Science - September 22, 2005

Chinese spies? Don’t make me laugh

According to the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) there are spies among the Chinese students and scientists in the Netherlands who are looking for western technology. Wageningen UR has never considered anti-espionage measures. According to lecturers there is nothing for them here. ‘We try to make sure that all our results are published anyway.’

‘In recent years Chinese students and scientists working and studying in the west have been caught engaged in intelligence activities,’ warned the Dutch intelligence service in a brochure published last week. ‘Most of those involved have come to the West through official Chinese government programmes to acquire knowledge. Taking part in these programmes appears sometimes to be a cover.’

‘Espionage? I don’t this has ever been discussed by the executive board, no. At least, there is no specific policy,’ responds Rien Bor, responsible for relations between Wageningen UR and Chinese universities and research institutes. He also sees no reason to undertake action. ‘I think the AIVD is about fifteen years too late with its warning. I visit China regularly. The country is changing very rapidly, partly because of the technology it has copied from the West. In some of the cities now it’s as if you’re in the West. Laboratory equipment there is also modern and of high quality. They don’t have to copy us any more. So I’m not sure what information we should be protecting. If there was anything to steal that would have already happened years ago.’

Dr Sonja Isken, coordinator of the Biotechnology programme, which has a large group of Chinese students, can’t help laughing at the idea of Chinese industrial spies coming to steal scientific secrets in Wageningen. ‘In our latest group there are quite a few who are finding it difficult enough to earn study points. I don’t have the impression that there are spies among them. What’s more our education is open to the public, as is our research. There’s not much for them to get their hands on here, and it is difficult for foreign students to do internships in Dutch companies because of the strict immigration regulations. So what should we be looking out for?’

If there is nothing to spy on at the university, maybe there are secrets to be had at the research institutes, many of which do confidential research for industry and where preventing results from falling into the hands of the competition is an issue. Dr Robert van den Berg, head of a department of A&F does a lot of contract research: ‘We do work with students, but it doesn’t matter whether they are Dutch or not, they have no access to sensitive information.

So are there no spies in Wageningen? Isken: ‘Well, what I can imagine, and this is confirmed by many of my own students, is that there are Chinese students who keep a good eye on their fellow students.’ Bor also thinks that this kind of spying goes on. ‘I know that a number of students here have excellent contacts with the embassy. I am pretty sure that a number of them are keeping a check on their colleagues. That happens in China as well. But I can’t imagine that the AIVD is worried about that, can you?’

Isken affirms that the admissions committee for her programme sometimes has doubts about the motives of students who want to come and study in Wageningen. ‘Occasionally we have had applications from students who have worked with very dangerous bacteria. Once from Israel, and a Palestinian who was studying in Yemen. It’s impossible of course to prove that they had anything to do with the production of biological weapons, but you do get suspicious. In the end the students didn’t come anyway, so we didn’t have to refuse them on account of our suspicions.’ / KV

Re:act