I can go to my fiercest competitor’s lab and share what I’m doing and we’ll enjoy the exchange of ideas,” says Weidemüller, who as part of the Thousand Talents Plan works with Pan (himself a former researcher at Heidelberg) on quantum science at USTC. 

“China makes us Westerners feel uncomfortable because over the years they became a serious competitor,” Weidemüller says. “As scientists, however, we love competition if it’s friendly, because it leads to a gain in human knowledge.”

“Everything I do is published in scientific journals,” says Barry Sanders, a theoretical physicist at the University of Calgary, who participates in a Chinese talent program and also works with the quantum group at USTC. “If anyone thinks I’m compromising national security—if my government came to me and asked me to stop, I will stop. I’ve made that clear repeatedly.”

China’s own eagerness to tout its quantum prowess may also be exacerbating the West’s anxiety. The quantum radar advance cited in the Strider report got a lot of attention and praise, especially from Chinese media. Quantum scientists, though, are more skeptical.

“The level of concern over quantum radar is utter nonsense,” says Michael Biercuk, a professor of quantum physics and quantum technology at the University of Sydney. “Quantum radar is little more than a theoretical proposal with a few basic lab demos. There is no substantive evidence that it can or will render stealth ineffective.” 

Biercuk, who is also the CEO and founder of the quantum tech company Q-CTRL, is similarly skeptical of Micius’s achievements in quantum key distribution (QKD), the secure communication technology in which Pan’s team has done groundbreaking work: “QKD is not ‘unbreakable’ or unhackable,” he says. “The actual advantages are overblown by analysts who don’t understand the technical foundations of the field and by media propagandists who are aiming to sell a narrative of technical superiority.”

Sanders, Weidemüller, and others named in the Strider report, who declined to be quoted on the record, disputed its conclusions. Weidemüller criticized what he says is the report’s lack of insight into the general practices of scientific work and international scientific cooperation.

“Obviously, the writers of the report have never been involved in science,” he said. “Scientists like to exchange knowledge—compete, but still learn from each other.”

Strider confirmed that no quantum scientists worked on the report. Its analysts hail from the worlds of intelligence and national security, two realms in tension with the international collaboration that’s fundamental to how science works.

Can science and security co-exist?

These tensions between the spies and the scientists are out in the open in Washington. The Trump administration has repeatedly expressed concern about scientific collaboration with China, causing alarm among Chinese scientists in the United States.

American intelligence and science experts went before Congress in November to testify about the dangers posed by Chinese talent plans. A report last month from the Senate Homeland Security committee warned about threats to American scientific and technological supremacy. The American intelligence community considers China’s advancing technological capabilities a strategic threat

“The Chinese government knows that economic strength and scientific innovation are the keys to global influence and military power,” said John Brown, the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence, at the recent Senate hearing. “Beijing aims to acquire our technology—often in the early stages of development—as well as our expertise, to erode our competitive advantage and supplant the United States as a global superpower.”

In the face of the Strider report’s assertions that his program is part of a Chinese national strategy to exploit European and Western resources for the benefit of the Chinese military, Pan doubled down on what he said is his core concern: exploring fundamental questions in quantum science, like superposition, entanglement, nonlocality, and gravity. 

“As a matter of fact, the whole field of quantum information was born from questions in the fundamental issues in quantum mechanics,” Pan said in an email. “I think Einstein would not predict that his research would inspire Peter Shor to discover Shor’s algorithm for factoring large numbers, which seems to have direct military use (the only really military-related application, in my opinion). And the recent Google victory in quantum supremacy clearly indicates that the United States is leading the field of quantum computing, which may one day lead to military use.”

When he spoke about the tensions between national security and academic openness, Weidemüller, the German scientist at Heidelberg University, evoked the specter of the Berlin Wall.

“Concerning China, what is the alternative?” he said. “Should we shut down? Should we have new walls? Even in the Cold War, scientists tried and succeeded to meet. After the walls came down, these scientific forces were the first to forge new connections again. In East Germany, we know what happens when societies close themselves. Of course, we take a risk that they go back and use that knowledge to support the PRC government or defense industry, but by them coming here, we get to know what they think and what they do. What is the alternative?”