Unknown to his superiors, a Chinese professor from a leading European university was found to have used monkey brains in order to aid Beijing’s military fighting wars at high elevation.

Guojie Zhang was educated at Denmark’s University of Copenhagen. This is the latest instance of China’s search for military-civilian tech tapping into Western academia, particularly in the highly sensitive field of biotechnology. 

BGI Group in Shenzhen, a giant of genomics and funding companies, also employs the professor. It has its European headquarters located on campus.

Zhang, along with the student he supervising, worked together in a People’s Liberation Army laboratory (PLA), on research that exposed monkeys to extreme elevation to study brains. The PLA identified this priority for Chinese soldiers operating at high plateau border borders.

Zhang was co-author of the January 2020 paper along with a PLA major General. 

Professor Guojie Zhang (pictured) studied monkey brains at the University of Copenhagen to help Beijing's military fight wars at high altitude, without telling his bosses on campus

Guojie Zhang, (pictured), was a professor at the University of Copenhagen who studied monkey brains to aid Beijing’s military in fighting high-altitude wars. He didn’t even tell his campus bosses.

According to Niels Kroer (head of their biology department), the Danish university did not know that the paper included Chinese authors at the time it was published.

Zhang stated that he had not informed the university about Zhang’s link. The university did not require that researchers report co-authors of scientific papers. However, the university also confirmed Zhang’s statement. 

BGI claimed that the PLA Lab study was not for military use and that brain research is essential for the understanding of human diseases. 

China’s government science academy stated that the study was beneficial for civilians and national defense.

Recent concerns have increased in America about China’s integration of civilian and military technology. In addition, concern has grown about the possibility that universities could transfer sensitive technology to China. 

Washington indicated last month that it would work with the European Union to address the matter under a joint technology and trade advisory. 

According to a U.S. Department of Defense report, China has been using biotechnology in order to increase its military power.

The Danish incident was first reported by Reuters news agency. It shows that China’s search for biotechnology for military uses has become a problem for European universities.

Copenhagen university (pictured, file photo) and two large Danish foundations who funded some of Zhang's work said they discovered China's military was involved only after one of the foundations saw it had been credited, incorrectly, with financing the monkey study

Copenhagen university, (see file photo), as well as two foundations in Denmark that supported some of Zhang’s work, claimed they found out China’s military had participated only when one foundation discovered it was incorrectly credit with the financing of the monkey study.

European Commission claims it is developing guidelines to ‘tackling foreign interference’ at higher education institutions. The 2020 Leiden Asia Centre report, which was independent of Leiden University in the Netherlands and contains concerns over the risk of China-related research collaboration, has been released by the European Commission. 

Many universities have had long-standing scientific ties with China, including Copenhagen.

Two large Danish foundations and Copenhagen University funded part of Zhang’s research. They said that they only discovered China’s military involvement after one foundation incorrectly credited it with funding the monkey study.

According to the paper, this work was supported by both the Chinese government as well as the military.

This discovery was made after PET (Danish intelligence agency) warned universities that they could be unwittingly implicated in military research abroad in May.

PET stated that there were ‘a lot of espionage activities’ and “other foreign interference” and mentioned the student, who collaborated with an engineer at a Chinese military college to research 5G technology. It refused to comment on particular cases.

Zhang has also a genetics laboratory at the Chinese Academy of Science. Zhang stated that the high altitude of Tibet had caused brain death and prevented ‘national defense construction’.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Science of Denmark declined to comment on this altitude study. However, they said that export control rules are applicable to certain technology that could be used both for civilian and military purposes. Danish Business Authority stated that most types of gene tech aren’t on the export control list.

Ministry said that it was conducting a comprehensive review of risks in international research collaboration, which will be concluded at the start next year. It is being led by senior university leaders.

In an email, Kim Brinckmann (deputy director of research and development at the University of Copenhagen) stated that universities will be subject to a review of ‘ethical’ and’security policy limits’ of collaboration. This is expected to result in new rules and a stronger focus on the risk.

Zhang and a student he was supervising worked with a People's Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory on research exposing monkeys to extreme altitude to study their brains and develop new drugs to prevent brain damage, a priority the PLA has identified for Chinese troops operating on high plateau borders. Pictured: A monkey used for research (file photo)

Zhang was leading a group of students who worked closely with him. They were working in partnership with a People’s Liberation Army lab to conduct research on monkey brains at extreme altitudes. This is to develop drugs that prevent brain damage. It’s a priority identified by the PLA for Chinese troops stationed on high plateaus. Pictured: Research monkey (file photo).

Professor Zhang is a highly-performing researcher at BGI. He stated that ‘we are very proud of him’. A question regarding how much BGI funding is provided by the university was not answered.

China’s foreign ministry stated that it had urged Danish institutions not to harbor ideological prejudices and stop making slanderous accusations. It also emphasized the need for them to treat research cooperation with a rational approach in order to generate positive energy and help develop bilateral relations. 

Zhang, along with Major General Yuqi Gao (head of PLA’s laboratory for high altitude research), designed this study. It also includes Wang Jian, Yang Huanming, founders of BGI, as co-authors. 

The other joint research of BGI and Gao involved soldiers from Tibet, Xinjiang, and so on. Reuters published the report in January.

