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House Committee Investigates U.C. Berkeley’s Connections to China

A congressional committee focused on national security threats from China said it had “grave concerns” about a research partnership between the University of California, Berkeley, and several Chinese entities, claiming that the collaboration’s advanced research could help the Chinese government gain an economic, technological or military advantage.

In a letter sent last week to Berkeley’s president and chancellor, the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party requested extensive information about the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute, a collaboration set up in 2014 with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

The letter pointed to the institute’s research into certain “dual-use technologies” that are employed by both civilian and military institutions, like advanced semiconductors and imaging technology used for mapping terrain or driving autonomous cars.

The committee also questioned whether Berkeley had properly disclosed Chinese funding for the institute, and cited its collaborations with Chinese universities and companies that have been the subjects of sanctions by the United States in recent years, like the National University of Defense Technology, the telecom firm Huawei and the Chinese drone maker DJI.

It also said that Berkeley faculty serving at the institute had received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other U.S. funding for the development of military applications, raising concerns about Chinese access to those experts.

In April, for example, a team from a Shenzhen-based lab that describes itself as being supported by the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute said it had won a contest in China to optimize a type of advanced chip technology that the U.S. government is now trying to prevent Chinese companies from acquiring, the letter said.

It is not clear what role the university had in that project, or if the partnership, or the institute’s other activities, would violate U.S. restrictions on China’s access to technology. In October, the United States set significant limits on the type of advanced semiconductor technology that could be shared with Chinese entities, saying that the activity posed a national security threat.

“Berkeley’s P.R.C.-backed collaboration with Tsinghua University raises many red flags,” the letter said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It was signed by Representative Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the committee, and Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican of North Carolina who is the committee chair on education and the work force.

In a statement to The New York Times, U.C. Berkeley said it takes concerns about national security “very seriously” and was committed to comprehensive compliance with laws governing international academic engagement. “The campus is reviewing past agreements and actions involving or connected to Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute” and would “fully and transparently cooperate with any federal inquiries,” it said.

The university also said it had responded to inquiries from the Department of Education with detailed information about gifts and contracts related to the institute, that it was committed to full compliance with laws governing such arrangements, and that it “follows the lead of Congress and federal regulators when evaluating proposed research relationships with foreign entities.”

Universities have also emphasized that foreign governments might have little to gain from infiltrating such partnerships, since academic researchers are focused on fundamental research that, while potentially valuable, is promptly published in academic journals for all to see.

“As a matter of principle, Berkeley conducts research that is openly published for the entire global scientific community,” the university said in its statement.

The letter, and other accusations from members of Congress about U.S. universities with partners in China, underscores how a rapid evolution in U.S.-China relations is putting new pressure on academic partnerships that were set up to share information and break down barriers between the countries.

The Chinese government has sought to improve the country’s technological capacity through legitimate commercial partnerships, but also espionage, cybertheft and coercion. Those efforts — along with a program to meld military and civilian innovation — has led to a backlash in the United States against ties with Chinese academic institutions and private companies that might have seemed relatively innocuous a decade ago.

The select committee, which was set up earlier this year, describes its mission as building consensus on the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party and developing a plan to defend the United States. The bipartisan committee, which is led by Republicans, can provide legislative recommendations but cannot legislate on its own. It has been busily naming and shaming major companies and others over ties to China in congressional hearings, investigations and letters.

Tensions between the United States and China are high, and some lawmakers have called for decoupling the two economies. But severing academic ties is a tricky prospect. American universities are geared toward open and collaborative research and count many Chinese scholars among their work force. China’s significant technology industry and huge population of science and technology doctorates make it a natural magnet for many research collaborations.

Still, the rapid expansion of export controls in the United States is putting more restrictions on the type of information and data related to advanced technologies that can be legally shared with individuals and organizations in China. Under the new rules, even carrying a laptop to China with certain chip designs on it, or giving a Chinese national a tour of an advanced U.S. chip lab, can violate the law.

The House committee has requested that the university provide extensive documents and information by July 27 about the partnership, including its funding, structure and technological work, its alumni’s current and past affiliations, and its compliance with U.S. export controls.

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