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The federal government in July imposed obligatory national security risk assessments on funding requests from university researchers to protect Canadian intellectual property from falling into the hands of authoritarian governments.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Two organizations representing academics of Chinese origin in Canada are warning that new mandatory national security assessments for federal funding of university research could lead to “racial profiling Chinese researchers as foreign agents.”

The Canadian Academy of Chinese Professors and the Canadian Association of Chinese Professors recently released a statement, addressed to administrators at this country’s universities, saying they strongly oppose the new risk assessment process laid out in national security guidelines for research partnerships unveiled by Ottawa last month.

The federal government in July imposed obligatory national security risk assessments on funding requests from university researchers to protect Canadian intellectual property from falling into the hands of authoritarian governments. François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced guidelines for Ottawa’s main scientific research granting agency amid growing concerns that Canadian universities and researchers are transferring important data and technology to China in research partnerships – specifically to its military and security apparatus. This includes research that is used to control or suppress oppress minorities.

CSIS warns Canadian universities to be on alert for international espionage

Researchers applying for grants through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will now have to complete a comprehensive security risk assessment. Any project assessed to be “higher risk” will undergo a review by Canadian security agencies and a team of scientists. If judged to be too high a risk, the research will not receive government funding.

Xiaobei Chen, a sociology professor at Carleton University, is a member of the Canadian Academy of Chinese Professors. She said, speaking for herself, what worries her is she feels Canada is following the United States in targeting Chinese academics and students. “I am not naïve; stealing of trade secrets, espionage – all those things exist. They exist everywhere.”

The government’s July announcement does not mention China by name. But Prof. Chen says the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been cautioning postsecondary institutions about China. “The guidelines did not come from a vacuum, but in the context of CSIS’ warning to universities last year,” she said.

In 2020, CSIS warned the country’s universities and research institutions that Beijing is using academic recruitment programs such as its Thousand Talents Plan to attract scientists to China in hopes of obtaining cutting-edge science and technology for economic and military advantage.

And in its 2020 report, issued this April, CSIS warned it “observed espionage and foreign interference activity [in Canada] at levels not seen since the Cold War.” The agency singled out Russia and China in particular.

Prof. Chen, who came to Canada from China in 1995, said she’s concerned people with “ties to Mainland China will be treated with suspicion.” She’s collaborated with universities in China and the goal, she said, was always to promote Canadian scholarship.

Mr. Champagne’s office could not be reached for comment on the letter to Canadian university administrators from the two academic associations representing scholars of Chinese origin.

In their letter, they warned the new national security filter will stifle research. “Researchers will self-censor and distance themselves from many cutting-edge fields to avoid jumping through cumbersome bureaucratic hoops” and to avoid becoming targets of prejudice, they say in their statement, dated July 20.

The rules will lead to discrimination against researchers with “minority ethnic backgrounds, especially those with Chinese origin and connections,” the groups warn.

Wenran Jiang, a retired political science professor from the University of Alberta, said he’s familiar with both associations. “These organizations are social in nature but do express their common concerns when major developments such as the research ... security review is so clearly targeted at Canadian academics of Chinese origin,” he said.

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said Canada must ensure there is an appeal mechanism for scholars who are denied funding over national security concerns. However, she said Canada also has a responsibility to ensure Canadian research and intellectual property is not being used to aid authoritarian states’ human-rights abuses.

“There are real concerns about bias that are legitimate. We have to make sure the proper mechanisms are there. That being said, it’s also very clear there are concerns that research relationships between Canadian and Chinese institutions could be funding research that is going to ends which taxpayers won’t support – like human-rights violations, surveillance technology. How do you ignore that?”

In May, The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China, which involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

Soon after, the Alberta government ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of new partnerships with individuals or organizations linked to the Chinese government or the Communist Party. The institutions are required to provide reports to the province outlining all relationships with China.

There are growing concerns among Western countries over China’s efforts to scour the world for technology that has both civilian and military value – what Richard Fisher, senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has called a global “intelligence vacuum cleaner.”

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