X Close

The British weapons expert cosying up to China Is the CCP using an Imperial College researcher?

Did China benefit from Woodley's research? (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Did China benefit from Woodley's research? (STR/AFP via Getty Images)


May 26, 2022   9 mins

His audience hung on his every word. Here was one of Britain’s foremost weapons experts chairing a prestigious, two-day conference devoted to exploring new ways of making arms more deadly. But the packed conference hall, its walls lined with oak and marble, wasn’t in Britain. It was in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in eastern China.

Clive Woodley, 67, currently attached to the Department of Shock Physics at Imperial College in London, has worked on high-tech weaponry since his youth. So he had much to say about the conference theme: “New Material Technology for Ammunition.” The event “marked a new chapter in the development of artillery, shells and missiles”, according to an official report issued afterwards.

Most of Woodley’s research has been funded by the Ministry of Defence. A former president of the International Ballistics Society, he served as Chief Scientist at the MoD-controlled company QinetiQ from its inception in 2001 — when the MoD privatised its own labs — to 2018. He has advised the MoD about many of its key lethal systems.

Woodley’s contributions in Jinan followed a grand opening ceremony conducted by Qi Xiaoliang, the Communist Party Secretary of the Shandong Institute, one of China’s top military research centres. Joining him, the conference literature makes clear, was almost every leading figure in the Chinese weapons industry, including key figures from Norinco, a Chinese state-owned giant that makes tanks, fighter jets, drones, missiles, big guns, and bombs. Another sponsor was the China Ordnance Society, which brings together 22,000 researchers from both China’s universities and its arms firms, all devoted to “fostering the development needs of national defence”.

Most extraordinary of all was the timing. In 2012, and for some years afterwards, Britain and China basked in a “golden age” of warm relations initiated under David Cameron. China was not then so widely known for the genocide of its Uighur Muslim minority, nor had it crushed Hong Kong’s freedoms. It was not until 2020 that the UK government decreed that equipment made by the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei must be ripped out from Britain’s 5G networks on grounds of national security.

However, the conference in Jinan took place very recently, on 14 and 15 October 2021. It was supposedly “international”, but in fact, the only non-Chinese delegates were Woodley, a Russian and a Pole. A few weeks later, MI6 chief Richard Moore gave a landmark speech, saying the threat from China was now his agency’s “single greatest priority”, and warning that we must beware of “large-scale espionage operations against us, targeting those in research of particular interest to the Chinese state” — in other words, experts such as Woodley.

Yet the Jinan event was no one-off. Working with an expert who is fluent in Mandarin, I have established that over the past eight years, Woodley has participated at least seven times in seminars and lectures for senior figures from China’s defence industry and university departments that work with its military. He is also a co-editor of two Chinese journals funded by weapons firms. Since 2014, he has had eight papers either published in Chinese journals or co-written with Chinese scientists working with Chinese arms makers — the most recent, in 2021.

And Covid rules permitting, Woodley will soon be jetting off yet again to Beijing. There, over four days in July, he will co-chair the International Conference on Defence Technology, presiding over sessions covering the latest discoveries in sensitive military technologies. Helpfully, Woodley lists their subject areas in his “welcome letter” on the conference website. They include hypersonic weapons (as deployed by the Russians with lethal effect in Ukraine), “explosions and impacts”, new types of armour, quantum computing and “wound ballistics”.

Clive Woodley at a conference in China

Just as in October, most of those in attendance will be from China’s weapons industry: Woodley’s co-chairs will be two of China’s most eminent defence scientists, Feng Changgen of the Beijing Institute of Technology and Li Baoming of Nanjing University and the Ordnance Science and Research Academy of China. Both are high-ranking members of the Communist Party, and their careers have been dedicated to China’s military.

In recent months, newspapers have carried many stories about China’s involvement with British academics and universities, and the risks this may pose. But until now, Woodley’s activities have gone unreported. The MoD says it does not recognise they might pose any risk. Its spokesperson refused to answer a single question about Woodley’s involvement with China, other than to say: “We have robust procedures in place to make sure research contracts do not contribute to overseas military programmes and that individuals or organisations with foreign-state links cannot access our sensitive research
 we ensure that stringent vetting checks are carried out.”

Imperial College said: “We take our responsibilities to UK national security seriously”, but also refused to answer questions. Its spokesperson added, somewhat bizarrely, that when Woodley wrote papers jointly with Chinese colleagues, he “should not have used” his Imperial College title. Here, Woodley appears not to have got the memo: for the forthcoming Beijing conference, he is, as usual, billed as an Imperial researcher.

As for QinetiQ, its spokesperson said the firm had “robust processes in place to vet our people and their activities both within and outside the business”. He said that Woodley was working there, and that he “frequently engaged with a number of other countries across the world, working collaboratively to support the international scientific community. Our UK Defence customer was both aware of and supportive of all these activities.”

