They call it ultracold quantum technology, and it will change the world. It’s a mind-boggling new field of science that is at once hugely exciting and – as we shall see – utterly alarming.
It will change everything we know about computing and ultimately render all devices currently in use obsolete.
As well as myriad practical applications that will change our lives, it is likely to transform warfare, with unhackable communications, precision weapons guidance systems, and radar so sensitive it will detect both enemy stealth bombers and distant submarines.
As Bill Phillips, Nobel Prize winning physicist, puts it: ‘A quantum computer is as different from a classical computer as a classical computer is from an abacus.’
It’s why any nation that possesses its secrets would be insane to share it with a potential foe – especially one that is hell-bent on dominating the globe, and has the resources to do it.
For five years a young Chinese national called Dongyang Xu (pictured) – Leo to his western friends – enjoyed unrivalled access to the lab’s most sensitive projects as a post-graduate student. And then one day last April he disappeared
And yet that is precisely what Britain has done, despite pumping £1billion to the technological quantum drive since 2013.
To the horror of our politicians and security services, we have handed our world-beating advances into the technology to China, via our great seats of learning.
A laboratory at Oxford University – part-funded by the MoD via the top-secret institution based at Porton Down – has nurtured a crucial link with a Chinese military university and passed on our knowledge.
Beijing helped fund the Ultracold Quantum Matter lab through a university controlled by the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.
That college – the National University of Defence Technology in the city of Changsha – happens to be the main training provider for China’s spies.
Yet for five years, Oxford trained and nurtured a Chinese doctoral student who had graduated from another military university and was being funded by the NUDT.
He enjoyed access to the lab’s most advanced projects, and organised two ‘workshops’ in Oxford where his colleagues from China were briefed on the latest progress in this highly sensitive field of physics.
It’s a classic example of how China has for years subtly exploited the naivety of Western democracies to gain influence – and to steal and spy on our technology. Oxford sources insist their lab’s work was peaceful.
But senior Whitehall sources were deeply concerned because advances in quantum technology will always have a ‘dual use’, and be just as valuable to the military.
Now, the Daily Mail has learnt, Oxford’s link with the NUDT and China’s military has been severed – following an intervention ‘at the highest level’ by security officials, horrified at the damage that may have been done. This week, the case was discussed by ministers.
Meanwhile, visa rules for students and academics hoping to work in such sensitive areas have been quietly changed so that a repeat of this affair should be impossible.
Little wonder Sir Richard Dearlove, the former MI6 chief, is furious. He told the Mail: ‘The naivety of our universities in sharing research that has military applications with China is stunning. We are only just starting to realise the Chinese have an interest in areas that will benefit their strategic future, and although steps are now being taken to get this under control, it’s rather late in the day. Only now is the Establishment waking up to the threat.’
Quantum technology is the pop star darling of modern physics. Professor Brian Cox says quantum computers could give the human mind immortality by reproducing it; Stephen Fry says it ‘could change the world as much as fire or electricity’.
In a nutshell, today’s devices rely on ‘binary’ computing: Lots of 0s and 1s crunch through data to provide phone signals, TV images, and operate PCs. It’s a fast process.
But quantum computers don’t need the 0s and 1s.
Scientists found that if you cool certain elements to a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero, minus 273.15C, they can form the basis of a new, unimaginably faster computer.
The main ingredients – what are known as qubits – can perform multiple tasks simultaneously. They rip through the most complex calculations at lightning speed. Linking thousands of qubits together in a quantum computer creates something incredible.
Prototype quantum computers have been built by firms such as Google. But they are vast, with every component requiring a refrigerator the size of a wardrobe.
The Oxford lab is beginning to imagine small and portable quantum devices. Instead of occupying a football field, the quantum computer may need be no bigger than a beer glass – changing everything.
And this is where China has seized its chance.
Oxford University’s skill level is high, explaining why China’s National University of Defence Technology and so by extension the People’s Liberation Army were so keen to develop a partnership.
Step forward a young Chinese national called Dongyang Xu – Leo to his western friends. For five years he enjoyed unrivalled access to the lab’s most sensitive projects as a post-graduate student. And then one day last April he disappeared.
Xu had attended another university which conducts research for China’s military, Hunan, and NUDT paid for his studies in Britain.
He entered Britain in 2012. Before Oxford, he studied at two UK centres of excellence in high-tech engineering, Lancaster and Cambridge. It was Xu who hosted two Oxford workshops for the NUDT, in 2016 and 2018, when he gave his Chinese colleagues tours of the lab. They were welcomed with open arms by the university.
Earlier this year, the Mail can reveal, British security officials made high-level representations to Oxford. The result: An abrupt end to all collaboration with the NUDT.
In April, Dongyang Xu, by now armed with an Oxford doctorate, returned to China. And in September, the Foreign Office rules governing foreign students and academics were quietly changed to prevent a repeat.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith called the affair ‘a cocktail of naivety and incompetence’. He said: ‘What was Oxford thinking? And what the hell were MI6 and the Security Service doing to let this happen? Were they simply asleep on the job?
‘It’s further evidence of the extent to which China has penetrated Britain’s elite institutions – to get the very best of what they want.’
