Intelligence service concerned about espionage in Finnish universities

Chinese-language discussions echo in the corridors of LUT University’s Lahti campus as new bachelor students in the fall leak from their lecture halls.

Most of LUT’s Lahti campus undergraduate students and about half of the teachers come from China. The bachelor’s programs that started this autumn are also the first to be implemented in Lahti. The programs are offered by LUT University of Finland and HEBUT University of Technology in Hebei. When students complete their studies, they receive a diploma from both universities.

This cooperation has aroused a lot of excitement on the Lahti campus.

"We just had a Teams meeting with our Chinese partners. The project has started really well," says Janne Hokkanen, LUT University Strategy Director.

At the same time, across Europe, the risks and threats of university and research collaboration with Chinese partners are being closely examined and how these potential problems can be addressed. Various projects are under way in the EU to secure co-operation, and the first EU-wide recommendations are due to be published within a few days.

In Finland, too, guidelines are being drawn up for universities. According to Supo, the level of risk associated with China has also risen here.

Co-operation offers cannot be ignored

China is becoming – if it is not already – a world leader in a number of disciplines. Co-operation offers cannot be ignored if the institution wants to stay ahead.

Therefore, Finland is also preparing its own guidelines for the university and scientific community. They are prepared by the Ministry of Education and Culture in co-operation with universities and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The magazines are being finalized and the target date for their publication is December.

The headquarters of the Security Police in Helsinki. According to the security authorities, the level of risk related to China has increased in Finland.Silja Viitala / Yle

The guidelines aim to raise awareness of the potential challenges of cooperating with China, he says Mari-Anna Suurmunne, Senior Expert in Education and Science at the Finnish Embassy in Beijing.

"The starting point is better and more conscious cooperation," he explains and adds that it must be borne in mind that China’s social system and values ​​are different from European ones.

Competition for the top of the world of science can take place under different rules.

Supo: Research must not fall into the wrong hands

All of the university experts interviewed by Yle for this article formulate their responses diplomatically when assessing the risks associated with cooperating with Chinese partners. There seems to be concern that outspoken speaking could break the good relations between the Finnish and Chinese higher education worlds.

Yle’s interviews did not reveal any problems with Chinese students, researchers or teachers at Finnish universities. However, suspected espionage cases have occurred elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

According to the protection police, the risk is also real in Finland.

"Authoritarian states are increasingly willing to use a variety of means to achieve their own goals. In the pursuit of national strategic interests, particular emphasis is placed on the struggle for" says Supo’s communications expert Aishi Zidan.

Supo points out that a lot of research is done in Finland, which is related to the development of high technology that, if it falls into the wrong hands, would harm the scientific and economic interests of the people.

"The Chinese government typically funds research that benefits its long-term strategic goals. Taken together, these development expenditures have also increased the risks associated with research collaboration," Zidan points out.

Should students see their Chinese classmates as potential spies?

"Of course not. International cooperation is in many ways useful and important in the world of research and higher education. This also applies to cooperation with China," Supon Zidan answers.

The power of the world of science

China aims to become a world leader in science by the middle of the century. The country has invested more and more in research and education in recent years, and this is clearly noticeable.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, the country spent 1,346.4 billion yuan on higher education in 2019. At that time, the amount was 170 billion euros at the exchange rate. By comparison, the budget of the entire Finnish state that year was EUR 55.5 billion.

China’s ranking has taken big leaps in international university comparisons. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings currently includes six universities in mainland China or Hong Kong among the top 100. The figure doubled in one year. The highest ranking of a Finnish university was for the University of Helsinki, which ranked 101st.

The number of Chinese scientific publications and citations by Chinese scholars is also growing rapidly.

Red brick tall building, windows, large entrance photographed from the outside.  LAB University of Applied Sciences in Lahti.
25 per cent of foreign students enrolled at LUT University come from China.Petri Niemi / Yle

In 2019, a total of almost 200,000 Chinese students completed lower or upper tertiary education in the EU. In the same year, there were about 15,000 Chinese doctoral students in EU universities, or just over 20% of all international postgraduate students.

This academic year, 25 percent of LUT University’s foreign students come from China. Chinese students are also the largest single group of international students at universities in Helsinki and Turku, for example.

Academic freedom is not compromised

There is not much concern about the risk of espionage at LUT University, at least with regard to HEBUT co-operation, because these are bachelor’s degree studies, not sensitive in-depth research.

However, according to LUT Janne Hokkanen, every researcher and teacher must understand that China may have ulterior motives.

"The Chinese state works differently than we do. It seems that there people often put the interests of the state ahead of their own," he says. "Care must be taken to see which files are available to outsiders. However, this applies to everyone, not just the Chinese."

Disagreements related to research ethics, such as countries’ differing perceptions of academic freedom, Hokkanen considers espionage to be a more realistic risk.

"Of course, our starting point is that academic freedom is respected. And that hasn’t been a problem," Hokkanen says.

Source: The Nordic Page


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