Others, however, have expressed concern. A former senior MI6 officer told me: “The fact there have been not just one or two talks but a consistent and continuing pattern of meeting and contact is deeply concerning. I can’t think of another case where a British lecturer has visited China many times to talk about weapons technology, nor written papers about it in Chinese journals.”

Woodley’s intentions, he went on, were, presumably, innocent: a desire to share research with colleagues abroad. But he was, the former official added, at best deeply naïve: “An open relationship, with talks or lectures in scientific forums, can all too easily be a cover for attempts by a hostile intelligence service to conduct more in-depth discussions. To me, this looks like a classic example of the way China’s intelligence service works.”

He added that China may have tried to steal data from Woodley’s laptop or phone during his visits there, without him even knowing it: “Business people travelling to China are always advised to take only burner phones and computers with no sensitive data on them.”

Indeed, in 2013, the year before Woodley’s work with China began, it emerged that Chinese spies had stolen vast amounts of sensitive information from his then employer QinetiQ by hacking its computer system via two employees’ laptops. They stole 13,000 QinetiQ server passwords and acquired more than 1.3 million pages of documents.

I shared my findings with the Tory MP and former army officer Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said that after this article was published, his committee would investigate. Tugendhat said: “This case raises serious concerns about the integrity of our military secrets and the level of cooperation between a British expert and a potentially hostile state, and we will be looking into what exactly has happened — and why no one has raised such concerns before. No one could say his work is dual use. His career has had one end only — the development of weapons.”

Woodley’s activities are particularly concerning, given his long-standing reputation as a giant in his field. His contributions have included the development of plasma-powered cannons, fired by high-voltage electric pulses in place of old-fashioned explosives; ingenious ways of improving firing mechanisms and shells using mathematical modelling, so that big guns can be targeted more accurately; and ways of increasing the violence and speed of their shells’ detonations. Another of his areas of expertise is railguns — next generation hypersonic artillery weapons that fire projectiles at six times the speed of sound, so that a shell fired from London would land somewhere in Manchester in just over a minute.

There is, it should be noted, no suggestion that Woodley has disclosed classified information, or consciously tried to damage Britain’s national interest. Nevertheless, it is a fact that China has acquired a decisive lead in the race to deploy railguns. In 2020, it revealed a prototype mounted on a naval vessel and said it planned to deploy these “superguns” widely by 2025. Britain and America are said to be lagging far behind. In 2019, Woodley delivered a conference paper co-written with Li Baoming and his Nanjing University colleague Qin Linhua. Its title? “Recent Update on the Multi-Physical-Model of Electromagnetic Railgun.”

Woodley has been visiting China since 2014, when, Mandarin websites say, he gave “an important lecture” to scientists from Norinco. The same year, he joined the editorial board of a journal published in Mandarin, The Chinese Journal of Explosives and Propellants, co-owned by Norinco and the China Ordnance Society. The head of both institutions is a senior member of the Communist Party, Jiao Kaihe.

Woodley’s first paper for the journal was published in its December 2014 issue. It described how microscopic particles of aluminium could speed the detonation of explosives, and so make guns more deadly. The paper stated that this innovation would be “of great benefit to all small arms, medium calibre and large calibre gun systems including naval guns, land-based artillery and direct fire guns”. The paper’s acknowledgements stated: “This work was funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), part of the UK MoD, under the Hazard Modelling and Simulation task of the UK Energetics (UK-E) programme.”

Clive Woodley visiting the Beijing Institute of Technology in 2017

Woodley published another paper in the same journal in 2015, and a third in 2018, about mathematical modelling of the behaviour of guns and explosives. His last Chinese Journal of Explosives paper to date, published last August, dealt with new forms of explosives in what were termed “closed bombs”. It was co-written with four Chinese experts from the Xi’an Modern Chemistry Research Institute, part of Norinco. The Institute’s website says it is “China’s largest comprehensive research institution working on explosives and damaging combustion technologies”.

Meanwhile, in 2016 Woodley authored a paper in a second Chinese journal, Defence Technology, which is sponsored by the weapons industry body, the China Ordnance Society. It discussed the use of explosives at low atmospheric pressures and in temperature extremes, stating it was based on research “funded by the MoD”, under its “Weapons Science and Technology Centre” (WSTC).

He also became one of the journal’s three executive editors, along with the two scientists who will be co-chairing the conference with him in July, Li Baoming and Feng Changgen. Feng is a former member of China’s puppet parliament, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and is based at the Beijing Institute of Technology, one of China’s “seven sons of national defence” — universities with especially close military links and numerous top secret military labs. He sits on the Science and Technology Committee of the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, which coordinates China’s weapons research.

