Skip to main content

Alex Joske is the author of Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World, senior risk adviser at McGrathNicol, and a former senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a board director of the China Strategic Risks Institute and the former executive vice-president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

For years, China has cast itself as a scientific powerhouse – but the reality is that a great deal of its innovation has come from collaboration with scientists from other countries. The country’s military modernization and its interest in harnessing its research sector in service of its strategic ambitions has made that spirit of collaboration fraught, with China’s defence complex effectively using the West’s open education system to accumulate know-how and technology.

The integration of China’s universities with its military and intelligence apparatus has reached new heights under Xi Jinping. More than a hundred Chinese universities have the credentials to carry out classified research; last year, McGill University professor Benjamin Fung described efforts by the Chinese government to offer Canadian academics lucrative deals to operate under Beijing’s thumb. Human rights abuses, such as the genocide of Uyghurs as recognized by Canada’s Parliament, are being executed with technologies based on research done at non-Chinese universities.

In 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed how leading academics in Canada, Australia and other countries had trained and collaborated with thousands of military scientists from China’s People’s Liberation Army. Western academics were often unwitting in these exchanges, which contributed to Chinese surveillance equipment, military supercomputers and combat drone swarms, to give just a few examples. The report also found that few academics and policy-makers appreciated that many of China’s top engineering universities function as cogs in a defence industrial complex.

Canadian officials have since started giving university administrators sensitive briefings about the risks, and providing researchers with user-friendly checklists of how to protect their research. As Beijing intensified its attempts to acquire technology for its military, Canada added a national-security screening process for 4 per cent of grant applications at NSERC. In the first year and a half, two-thirds were turned back owing to risk.

Australia has taken similar steps. A task force brings together universities and government to guide countermeasures. Grants have been turned down owing to concerns about cutting-edge research being transferred to China. Researchers are now required to disclose participation in Chinese government “talent recruitment programs” when they apply for government funding.

Canada has now taken another significant step with its new Policy on Sensitive Technology Research and Affiliations of Concern, which reflects the crucial recognition that security and integrity are key, if often overlooked, foundations for academic freedom and collaboration. Federally funded researchers working on key sensitive technologies listed in the policy will be prohibited from collaborating with listed high-risk foreign research organizations from China, Russia and Iran, including their top defence universities. The new clarity brought by the lists will also reduce anti-Asian sentiment that academics sometimes feel, making it a potential model for other countries dealing with similar challenges.

But more should be done. As one example, the new policy classifies genomics as a sensitive technology, so it should apply to Genome Canada – the funding agency that supported a $4-million project that gave Canadians’ genomic data to the Beijing Genomics Institute, which works with the PLA.

The list of high-risk research organizations should also be expanded to companies. None of the firms that develop Chinese weapons systems, such as China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, are currently on the list, nor are the Chinese technology giants Huawei and Tencent. Indeed, a representative of Huawei sits on the Board of Photons Canada, an industry/academia consortium, while photonics is on the list of sensitive technologies. And while universities have been slowly lapsing their collaborations with Huawei because of its military work, the company has provided $4.8-million to several University of Alberta professors and other researchers at its new off-campus artificial-intelligence lab, effectively creating a potential back door for China’s military to access our AI innovations, as companies could be beholden to Beijing under its National Security Law.

As Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne says, “researchers and institutions should continue to exercise due diligence in all of their research partnerships.” The provinces must do so too, to prevent collaborations with China’s civilian universities from undermining our technological advantages and supporting China’s military ambitions.

As agencies and universities implement new security measures and track how China responds, adequate resourcing and expertise on China will be essential; breaches of the policy will also have to be carefully and fairly investigated. Chinese institutions will inevitably seek to circumvent these safeguards – and we need to be one step ahead of them.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe