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Swiss universities on guard against Chinese espionage

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Several Swiss universities are putting the brakes on cooperation with China. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Swiss universities are turning to the intelligence services with their concerns over knowledge espionage by China.  Chinese scientists and doctoral students are hired with considerable caution, if at all,  the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper reported.

The suspicion that Chinese researchers pass on information from the Western scientific world to Beijing has led some Swiss universities to strengthen their cooperation with Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service, according to the Swiss weekly. Others have scrapped research collaboration efforts.

The Chinese law on intelligence clearly states that all citizens must cooperate with the national intelligence service, the newspaper noted. And the researchers most loyal to Beijing typically benefit from grants for stays abroad.

Two-prong Chinese strategy

“China has two strategies,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, director of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in a recent interview with Swiss public broadcaster RTS.  “In the field of humanities and social sciences, it is to help develop a narrative that is pro-Chinese. And in the field of engineering, it is much more based on capturing knowledge in order to transfer it to China.”

His assessment of what drives Beijing’s interest in Swiss universities draws on the findings of two reports published in 2021 by French.

The technological rivalry between the United States and China puts Swiss institutions in an uncomfortable position. They risk antagonizing Washington or being blacklisted by Beijing if they don’t tread carefully, notes the report.

Some are handling the situation proactively. Switzerland’s federal technology institute ETH Zurich, the top university in continental Europe, set up a department that examines research projects with foreign partners. Projects in conflict with US law or US sanctions against China are turned town.

“An application from China is now considered very differently than it was five years ago,” explains Anders Hagström, head of international affairs at ETH Zurich, in the NZZ am Sonntag.

Snubbing applications

Several universities say they are very cautious about hiring Chinese scientists and doctoral students, whose applications are increasingly being rejected, according to the German-language newspaper.

Some institutions, such as the University of Zurich, go so far as to regularly exchange information with the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service in case of suspicion of espionage.

The Swiss National Science Foundation made the issue of knowledge espionage the theme of its meeting in early December. It paused funding for research promotion programmes with China.

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