In an email exchange with The Washington Post this summer, Pan suggested that he and his university research team don’t assist Chinese military efforts to develop quantum technology.
But Strider Technologies, a Washington-area security company that does corporate intelligence work, has identified publicly available Chinese-language documents that connect Pan to large Chinese defense contractors.
Strider found that a state-owned shipbuilder of military and civilian vessels appointed Pan as deputy director of its science and technology committee in 2017. Strider also found that Pan last year signed an agreement committing his institution, the University of Science and Technology of China, to conduct quantum research with a state-owned defense contractor. MIT Technology Review first reported details of Strider’s findings.
Bill Priestap, a member of Strider’s board who was assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division from 2015 to 2018, said the research should serve as a warning to Western universities that collaborate with Chinese institutions.
“Not everyone recruited understands the full extent of how China will use their contributions,” Priestap said in an interview. “No matter how China represents a research partnership, it will use the knowledge gained however it desires — economically, of course, but also in a military and intelligence sense.”
In an email, Pan downplayed the significance of the documents, saying they did not mean that he or his researchers were supporting the development of military technology. “We are focused on the development of quantum information technology itself. Whether these technologies would be used in the military field is not my business and out of our control,” Pan said.
“As quantum information technology still has a long way to go for applications to benefit all humans, we believe that extensive and open international cooperation is necessary,” he added.
Scientists are using quantum technology to develop new kinds of computers and communications networks, and new sensors for imaging and measuring objects. In the commercial world, quantum computers could one day solve intractable problems, such as identifying new chemical compounds to treat diseases. In the military realm, quantum computers may eventually be able to break existing forms of encryption, while other quantum technology could generate powerful new radars and navigation systems.
Pan, 49, has gained international recognition for his research in the field. In 2017, the journal Nature named him one of “10 people who mattered this year.”
Physicists from the University of Calgary and Louisiana State University spend several weeks or months a year as visiting faculty members in Pan’s group at USTC in Shanghai.
Pan and his team also have extensive connections to Germany’s Heidelberg University, where Pan established a research lab in 2003 before moving much of the lab to China in 2009, according to the university. Pan still serves as an honorary professor at Heidelberg, overseeing a quantum research lab there. About a third of the 29 faculty members in Pan’s quantum-physics group at USTC have studied or taught at Heidelberg, according to the group’s website.
Matthias Weidemüller, a physics professor at Heidelberg, spends two months each year as a part-time professor at USTC in Shanghai, running his own quantum-research lab in Pan’s group. The lab studies quantum simulation.
In an email, Weidemüller said his lab in China sets its own agenda and acts in a “totally independent” manner. He said he has never pursued any joint research with Pan, whom he called a “charismatic scientist and science manager” who has “inspired (and still inspires) literally hundreds of gifted young researchers to join his activities.”
Weidemüller said: “I have no information whatsoever on applications of quantum technologies in the defense or military sector, neither in Europe, the U.S. or China. It goes against my personal ethics to be involved directly or indirectly in any such kind of activities.”
Heidelberg University said its cooperation with USTC is “purely based on the exchange of scientists and scientific knowledge addressing problems of fundamental quantum science.”
“All results obtained within this cooperation are published in peer-reviewed international journals,” the university said.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that the scientific research performed at Heidelberg University, or within the cooperation between Heidelberg University and USTC, has led directly or indirectly to military applications or the development of China’s military capabilities," the university added.
Strider found the details about Pan’s defense-industry connections in Chinese-language publications posted online by USTC, a defense contractor and state-controlled media. The publications include photos of Pan attending meetings with one defense contractor and signing a research agreement with another.
Eric Levesque, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Strider, said his company’s findings show “the threat to open academic collaboration posed by China’s long-term, intentional strategy of exploiting Western innovation systems to achieve its national objectives.”
Pan disputed the accusation of exploitation, saying that cooperation across borders is an accepted norm in science these days.
Strider was founded this year with $2 million in funding from investors including DataTribe, a Maryland incubator that specializes in start-ups with experience in the intelligence community.
China’s growing military ambitions, and its repression of ethnic minorities at home, are causing some U.S. officials and lawmakers to question aspects of U.S. research cooperation with China, despite the benefits it has brought. Research ties have deepened as the United States has hosted a growing number of Chinese graduate students — 133,000 in the last academic year, a tripling from 20 years ago, according to the Institute of International Education — and as China has recruited Western scientists to its labs through its Thousand Talents program.