This report was mentioned by U.S. senators, who in September called on the United States to sanction BGI for being a military-linked business. 

According to China’s official news site, Gao’s research directly enhanced the capabilities of China’s Rapid-Advance Plato troops to perform training and combat operations.

China's military has recently increased live fire drills in Tibet after border clashes with India. Pictured: An Indian army convoy carries reinforcements and supplies e towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, on September 2, 2020 in Gagangir amid border tensions last year

China’s military recently intensified live fire drills at Tibet following border conflicts with India. Pictured: An Indian army convoy carries reinforcements and supplies e towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, on September 2, 2020 in Gagangir amid border tensions last year

China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences created a plan for four years in 2012 to help troops adapt and acclimatise to Tibetan plateau, which is low in oxygen. 

According to the plan, BGI would work with Gao’s laboratory to identify genetic links to altitude sickness in soldiers who arrive in Tibet. 

According to the report, preventing altitude illness was a way of’managing border regions where ethnic minorities gather’. It also had a wide-reaching economic impact and political importance.

BGI explained to Reuters that research was conducted with the military University to determine the risks to the health of all those who work or travel to high altitudes.

A spokesperson for BGI stated that the project, which used BGI’s technology, studied changes in the pathophysiology of human bodies at high altitudes. He said that China has many military facilities, which carry out military and civilian research.

Gao stated in 2018 that high-altitude disease is the primary reason for lower combat effectiveness, health damage to soldiers at high elevations, and that it influences war on the plateau highland. He also noted that in emergencies drugs can be used for rapid deployment of troops.

China’s military recently intensified live fire drills at Tibet following border disputes with India.

China's government science academy said the study had national defence and civilian benefits on the Tibetan plateau. Pictured: The Himalayas mountain range in South and East Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau

China’s government science academy stated that the study was beneficial for national defense and civil purposes on the Tibetan plateau. Pictured: The Himalayas mountain range in South and East Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau

Copenhagen’s University has one of Europe’s oldest genetics research institutes. It is also the largest international BGI partner, according to science papers.

These ties are deep. The chairman of BGI and two former chief executives at BGI, as well as the founder of BGI’s animal cloning program, were both previously employed or studied in Copenhagen. 

There are more than two dozen BGI funded researchers at the university who do science and health doctorates.

Kroer, a Biology Head, stated to Reuters that he was not aware of claims BGI may have connections with the PLA.

Zhang was paid a salary as a professor at the university. However, the University said no Danish money was used for the study. Animal rights activists claim that this would have caused the animals suffering and distress.

Zhang’s student was in China, and was employed by BGI. Zhang’s research team did not participate in animal experiments in China but analysed the genome data, the university said.

Lundbeck Foundation funds brain research. The foundation was mistakenly listed as a funding source for monkey brain studies. 

Lundbeck stated that Zhang told them he had been studying genetics in ants, and this may have helped explain the brain functions of humans.

Zhang said that the foundation asked it to remove their name from this study. Carlsberg Foundation is the third largest brewer in the world and gave Zhang a DKK4 million fellowship ($623,000). It also stated to Reuters that it was incorrectly listing the project as its funding source.

Zoological Research in China published the paper. They declined to comment.

Zhang serves on the editorial board of the journal. According to Zhang, the Danish foundations had been mistakenly mentioned in the journal. 

He added, via email: “We didn’t spend any funding from grants I received form these foundations for this project.” A correction was published by the journal in March 2021 that removed foundation names.

Lundbeck did not respond to questions about the impact that the discovery could have on his life. Carlsberg said that animals tested overseas must be compliant with Danish regulations. He didn’t comment on military involvement.

The Chinese Academy of Science (pictured, file photo), where Zhang also has a genetics lab, said of the study at the time that brain damage and death caused by high altitude on the Tibetan plateau had severely hindered 'national defence construction'

Zhang’s genetics laboratory is also part of the Chinese Academy of Science. Zhang stated that the high altitude of Tibet had severely impeded the ‘national defense construction’.

University of Copenhagen closed a think-tank it ran with Shanghai Fudan University from 2013 to 2020. The University of Copenhagen stated that the University of Copenhagen had changed its overall strategy for cooperation.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information rules by Reuters show that the decision prompted a discussion about China within the university. 

In August 2020, the university met to review China’s cooperation and discuss closing Fudan.

China Studies Professor Jorgen Delman wrote that China has been engaged in “a strategic civil/military fusion” of research. This was in response to a letter he sent to the university’s director. It recommended better screening and consulting with Danish military intelligence for advice about ‘risks or no-go’ areas. He refused to speak further.

BGI was the recipient of genetic cloning tech after Yutao, a Danish researcher, earned her doctorate. She worked with an international team that had created the first human-cloned pigs in the world using handmade cloning. 

China praised her for bringing technology to China. China then cloned genetically modified animals to study human neurological diseases.

China’s National Science Programme said that cloning pigs was a way to move to chimeras. This controversial field is where China wants to be the leader in the world. Chimeras can be organisms that are made of cells from more than one species and may have the ability to grow organs suitable for transplantation.

Du, now the vice president of BGI Genomics Ltd., was promoted within China Communist Party and became a delegate at its 2017 national congress. Her response to our request was not received.