Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

13 April

Following a series of incidents, Marcel Pelgrom started wondering whether it was a such great idea for Dutch universities to educate people who might serve businesses or even the military of the West’s ideological opponents.

Some five years ago, I met a young Russian engineer during a summer school. He was working for a joint venture based somewhere in Russia, designing IP blocks in technologies running in the main foundries. A few months later, he contacted me, requesting advice on a malfunctioning ADC. I gave a few clues and pointed to one or two publications with background information. A year later, an enthusiastic mail arrived: my analysis was correct and the ADC performed pretty well now. I was amazed. Typically, my advice based on snippets of information isn’t that successful.

Over several years, we exchanged two dozen emails. Obviously, his projects progressed well, moving to the best performances published. No doubt this was a good design team, but for whom did they design these circuits? The 1974 conscript in me started to worry: had I been naive?

Two years ago, I decided to call the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD. An interesting experience unfolded: via the Ministry of Internal Affairs, I came into contact with a nameless person, who didn’t appreciate my 007 joke. After I’d explained the situation, he said: “So, you’re sharing public domain information?” I tried to point out that most published papers are crap and real knowledge stems from being able to identify what matters and what doesn’t. He seemed unimpressed. In fact, he even expressed enthusiasm for the international collaboration. My request for a confirmation of this phone call was declined. I was flabbergasted by his lack of insight into IC competitiveness and the AIVD’s naivety on the dangers of sharing microelectronics knowledge.

During that same period, a Chinese consultant asked me to teach a set of classes in China. Renowned professors from Europe and the US were also involved. The visits were well-organized and successful. In the third edition, a Chinese ministry joined the party. My consulting friend was clearly annoyed that a stern government lady took over. In the audience of young Chinese engineers with their Western touches in hair and clothing styles, some not-so-young men appeared, with a straight posture in discrete clothes and observing a hierarchical attitude. Army personnel? I’m not sure. My friend moved on and I’d seen enough too, but I still receive a personal invitational from the lady of the ministry every year.

The Chinese tech sector is expanding into our countries. A large telecom equipment provider was rather pushy when headhunting me to manage their EU tech center. A quick check indicated that quite a few managers of that company had a military background. Only after I’d sent a couple of less polite replies, they stopped emailing me.

Even more force is applied to Chinese professors and industry engineers working in the US and the EU. Under the “thousand talents” program, they’re offered well-compensated jobs in China, as well as major perks such as admittance of their elderly parents to the best retirement homes. In private, these talents expressed to me their dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy, corruption and importance of party loyalty for getting things done in China. However, refusing that offer is no option.

The Chinese leadership wants to have the strongest and technologically most advanced army by 2049. It needs a lot of engineers and obviously, Dutch universities are fine breeding places. Several of them are short of Dutch students and face closure of the hardcore technical faculties, so they welcome Chinese students with English spoken programs and facilities.

Last year, the TU Delft magazine Delta published a series of five articles on the influx of Chinese students and the Delft collaboration with Chinese (military) institutes. Delta identified joint projects and publications with all seven universities that form “the seven sons of National Defense.” They counted 29 PhD students with proven ties with the Chinese military. In a recent NRC article (link in Dutch), the Dutch military intelligence boss Swillens warned that 80 Chinese students pursuing a PhD in our country are linked to the Chinese army.

In my own class in Delft, there are approximately 5 Dutch students, 20 from different countries and 40 from China. All of them very pleasant youngsters, ambitious, talented and hard-working. They love the Netherlands and the Dutch. But towards 2049, a lot of brainwashing is possible. And the question arises whether we’re not only educating our business opponents but also creating an existential threat with our own tax revenue.

I’ve lost my naivety: I’m bowing out.