Sam Armstrong, of foreign policy think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, said: ‘Stopping Chinese military-linked scientists acquiring sensitive academic technology is rightly a top priority for the Government, but the fact that the Chinese Army’s elite research facility has been co-sponsoring the technology that will dominate the future of war for decades shows just how far we have to go.’
Currently, Sino-British relations are in a tailspin. China’s abuse of human rights in Hong Kong, the furore over telecommunications giant Huawei’s role in the UK’s proposed 5-G network, and Beijing’s increasingly insular approach to the international community have transformed the picture. The West’s fury over the genesis of the coronavirus has hardly helped.
For China now, the word ‘friendship’ refers less to a personal bond, and more to a strategic relationship on behalf of the party.
Xi Jinping made it clear five years ago that China’s holy grail was the acquisition of quantum technology. He called it a vital strategic goal. He has also said that he wants China to be the world’s strongest military power by 2049.
Last December US technology analysts Strider, whose board includes the FBI’s ex-head of counter-espionage and a former assistant director of the CIA, sounded the red alert on China’s ambitions.
Its Quantum Dragon report warned: ‘China’s advances in quantum technologies stem from a multi-decade strategy to exploit Western research institutes. This strategy includes sending Chinese scientists to top quantum research labs around the world for training … and funding schemes to support the development of China’s quantum research programs.’
Its author, Greg Levesque, said: ‘China is systematically placing and recruiting scientists in research institutions around the world to acquire intellectual property and know-how that advance military capabilities. Dual-use technologies like quantum are especially in the cross-hairs, and the Xu case at Oxford fits the pattern.’
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think-tank rates the NUDT as ‘very high risk’, pointing out that it is the People’s Liberation Army’s ‘premier institution for scientific research’. NUDT is ‘a key training centre’ for Chinese spies, and developed the world’s fastest digital supercomputer in 2013.
ASPI says that for more than a decade, ‘NUDT has aggressively leveraged overseas expertise and resources to build its capabilities’. It has also sponsored espionage. In 2019, the Chinese defector Wang Liqiang said the university’s Intelligence Centre had given him fake papers so he could spy on Taiwan.
ASPI also rates Xu’s first university, Hunan, as ‘very high risk’ as its research projects for the PLA include nuclear weapons.
Oxford Ultracold lab broadened its relationship with NUDT in 2016, the year after Xu arrived, when it held the first of the two joint workshops discussing sensitive work.
Professor Christopher Foot, who leads the lab, organised a drinks party at the second workshop in 2018, and was pictured beaming, surrounded by his Chinese colleagues. There were talks on the latest research into quantum sensors and computing.
A laboratory at Oxford University – part-funded by the MoD via the top-secret institution based at Porton Down – has nurtured a crucial link with a Chinese military university and passed on our knowledge (Pictured: Oxford University)
Afterwards, the Oxford lab issued a tweet: ‘A great end to the NUDT workshop on quantum technologies. Thanks to all our guests and speakers for joining us. See you next year in Changsha!’
If awareness of the Chinese threat had not yet penetrated Oxford, the Pentagon was worried. It warned: ‘China is actively pursuing an intensive campaign to obtain foreign technology through imports, foreign direct investment, industrial and cyber espionage, and the establishment of foreign Research and Development Centres.’
Finally, at the end of last year, the Government took action. Whitehall sources say representations were made to Oxford’s top leadership, insisting the relationship between the quantum lab and NUDT must cease. Almost immediately, it was terminated. There was no public announcement, but the logo proclaiming NUDT sponsorship vanished from the lab’s website.
But Dr Xu was allowed to complete his PhD, had his viva (oral exam), then left the country. The lab issued another tweet: ‘Well done to Dongyang (Leo) Xu, who passed his viva last week… we’ll miss the cake and cheese breaks! Safe journey back to China and best of luck in your new job!’
The tweet revealed what he had been working on in Oxford: ‘A very nice thesis detailing our Sr oven and MOT’ – in other words, the very technology critical to portable quantum computing.
Last night Professor Foot declined to comment.
An Oxford spokesman said: ‘Oxford University places the highest priority on the security of its academic work and resisting any inappropriate attempts to interfere with it or repurpose it. We work closely with the MoD on protecting our work in fields relevant to the national interest. Our risk management processes are reviewed regularly and we will always update these systems in the light of Government guidance.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘The security and integrity of our universities and research institutions is essential. We have toughened visa rules to ensure any postgraduate students applying to study in the UK or conduct research into aircraft, cyber, and other advanced military technologies will face stronger checks.
‘We have robust procedures to protect sensitive research where we are co-sponsors, and work with the sector to identify and prevent any risk of interference.’
Whitehall sources said there were still ‘ongoing concerns’ regarding research with dual civilian and military use, such as quantum technology, and over Chinese students and academics ‘trying to acquire knowledge for the Chinese state’.
And what of Dr Xu? This week the Mail managed to get his email address and, in a short exchange, he confirmed he is in ‘mainland China’. But when asked what he was doing, and how he was using the knowledge he had acquired in Oxford, he clammed up. Whatever plans the Motherland had for him, he wasn’t going to say.