Until the pandemic, Woodley visited China almost every year. In 2015, he attended the autumn seminar at the State Key Laboratory of Explosion Science, part of the Beijing Institute of Technology. The following year he gave a week-long series of seminars at Li Baoming’s lab in Nanjing about his work at QinetiQ — which, photos reveal, were illustrated with slides bearing the QinetiQ logo. According to reports in Mandarin, as well as his lectures and seminars, he held private talks with his Chinese colleagues.

In 2018, he co-chaired the first International Conference on Defence Technology in Beijing, together with Feng and Li. The event was sponsored by Norinco, the China Ordnance Society, and the China South Industries Group Corporation, another major weapons maker. The event was attended by personnel from Norinco, several “seven sons” universities, and the Army Engineering University, which describes itself as “the premier research and educational institution for the PLA Ground Force”. The second of these conferences, in the autumn of 2020, had to be held online thanks to the pandemic. By then, the “golden age” was well and truly over, amid emerging evidence that China had concealed the true source of the Covid outbreak. Nevertheless, Woodley was there.

I have tried repeatedly to ask Woodley questions about his publications and trips to China in a series of emails. When he failed to respond, I visited his home in Kent. He told me that if I didn’t leave he would call the police, slammed the door in my face, and refused to accept my questions in writing. Among the things I had wanted to ask were whether he has received any payment for his work with Chinese colleagues and journals; what security precautions he has taken during his visits; and whether he considers collaborating with researchers from China is any different to working with experts from countries allied with Britain.

Charles Parton, a former diplomat and China expert at the Royal United Services Institute, who has written extensively on the need for the UK to improve its defences against China, told me that the curious case of Mr Woodley “requires urgent investigation and explanation. What was discussed with whom and in what terms? Were any benefits received? It also shows badly we need to up our defences. We need to define the areas of scientific research where we can cooperate with Chinese scientists and those which we must rule out on security grounds.”

Espionage expert Professor Anthony Glees, the founder of the Institute for Intelligence and Security Studies at Buckingham University, added: “Engaging with China over weapons research today represents the height of folly and could have potentially catastrophic consequences. Even with the best intentions, Woodley’s visits to China and his relationships with those who are bound to be Chinese intelligence assets places him in the utmost danger.”

As the scale of the strategic threat China poses becomes clearer, it may just be that Woodley’s friendships could have endangered the rest of us, too.


David Rose is an investigative journalist and author. He is currently Politics and Investigations editor at the Jewish Chronicle.

DavidRoseUK

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

28 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

For at least a decade the West’s attitude to China, even at the highest reaches of government, has been willfully blind. We’ve been seduced by the prospect of a large and growing market compared to economic stagnation at home. So we’ve turned a blind eye to numerous danger signals about China’s true intentions.
Oddball characters like Woodley have been allowed to freely associate with their Chinese counterparts and exchange information. I don’t blame him so much as the West’s willful blindness to China’s real intentions.
One of the few positive outcomes of covid is the final unmasking of who and what the CCP really is. Woodley needs to be warned off China, and if he persists he should (finally) face consequences.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
Karen Fleming
Karen Fleming
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

David Rose

Karen Fleming
Karen Fleming
2 years ago
Reply to  Karen Fleming

David Rose- thank you thank you thank you for bringing this critical case before the public and before the institutions and defense people in charge. This is truly unbelievable. I wish there were more journalists like you who do the important work that needs to be done in this unstable world of today. I feel very helpless when I read this report and all I can do is hope your work reaches the right people.

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“I don’t blame him so much as the West’s willful blindness to China’s real intentions.”

I do. “The West” is not an abstraction devoid of individual responsibility. It is a large group of individuals whose decisions guide and determine its future. The willful blindness has many causes and some of them are treasonous. Freedom is not free. It is much, much easier to lose than it is to gain.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russ W
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  Russ W

So where are the articles about the entire political and capitalist classes. China is powerful because of globalist ideologies that were hegemonic, and still are hegemonic, amongst all the elites. It’s not just some semi retired chump working in a uni.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Quite apart from the national security issues, this was a disconcerting article.

As a civil engineer, I have sometimes wondered what kind of conversations took place in the design offices of N a z I Germany. Railways and g a s chambers don’t build themselves.

To dedicate an entire career to researching the hi tech destruction of human beings is mind boggling.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Bollis
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Including those designed to be used by the west?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Well actually yes. I get that the other side has psychopaths, so we have to have to have them, but the concept of professional success, as a scientist, means dreaming up putting aluminium particles in a shell so more die per shell is deeply creepy.

Mark Burbidge
Mark Burbidge
2 years ago

So Imperial pops up again in relation to the Chinese. Woodley and Fergusson appear to be working as useful idiots for the CCP.

