Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, is a senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.
The Natural Sciences and Research Council (NSERC) is reported to be establishing a joint venture between the University of Laval in Quebec City and Huawei, and has called for private-sector participants to help evaluate the proposal. In the invitation letter to industry leaders, one screening criterion is whether they “have strong political opinions about Huawei.” While potential industry peer reviewers must always identify if they are competitors of the joint venture partner or have some other conflict of interest, this additional screening question is indeed unusual.
However, the more important question is whether this is the time to be opening up new R&D collaboration with China. The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has itself been in the spotlight recently, with prominent universities, including California’s Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cutting their R&D ties with the company, and Oxford University suspending research grants from Huawei. Yet we are expanding ours?
In this context, it is important to be aware of China’s policy for the integration of military and civilian technology development, being led personally by China’s President Xi Jinping. Scientists and engineers across disciplines are now looking for military applications of seemingly innocuous research in a completely unrelated field. This means that Canadian researchers working with Chinese collaborators could be indirectly contributing to China’s military complex through research in areas such as artificial intelligence. The particular NSERC chair in question is in fibre optics, including optical networks, silicon photonics, and spatial division multiplexing; these are technologies that, while important in any advanced IT system, include elements which could have military applications.
Moreover, universities in the West, including Canada’s, have been alerted to the high number of joint collaborations between their professors and researchers in Chinese universities affiliated with its military. Most recently, an October, 2018, report of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute flagged that in 2017, Canadian researchers published 84 papers involving such collaborations, with the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, and McGill University being in the top 10 universities outside China with such publications. This has prompted a broader consideration among Canadian universities about how to keep their research safe.
Huawei, along with Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu, are among the top Chinese companies facilitating Beijing’s citizen surveillance system called the Social Credit System, which monitors people’s discussions on social media sites WeChat and Weibo. Citizens are losing the right to take a train or plane, and losing job promotions or spots in good schools for their children for saying things online that could be seen in any way critical of the Chinese government. Would any of the technologies anticipated for the planned chair assist in this new surveillance regime? Possibly.
We are still awaiting the completion of the federal government’s review of Huawei as an equipment provider for our new 5G systems. Here it is not just “back doors” that are of concern, but also “bug doors,” meaning bugs that are installed to be activated at a later date, as well as complete shutdowns of the systems remotely. Huawei’s insistence that they would never do such a thing is not persuasive as long as China’s National Security Law is still in place to compel the company to do exactly that on request. Three former directors of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service have advised that these systems cannot be made completely safe. Since even a small risk gone wrong could be catastrophic, it would be hard to reassure Canadians, 56 per cent of whom have a negative view of China’s relations with our country, according to a recent Nanos poll.
Finally, and in my view most importantly, this is not the time for business-as-usual relations with China. Beijing now has two Canadians in unwarranted detention who have been subject to aggressive interrogation, and another two Canadians await execution. This appears to be in direct retaliation for the arrest of an executive of the very company with which we would develop new R&D collaborations. China is not behaving as the trusted partner that Huawei would have us believe they are. Instead, let’s await the government’s 5G decision. Depending on where that comes down, Huawei may be reducing or cancelling its R&D projects in any case.