Alberta has ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of partnerships with individuals or organizations linked to the Chinese government or ruling Chinese Communist Party, citing concerns over national security and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses.
The order affects the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University, institutions with a strong research focus in the province.
Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, has also requested that the boards of governors at these universities prepare reports within 90 days that detail all agreements, research relationships, institutional relationships and joint ventures under way with entities connected to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In addition, he asked for details on the “scope and scale” of any university ties to Chinese companies, government agencies or institutions.
In a May 20 e-mail that Mr. Nicolaides sent to the board chairs of the four affected universities, he also asked that their reports address the “implications of withdrawing” from these relationships.
Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China that involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
There are rising concerns among Western countries about 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 think tank, has called a global “intelligence vacuum cleaner.”
A few years ago, a study by the Australian Strategy Policy Institute found that Canada has become the third-largest destination for scientists affiliated with the Chinese military.
The University of Alberta and University of Calgary said Sunday that they are reviewing the minister’s e-mail and had no immediate comment. The other two universities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An Alberta government source said the U.S. government, in particular, has privately flagged collaboration between the province’s universities and China as an issue of concern. The Globe is not identifying this individual because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Technology developed “at Alberta universities could be used to forward the aims of the People’s Republic of China’s [PRC] military and security apparatus,” Mr. Nicolaides warned the universities in his e-mail. “Research originating in Alberta’s taxpayer-funded postsecondary institutions could be used to undermine Canada and her democratic allies and to facilitate the People’s Republic of China’s human-rights abuses at home against its citizens.”
“I hope you agree that such an outcome would be wholly unacceptable and morally deplorable,” the minister wrote.
“To this end, I ask that your institutions pause the pursuit of any new or renewed partnerships with PRC/CCP-linked entities, undertake a thorough review of your institution’s relationships with entities potentially linked to the PRC/CCP, and ensure these ongoing partnerships follow stringent risk assessments and due diligence.”
In his e-mail, the provincial Advanced Education Minister said Alberta’s concern is the same as concerns that have emerged in allied countries from Australia to the United States.
“Among Canada’s allies, serious concerns have been raised regarding university partnerships with entities and/or individuals linked to the People’s Republic of China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote.
“Alberta, with our world-class institutions, is not immune to foreign exploitation.”
Mr. Nicolaides said these national-security concerns are about the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.
“International researchers are a valuable and integral part of Albert’s postsecondary system,” he wrote. “I do want to make very clear I am in no way suggesting that individuals of certain nationalities or ethnicities are somehow to be viewed as threats … to the contrary, many individuals or their families came to Canada specifically to escape the oppressive regimes of their homelands.”
In an interview, the Alberta minister told The Globe that universities have expressed a “strong openness and willingness” to address this matter.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior official at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said the University of Alberta has been at the forefront among Canadian universities building ties with Chinese counterparts.
She had praise for the Alberta government’s move to require universities to re-evaluate their research ties to Chinese institutions. “That is a tremendous improvement in transparency and a model that other provinces should be looking at.”
However, Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said Alberta and other Canadian universities should also be given a list of 160 Chinese labs and institutes associated with the Chinese military. The list was compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“That should be a checklist against which universities should be reviewing their agreements with China and their research collaboration, which are often researcher to researcher rather than institution to institution, to ensure there is no collaboration with the Chinese military,” she said.
Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said she hopes that Ottawa will adopt a policy similar to Alberta’s when it comes to federal grants to universities and researchers.
In March, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced that Ottawa would be asking universities and granting councils to develop new risk guidelines to integrate national-security considerations into the evaluation and funding of research projects. The guidelines would send a signal to Canadian university researchers who often rely on foreign money to finance their work, but would not ban them from doing so. A federal working group on the issue is to report back in June.
Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Richard Fadden said the Alberta government is taking a sensible and cautious approach to ensure that its universities are not transferring leading-edge research to China that ends up benefiting Beijing’s military and security apparatus.
A decade or more ago, it might have been okay to collaborate with Chinese research institutions but the ball game has changed since President Xi Jinping assumed power, he said. Since 2015, the Chinese leader has made science and innovation a key element of modernizing its armed forces, security services and technology companies.
The military is increasing its ties to universities as part of a policy known as military-civil fusion to bolster its scientific expertise. Part of the strategy is to obtain research data from Western universities in key areas that service the communist government’s purposes.
“Since President Xi has become paramount leader, they have been more active and much more aggressive on a whole range of fronts,” Mr. Fadden said.
Mr. Fadden said he is hopeful that other provinces will adopt the same approach as Alberta and scrutinize publicly funded research activities with China on national-security grounds.
Ottawa should step in, he said, to prohibit universities from receiving money from foreign powers in strategic areas of research that are critical to the security of the West in areas such as avionics, space, nuclear and high-level optics.
“No matter how well-intentioned a university professor or a team may be in Canada who receives a Chinese grant, whatever he or she discovers is going to go back to China,” Mr. Fadden said.
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat to China and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said Chinese academics are beholden to the state, and their research is dictated by state ministries. China is willing to jointly fund Canadian research because it benefits that country’s geopolitical interest.
“They are state employees and they have to do what the state tells them. There isn’t a notion of academic freedom or the freedom to determine what subjects you research,” he said.
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