China Science Investigation

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Netherlands

Publishing organisation: Follow the Money, RTL Nieuws, CORRECTIV, De Tijd, Deutschlandfunk, Deutsche Welle, Süddeutsche Zeitung, El Confidencial, IRPImedia, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Politiken

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-05-19

Language: English, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Danish

Authors: Siem Eikelenboom (Follow the Money), Dorine Booij (Follow the Money), Mira Sys (Follow the Money), Heleen Emanuel (Follow the Money), Annebelle de Bruijn (Follow the Money), Tom Bolsius (Follow the Money), Roland Strijker (RTL Nieuws), Koen de Regt (RTL Nieuws) Olaya Argüeso Pérez (CORRECTIV), Till Eckert (CORRECTIV), Sophia Stahl (CORRECTIV), Giulio Rubino (IRPImedia), Sandra Petersmann (Deutsche Welle), Naomi Conrad (Deutsche Welle), Esther Felden (Deutsche Welle), Lea Weinmann (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Sophie Menner (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Nina Bovensiepen (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Lea Sahay (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Sebastian Engelbrecht (Deutschlandfunk), Moritz Metz (Deutschlandfunk), Panajotis Gavrilis (Deutschlandfunk), Marta Ley (El Confidencial), Darío Ojeda (El Confidencial), María Zuil (El Confidencial), Sebastian Kjeldtoft (Politiken), Lars Bové (De Tijd), Katrin Büchenbacher (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), Julia Monn (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), Christian Speicher (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), Anja Lemcke (Neue Zürcher Zeitung)


Project description:

At the initiative of the Dutch platform for investigative journalism Follow the Money, and with the support of German platform Correctiv, journalists from seven European countries studied academic relations between Western European universities and knowledge institutes and their Chinese counterparts.

We created a database of over 350 thousand scientific studies published between 2000 and February of 2022. We narrowed it down to studies where scientists from Western European universities collaborated with Chinese colleagues directly linked to an institute that is part of the Chinese army. We were left with 2,994 studies.

Impact reached:

The investigation sparked the debate on knowledge security in several European countries. Experts, including the secret services in the Netherlands, called our findings ‘worrying’.

Parliamentary questions have been raised in countries such as Germany, and in the Netherlands the parliament asked for an official debate on the issue. The Education Minister stated that the screening of non-European scientists should be stricter and made a promise to come up with a specific list to help universities in excluding certain students/organizations from their courses.

In Belgium, universities made the joint statement that they will better protect their knowledge from foreign interference by countries such as China. There have been consultations on this with the State Security Service.

In Denmark, regulations and guidelines for universities to curb foreign espionage and abuse of Danish research and technology had been being worked on for two years. The government announced a “paradigm shift” and presented new guidelines for universities. The Minister of Education and Science felt compelled to proclaim that China Science Investigation once again announced why the new legislation was necessary.

The German Federal Foreign Office had been tasked with drafting the federal government’s new “China strategy”. It would deal with the new way of dealing with China, especially in economic relations. Federal Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) referred to the responsibility of universities at the Federal Press Conference on 20 May: they should be sensitised to cooperations and “supported in going their own way”.

The CDU/CSU expects a “concrete agenda” from the Research Minister, who should “initiate talks with the relevant bodies such as the German Rectors’ Conference and the German Research Foundation.

Although unclear if there is a causality, Swissuniversities, an umbrella organization for Swiss higher education institutions published a guideline for international research cooperation in the weeks after the investigation was made public.

Techniques/technologies used:

For the quantitative research into scientific collaborations between Europe and the Chinese military, Follow the Money collected scientific studies with at least one author affiliated with a European institute, and another affiliated with a Chinese institute listed on Lens.org. All articles were published between January 1st 2000 and February 1st 2022. The resulting dataset contained over 350,000 studies.

We cleaned and parsed this data using Python, and analyzed it using Aleph, a tool built by the OCCRP. This software uses a graph based data structure, so we converted our clean data to this format using the OCCRP’s Python package. We used their command line tool to push the dataset to our Aleph cluster, and journalists from collaborating newsrooms were given access. Here, they can analyze papers, researchers, and institutions relating to their country.

Unfortunately, Aleph can’t do path queries. There was no way of knowing which papers were, for instance, a collaboration between two specific institutions. Using Aleph’s command line tool, we exported our FtM data structure to Neo4j. This graph database system uses the Cypher query language, created to do path queries. Our data journalist wrote path queries for all newsrooms and exported the results to csv for further analysis.

Another big challenge was the naming of institutions in English. These are often not directly translated from Chinese. It proved difficult to find, for instance, all institutions with military connections. Using The China Defence Universities Tracker (by ASPI) and The People’s Liberation Army’s 37 Academic Institutions publication (by CASI), we created a database of Chinese institutions, their English and Chinese names, and any known aliases. We did fuzzy matching between this and our dataset, to find institutions we suspected might be military. We manually confirmed these suspicions before analyzing any papers written in collaboration with these institutions.

Context about the project:

The biggest struggle this investigation faced was the fact that researchers from other countries in the world – think of the US – were conducting research with European scientists, developing technologies that could be used for the wrong purposes. So it was a precarious odner topic to explain why China needed to be investigated by this collective.

At the same time, there was the difficulty that the Chinese government is quite closed, making retrieval of comments very difficult.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Cross-border collaboration becomes a lot easier when everyone starts with the same underlying data. We could approach the whole team with similar data files, which they could then find the stories in that were most relevant to their national audience. This created a solid base for the overarching story, while allowing all collaborating media to be flexible as to the contents and form of the final publication.

Project links: