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Quantum Technology, the People’s Republic of China and Tsinghua University

Quantum technology, which was once seen as something more science-fiction than feasible, is a significant area of interest for Google, IBM, Honeywell, and Amazon, all of whom are all developing quantum computers. Currently, Google’s quantum computer can process data a hundred and fifty-eight million times the speed of the world’s fastest supercomputer. China claims that its quantum computer, Zuchongzhi 2.1, is a million times faster than Google’s quantum computer. And there is a concern that as the technology advances, a nation-state actor like the People’s Republic of China could use the technology to break the most secure encryptions for U.S. military-grade systems and develop superior AI-enabled technology.

While quantum technology is still in its beginning stages of development, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence considers quantum one of the most significant national security threats to the U.S.

Several different institutions in China focus on the development of quantum technology. Overwatch analysts focused on Tsinghua University’s Quantum Center for Information for this brief.

With the Chinese government still spreading its influence across the U.S., and 34 of its Confucius Institutes continuing to operate on U.S. campuses, our focus on Tsinghua is part of a much larger picture regarding the Chinese state’s influence in America. Tsinghua University, the equivalent of an Ivy League School in China, also has a partnership with UC-Berkeley in California. The two schools built the Tsinghua UC-Berkeley Shenzen Institute in China, which focuses researching environment science and new energy technology, information data technology and data science, and precision medicine and healthcare.

This report illuminates ties between Tsinghua’s Quantum Center, the United Front Work Department, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Quantumctek which was recently added to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List.

UNITED FRONT WORK DEPARTMENT

The Quantum Center for Information, led by Professor Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, a Harvard and University of Illinois alumni, is influenced by the United Front Work Department. The United Front Work Department is an arm to the Chinese State, with a focus on building support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and foreign influence operations. Chinese President Xi Jinping has referred to the United Front as a “magic weapon.” Regarding foreign influence, the U.S. – China Economic Security Review Commission says of the United Front, “UFWD directs overseas Chinese work, which seeks to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and communities living outside China, while a number of other key affiliated organizations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states.”

In 2017, Xu Kuangdi, then Vice-Chairman of the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, visited Tsinghua’s Quantum Center for Information. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference is a critical piece of the United Front and targets non-CCP members to promote and advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. According to the report from Tsinghua, Xu provided insights into the “achievements, teaching, and research” at the university. While analysts did not identify any other visits from the United Front to the Quantum Center for Information through open-source research, the United Front does have its own office at Tsinghua, indicating a certain level of importance to the Chinese State.

Our research also discovered that most professors working in the Quantum Center with Professor Yao studied in U.S. schools, including Yale University, University of Michigan, University of Texas, and University of Maryland. Professor Yao himself is a member of the Communist Party and met with former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2011 for the 100th anniversary of Tsinghua University.

PLA INFLUENCE

Since 2011, the PLA and Tsinghua University have worked on education initiatives for students to join the military subsequently. That influence has not waned, and in 2020, the PLA Academy of Military Science and Tsinghua announced a joint program for the training of Ph.D. students in computer science and technology.

Further, in September 2021, the Center for International Security and Strategy of Tsinghua University held its 20th Security and Strategy Seminar. The seminar’s main topic was the Australia, U.K., and U.S. (AUKUS) — security agreement. This agreement sparked controversy between President Biden and President Macron of France as Australia ended its 2016 contract with France to purchase U.S. nuclear-propelled submarine technology. Students weren’t the only ones in attendance. The event included experts from Peking University, PLA National Defense University (China’s West Point), Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC, PLA Academy of Military Science, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Additionally, Tsinghua has worked on COVID-19 research with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, recently added to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List for its involvement in developing biometrics and “brain control” technology to oppress the Uyghur Muslim population in Xianjing. In 2021, Tsignhua co-hosted a symposium on mechanical engineering and biotechnology manufacturing with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

QUANTUMCTEK

On November 24, 2021, the Department of Commerce’s U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security placed Quantumctek Co. Ltd. on its Entity List, for supporting the PLA with its quantum technology.

Overwatch research into Quantumctek found a few connections with Tsinghua’s Center for Quantum Information.

Jiajun Mu, a Ph.D. student, was a researcher at the Quantum Information Center from 2012 – 2017 and currently works for Quantumctek as a researcher. Bing Bai, who served in the PLA as an engineer from 2001 – 2018, works as an engineer for Quantumctek. Both Tsinghua Quantum Information Center professors, Yu Lan San and Xiongfeng Ma, are part of the ITU Workshop on Quantum Information, along with Quantumctek’s CEO, Yong Zhao.

Additionally, we identified a Ph.D. student at the University of Berkeley that studied at the Quantum Center for Information. That student, Yunchao Liu, studied under Professor Yao and works on quantum research with members of IBM’s Quantum Research Team, suggesting Tsinghua’s significant influence on U.S. companies developing quantum technology and the university’s reach goes beyond China’s borders.

ASSESSMENT

Overwatch research suggests that Tsinghua University’s Quantum Center for Information is influenced by the United Front Work Department, as evidenced by the 2017 visit of Xu Kuangdi, Vice Chairman of the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Tsinghua and the PLA’s Academy of Military Science’s joint program for training doctoral students in computer science and work on strategic issues with PLA National Defense University indicates a significant partnership between the university and the Chinese state’s military-industrial complex.

Jiajun Mu and Bing Bai’s links to Quantumctek also pose the question: What other computer science companies working with the PLA employ students from Tsinghua’s Quantum Center for Information? Further, are students from Tsinghua’s Quantum Center for Information coming to the United States to further their education, or are they working on behalf of the interests of the Chinese State?

With the FBI opening a new counterintelligence investigation into China every twelve hours, the U.S. should consider the impact that Tsinghua students could have and their access to sensitive information as researchers at U.S. universities. That information could be collected for the benefit of the Chinese State and have ramifications, which could at some level compromise U.S. efforts to develop quantum technology and give China a military and technological edge.

Suppose the PRC achieves quantum supremacy before the United States. Such a breakthrough would likely impact the lives of everyday Americans as most computers have basic encryptions, which quantum technology could easily break.

China’s potential ability to crack the encryption on electronic banking, credit cards, cellular communications, our critical infrastructure, hybrid vehicles, autonomous systems, and medical record encryption would require a significantly larger investment in budgetary allocations and manpower to continue to be on the defense for every little potential impact. These impacts would regularly inconvenience Americans to the point where many would demand the government solve the problem, influencing elections and politicians, affording the PRC at some level, the ability to shape U.S. government policy. Further, China could target Taiwan’s semiconductor production through weaponizing quantum technology, disrupting the global supply chain, and forcing countries to rely heavier on the Chinese State for the chips that power their computers and smart devices.

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