In April 2018, Pan signed a strategic cooperation agreement committing USTC to work with a large state-owned defense contractor, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, or CETC, according to an article posted on USTC’s site. The article said USTC and CETC would cooperate on a variety of science projects, including jointly establishing labs to research quantum detection and quantum communication devices.
The report includes a photo of Pan signing the agreement alongside Wu Manqing, deputy general manager of CETC. Behind them stands Wang Xiaomo, a radar expert known as the father of China’s early warning aircraft system, according to the USTC article.
Pan, who is also executive vice president of USTC, in addition to running his quantum-research group, said he signed the agreement “on behalf of USTC as the executive vice president, not on behalf of my research team.”
“According to the agreement, the cooperation between USTC and CETC is mainly in talent training and scientific consultation. As a university, this is very normal,” Pan said. CETC declined to comment.
In September 2017, a state-owned builder of military and civilian ships hired, Pan as deputy director of its science and technology committee, according to a 2018 report published by state-controlled media.
At the same time, the company, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, or CSIC, signed an agreement with USTC to jointly establish three labs to focus on quantum navigation, quantum communication and quantum detection, according to the state-media article. CSIC planned to invest $42 million in the labs, according to the report.
Two CSIC officials, Fan Guoping and Li Jiahua, are cited in the article saying that CSIC has carried out research cooperation with Pan’s USTC team in quantum navigation, quantum communication and quantum detection, in order to “seize the commanding heights” of quantum information technology in naval defense applications.
Fan is quoted saying that quantum-navigation technology would free nuclear submarines from satellite navigation, allowing them to stay hidden underwater for longer periods of time, “significantly increasing the concealed combat capabilities of these strategic submarines.”
Pan confirmed that he is deputy director of CSIC’s science and technology committee, saying his “purpose is to help CSIC to understand quantum information technology, a field which is unfamiliar to them.”
“The only thing I did after taking this position was to give them a science lecture,” Pan said. “If this were to be considered as serving the military, then I also introduced the development of China’s quantum information sciences through a conference at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Energy in March this year. Will you conclude that I also serve the military of the U.S.?”
Pan said Fan’s remarks in the article “greatly exaggerated the relevant cooperation content with inaccurate facts.”
Pan said USTC has contacted CSIC to demand that they “correct the factually incorrect statements, and to strictly follow the actual status of the implementation of the agreement when publishing any news in the future.”
CSIC didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Pan said he ultimately had to deliver his talk at the Department of Energy conference by webcast, because he had trouble getting a U.S. visa. “Usually, after waiting for about a month, I can obtain a valid one-year and multiple entry visa,” Pan wrote by email. “However, this time the waiting lasted for more than 4 months, and I was still waiting for the visa when I received the [conference] invitation,” he said.
“What’s more, what I finally got was a three-month-valid and single-entry visa, which prevented me from several planned academic [trips] to the United States in the year of 2019,” Pan wrote. He added that he wasn’t able to view talks by U.S. and Canadian scientists during the conference because of “some technical problem,” and was told later he couldn’t receive copies of the talks because of “U.S. export control issues.” The Department of Energy declined to comment on that.
Barry Sanders, a Canadian physicist from the University of Calgary, spends two to three months a year as a visiting professor in Pan’s group at USTC, a position he got through China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program. Sanders said he is focused on furthering basic quantum research and publishing his work in scientific journals.
“My clear mission is, I’m involved with scientists around the world, independent of the politics of the country. If I can work with scientists anywhere to help them understand and appreciate basic science and advance it, I like to help,” he said.
“If any activity I do is political or military, then I would have nothing to do with that,” Sanders added.
Jonathan Dowling, a Louisiana State University physicist who spends about six weeks or less a year as a visiting faculty member in Pan’s group at USTC, said he has “a number of scientific collaborators in China," including at New York University’s Shanghai campus. Dowling is a visiting member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which allows him to visit a variety of universities, he said.
“We work only on basic research that is published in the open literature,” Dowling said. “I meet regularly with folks from the U.S. government to ensure that I follow all policies and regulations that pertain to my interactions with Chinese scientists and institutions.”