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A Federal Court judge has concluded that a Chinese engineering student is a potential spy and cannot enter Canada in a ruling that broadens the definition of espionage and has potentially wide consequences for foreign researchers.

The student, Yuekang Li, proposed to study under a leading researcher at the University of Waterloo and take what he learns back to China to improve its public-health system.

But Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton said Mr. Li’s plan fits the definition of “non-traditional” espionage – even without evidence he ever engaged in or had been trained in spying, or that his research has military uses.

University research programs have figured prominently among the concerns of Canadian intelligence officials over intellectual property theft.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has publicly warned that Beijing is threatening Canada’s national security and intellectual property in sensitive areas, including biopharmaceuticals. In a secret 2021 report obtained by The Globe and Mail, CSIS said Beijing is using Canada as a workaround because some students are barred from the United States. CSIS also says Beijing is sending some scholarship students to Canada with the aim of gaining access to critical high-tech. (Evidence in the case showed Mr. Li was supported by himself, his family and the university, not by a Chinese scholarship.)

Mr. Li had argued it was “speculation” to say he might be coerced into spying, but Chief Justice Crampton said there were “objective” grounds: Mr. Li had done his undergraduate studies at a Beijing university with a strong relationship to China’s defence industry; his field of study, known as microfluidics, is useful to China’s biopharma industry; and China is reported to target scientists and students for the transfer of sensitive commercial and military information.

“As hostile state actors increasingly make use of non-traditional methods to obtain sensitive information in Canada or abroad, contrary to Canada’s interests, the Court’s appreciation of what constitutes ‘espionage’ must evolve,” Chief Justice Crampton wrote in a ruling dated Dec. 22, but not posted on the court’s website until Wednesday.

The ruling has sweeping implications for international graduate students, from China and potentially beyond, said Lorne Waldman, an immigration and refugee lawyer. Its effect, he said, could be similar to that of the proclamation made by president Donald Trump in 2020, and allowed to stand by President Joe Biden, which barred a wide range of Chinese graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from the United States. Chief Justice Crampton cited the proclamation as evidence that China is using students to collect sensitive technologies abroad.

Barring someone from Canada because they are a graduate student in technology or science “creates an extremely broad ground of inadmissibility, one which could hamper the free flow of scientific research and ultimately be contrary to Canada’s long-term interests,” Mr. Waldman said.

Mr. Li’s lawyer, Raymond Lo, stressed that no one has accused his client of conducting any espionage. “I think it is a shame that officers are refusing such talented individuals who have a lot to contribute to Canadian research based on what may possibly happen, largely relying on general reports rather than the individual’s past actions,” he said.

Leah West, a national-security specialist at Carleton University, said that while the ruling accurately summarized Chinese spying methods, it “didn’t say why China advancing its biomedical research was contrary to Canadian interests.” She added: “The fact that it’s a country we compete with – is that sufficient, especially when you’re talking about public health?”

Wesley Wark, a leading specialist in national-security law, described the ruling as an important precedent in the area of research security and said it sends a message to Canada’s universities to reconsider their admission practices. He said the ruling is based on an understanding of China’s non-traditional espionage practices, which he described as unique.

“This student should never have been admitted into the University of Waterloo in the first place,” he said.

Nick Manning, a spokesman for the University of Waterloo, said the school will review the ruling carefully, “as it contains helpful guidance on the government’s interpretation of risk.” A spokeswoman for Immigration and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller declined to comment on the ruling.

Mr. Li had been accepted into the University of Waterloo’s PhD program in the mechanical and mechatronics engineering program. He said he wanted to dedicate his career to improving the use of technology in public health, an area he said was underdeveloped in China. His focus was to have been microfluidics, a branch of nanoscience involving tiny amounts of fluids. His thesis supervisor was to have been Carolyn Ren, the Canada Research Chair in Microfluidic Technologies, and a lauded innovator in her field. (Dr. Ren did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Five Eyes intelligence chiefs warn that China is biggest threat to Western democracies

In a letter used as evidence before Chief Justice Crampton, Dr. Ren said her laboratory is dedicated to medical applications of research, and that it has never done research with military uses, and never will. She also said microfluidics do not have military applications.

A Canadian government visa officer had rejected Mr. Li as inadmissible on the grounds of espionage, saying that China could target or coerce him to provide information contrary to Canada’s interests. Mr. Li went to Federal Court for judicial review – a process in which a judge must decide whether the visa officer’s decision was reasonable.

Chief Justice Crampton said that decision was reasonable, in part because it rested on credible reports of Chinese practices. One such report, from a U.S. government body, said China relies heavily on science and technology students to advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party, and benefit the military and commercial sectors. He also cited reports from CSIS and the CBC.

The visa officer, not named in the Federal Court ruling, said China takes advantage of the “collaborative, transparent and open nature of Canadian government, economy and society.” The unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information could harm Canada’s interests, in the visa officer’s view. The officer cited an article called “Why is China Becoming a Microfluidics Superpower?” The answer was that microfluidics creates research opportunities for key industries, such as biopharma and advanced medical products. Mr. Li’s specialization in a top-10 high-tech industry in China, said the visa officer, raised a concern that the country might target Mr. Li for use in espionage.

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