F Hugh Eveleigh
F Hugh Eveleigh
2 years ago

Thank you for writing this. We now know about the work of Mr Woodley and his numerous visits to China, his avoidance of response to your emails and his angry reaction to your knock on his door. It adds up, in my mind, to having an immediate investigation at official level and I hope now that the article is published the promise of such will commence. Considering Woodley’s field of research in respect to the UK’s general security and in particular to its possible use by China we seem to have lost sight of caution.

Deborah Bromley
Deborah Bromley
2 years ago

This article reinforces what I have long believed, the universities are amoral, focussed only on money and status and oblivious to the consequences of their actions.
Surely Imperial must have oversight of their staff’s activities?
Anyway, as set out in this piece, Woodley’s actions amount to espionage. I don’t buy the naĂŻve argument.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
2 years ago

There is no limit whatsoever in the intellectual arrogance of academics, nor their amorality in advancing themselves and their speciality subjects wherever they find an opening. The behaviour of Woodley does not surprise me in the least. Another one cut from the same cloth is Fauci.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

The Silk Road is paved with good intentions.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

That really is very good. Hats off to you.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

I am alone in thinking that the second photo, entitled ‘Clive Woodley at a conference in China’ reminded me of a defendant facing a capital charge at Nuremberg in 1946?

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

Why does it take a caving book author/
investigative reporter to do the job my ÂŁtax pays state security to do? Why is my security so secondary that this information swilling around for years is ignored? Everyone must take this article to their MP. Not that much will be done about it – boris too busy partying.

Keith J
Keith J
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

My thoughts exactly. And why have I only read about this on Unherd – surely the story is so important it deserves a major splash in the national press? It would be interesting to know whether David Rose has offered this piece to the establishment press and, if so, what the response was.

Peter Beard
Peter Beard
2 years ago

There is certainly a theme involving Imperial. I suspect the Chinese are getting a lot of value for their money. https://dailysceptic.org/2022/05/26/anatomy-of-a-scientific-witch-burning/

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

I hope that the bunglers over at MI6 have a large file on this man. Somehow I doubt it though.

David U
David U
2 years ago

“ Once the rocket goes up who cares where they come down. “That’s not my department” says Werher Von Bruan”. Tom Lehrer

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

This sounds like Philby all over again, with the casual insouciance of our own security regime. When I was security cleared at a fairly low level, any kind of contact with the likes of the Chinese was scrutinised and generally prohibited.

Woodley was the Chief Scientist at Qinetiq until 2018, which means he had easy access to everything it generated, and was liaising with the Chinese from 2014. That’s 4 years of our recent military research vulnerable to Woodley’s conscience or Chinese spy games. This sounds very very dodgy.

I’m astonished it was allowed, unless it was so he could provide misinformation.

Archibald Leach
Archibald Leach
2 years ago

He told me that if I didn’t leave he would call the police, slammed the door in my face, and refused to accept my questions in writing”…that is the sign of a guilty man: Unquestionable.
What on earth have our protectors at the Commons Select Committee been doing? – Blindfolded during the pandemic?
Great piece: finger’s crossed that your finding don’t drop into Boris’s party fancy dress pocket…

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago

I know we’ve always been at war with East Asia but its not that long ago that Xi was parading around Buckingham palace during a full state visit, in which he visited all the castles and got all the gun salutes. It’s a bit odd then to single out one guy who worked with China when the entire capitalist and political classes worked with China until ten minutes ago.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

The article acknowledges the Cameron detente but points out that Woodley was attending an arms conference in China as recently as October 2021 – well after that ship had sailed.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Hand waving away the fact that the entire British political and business classes cosied up to China until recently and then focussing on one guy seems like he is a modern day whipping boy.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Congratulations David Rose and Unherd – this has been picked up with references to Unherd by the mainstream media!

Sheridan G
Sheridan G
2 years ago

The creativity that goes into increasing the efficiency, deadliness and downright destructiveness of weapons is definitely weird. But somebody will do it, so I guess we should too, and do it better. Anything other would be a form of unilateral disarmament. 
I’m in complete agreement with all points raised in this article and Woodley’s goings-on needs to be assessed, but it’s interesting that the article is seeking clarity on weapons design transfer to China while admitting China leads in some main areas of research including railguns and hypersonic missiles: obviously Woodley isn’t responsible for that or we’d have them too. In reference to another comment here, maybe Woodley is MI6’s James Bond out to steal weapons IP from China rather than be a target of 007 for handing it over? Let’s hope he’s not more of a Johnny English style of spy?

Neil Hollingsworth
Neil Hollingsworth
2 years ago

Good day, Mr. Woodley.. The name’s Bond. James Bond. I have something for you.
Cue Bond opening movie music and the inevitable gunshot.