U.C. Berkeley Advised Chinese Government on Economic Decisions

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February 8, 2021

U.C. Berkeley received millions of dollars from China to operate a big data research center that advised the Chinese government, as well as fund cutting-edge research into automated cars.

The Guizhou Berkeley Big Data Innovation Research Center (GBIC)—which was jointly operated by Berkeley, the Chinese province of Guizhou's local government, and the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology—helped "Guizhou’s government in making economic decisions and improving public services," according to a 2016 Chinese government press release. Meanwhile, the taxpayer-funded California school also enlisted help from Chinese tech companies Baidu and Huawei to bolster its Berkeley DeepDrive automated car program. 

Berkeley's overseas ties have allowed China to access U.S. expertise in two critical sectors: big data and automated cars. The Chinese government considers big data analytics—the use of computers to analyze large data sets—as essential to strengthen both its domestic surveillance apparatus and military capabilities, according to a RAND report. The regime has long viewed the automated car sector as a key growth area, and its spies have stolen trade secrets from Tesla and other car companies to boost its own development. 

"The Chinese Communist Party is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and big data analytics to build the most sophisticated system of state surveillance and repression in the world," said Ian Easton, a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute. "Any American university or research lab collaborating with the Chinese Communist regime or its agents on technology research is directly collaborating with a hostile foreign power. The moral, ethical, and legal risks of such behavior should be obvious to any educated American."

In a ceremony attended by Chinese Communist Party officials, the GBIC opened its doors in September 2016 with the lofty ambition of becoming a "big data research hub for world-class University of California and Chinese researchers." Since its opening, the GBIC has funneled nearly $1.9 million to the coffers of the state university, according to a Department of Education dataset of foreign donations to U.S. universities.

The government press release offered a vague description of GBIC's mandate, saying it will "provide data support for Guizhou’s government in making economic decisions and improving public services." A Berkeley website touts relatively benign work that GBIC did for the Chinese government, such as its big data analysis of elderly care. The university removed the page following Free Beacon inquiries.

Berkeley's work for the Chinese government is much more extensive than its website lets on. GBIC also helped Guizhou's local government set up its big data collection protocols and analyzed a database of more than one million individuals on behalf of the provincial government, according to one researcher. GBIC is also training Chinese researchers on how to handle big data, offering lessons to students at top Chinese universities such as Tianjin University. Cultivating big data expertise is a top priority for Chinese leader Xi Jinping and others, in part because the technology is a cornerstone of China's growing surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

A Berkeley spokesman said the GBIC program is "no longer functioning" on the Berkeley campus and hasn't been for the last year. He did not respond to inquiries into whether GBIC instituted any measures to ensure that Berkeley's big data expertise did not contribute to human rights abuses in China.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said it was high time for universities such as Berkeley to review their ties to China.

"Every U.S. academic institution needs to review its relationships with China," McCarthy told the Washington Free Beacon. "The handling of big data should be specifically scrutinized given China's surveillance state collects more data on its own citizens than any other country in the world and is responsible for some of the biggest data hacks of the U.S. government, collecting troves of information on American citizens."

Berkeley's automated car program also has extensive ties to Chinese tech companies, including those that the U.S. government considers a national security threat. Berkeley DeepDrive, a consortium that formed in 2016 to advance automated car development, counted Huawei, Baidu, Didi, and other Chinese tech companies as research partners, according to a research slide from 2018 and an archived corporate website. Chinese tech giants collectively funneled millions of dollars into the California university, according to the Department of Education. Huawei and its U.S. subsidiary donated $6.8 million to Berkeley, while Baidu gave $1.5 million. Berkeley also received $450,000 from China Automated Battery Research, a group linked to the Chinese government.

The research partnership has proved beneficial for Baidu's ApolloScape program, which has a much smaller dataset than Berkeley's DeepDrive. "This collaboration between Baidu and [Berkeley DeepDrive] would incorporate Apollo’s industrial resources and Berkeley’s top academic team to ramp up the innovation of theoretical research, applied technology, and commercial applications," a press release read.

After U.S. authorities indicted Huawei in 2019, Berkeley said it would no longer take funding from the Chinese tech company. Berkeley DeepDrive, however, still lists Futurewei, Huawei's U.S. subsidiary, as a corporate sponsor. A Berkeley spokesman said that all Berkeley DeepDrive corporate sponsors—including American entities—have equal access to commercial IP rights that non-sponsors do not enjoy. "Our sponsors are all treated equally and their funding is pooled," the spokesman said.

Berkeley's relationship with China goes beyond the big data center and automated car program. Chinese students represent more than half of Berkeley's international student population. The college also operates a joint institute with Tsinghua University, a premier Chinese university that conducts extensive defense research and is linked to Chinese espionage, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The California university's close relationship with the Chinese government and corporate elite is not unique. Huawei also donated millions of dollars to other top universities such as MIT, where the Chinese company exerted enough clout to ghostwrite a pro-Huawei op-ed in the name of a prominent MIT scholar. More than 100 U.S. universities also operated Chinese government-controlled Confucius Institutes. Dozens have cut ties with that program following bipartisan scrutiny from Congress.