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People walk across a street near a large screen promoting the Chinese People's Liberation Army in Beijing on Jan. 9.Andy Wong/The Associated Press

Beijing is using a “workaround strategy” for postgraduate researchers to study cutting-edge technology at Canadian and U.S. universities after Washington began denying visas for some Chinese students on the grounds that they might steal intellectual property with military uses, according to a Canadian Security Intelligence Service report.

The Dec. 21, 2021, report, labelled secret and viewed by The Globe and Mail, said the strategy sends some scholarship students to Canada from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the aim of gaining access to critical high tech.

The Chinese government’s game plan includes training these Chinese citizens on how to avoid drawing too much attention when studying abroad.

The CSIS report lays out how China is using students to obtain technology that could be of benefit to the Chinese military, such as quantum computing, big data and artificial intelligence. The report was shared across key government departments and with the CIA, FBI and Britain’s domestic intelligence service, M15, as well as Australian and New Zealand authorities.

“Since the United States is blocking the People’s Republic of China’s access to high-end critical technologies, Chinese students are switching their majors to non-sensitive fields that employ related technologies,” according to the CSIS intelligence report.

It said Chinese citizens are also switching their majors when moving to Canada so they end up studying in less-sensitive fields where their work would not attract scrutiny. The report gave an example of an unnamed student sponsored to study in Canada by the China Scholarship Council.

“For example, one student majored in remote sensing in the People’s Republic of China. In Canada, the same student’s major is forestry, which utilizes similar technology to remote sensing,” CSIS said in the report.

Remote sensing includes using satellites or airplanes to gather data from a great distance. The military employs it to determine enemy locations and movements, and this information is crucial for planning and operations.

CSIS has publicly warned that Beijing is threatening Canada’s national security and intellectual property in five sensitive areas of research and development, including quantum theory, photonics, artificial intelligence, biopharmaceuticals and aerospace.

The spy agency said in the December, 2021, report that Chinese graduate students funded by the China Scholarship Fund are required to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. They received two weeks of training before they come to Canada on how to keep a low profile to avoid attracting the attention of security services, CSIS said.

The instruction included “how to be careful, avoid talking too much and to ‘just listen,’ ” CSIS said. The students are taught to “avoid individuals who attempt to build friendships, and limit discussions about past and current studies and hobbies.”

The China Scholarship Council [CSC] is the primary vehicle through which the Chinese government awards scholarships and is affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education, the CSIS report said. CSC has partnered over time with many of Canada’s leading universities, including the University of Waterloo, the University of Calgary and York University.

The Trump administration imposed tougher visa restrictions on Chinese students in 2020 – which President Joe Biden continued – because of national-security concerns that some postgraduate researchers have been given the task of helping China develop new military technologies.

This measure by Washington followed a recommendation from the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), a bipartisan watchdog created by Congress, which warned that Beijing requires its scholarship students to “study specific strategic scientific and technological fields” to promote its military-civil fusion. This refers to the enticement of civilian researchers in China to collaborate with the People’s Liberation Army.

Asked if Canada is also screening postgraduate students from China, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined to directly answer. Jeffrey MacDonald nevertheless said the IRCC “works with security partners to determine whether or not an applicant meets Canada’s admissibility requirements.”

He said this “includes our work with CSIS” through what is called the Immigration and Citizenship Screening program, where CSIS conducts investigations and provides security advice to the department “regarding persons who might represent a threat to national security who are seeking entry to or status in Canada.”

In a 2020 report, the USCC watchdog said CSC scholarships stipulate that recipients must accept the “guidance and management” of Chinese embassy and consular officials while abroad and submit periodic “research reports” to them. It noted that Washington’s July, 2020, decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston reportedly stemmed in part from U.S. officials’ assessment that diplomats posted there facilitated technology transfer by Chinese postgraduate researchers in areas such as artificial intelligence and biology.

A June, 2020, Statistics Canada report said China was the top source of international enrolments in most university program areas in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. “China was a key source country in all program areas in 2017/2018,” it said. “Even in programs with relatively few international enrolments, Chinese students comprised a substantial share of international students.”

The number of Chinese students in Canada with study permits fell by more than 30,000, or 19 per cent, during the pandemic, to 141,085 in 2021 from 173,365 in 2019, according to IRCC.

CSIS documents viewed by The Globe say that Beijing has become increasingly concerned about the spy agency’s recent efforts to warn Canadian universities and researchers of the risks of collaborating with China on leading-edge science and technology projects. A Feb. 15, 2022, CSIS report quoted one Chinese diplomat in Canada as complaining that CSIS was “unnecessarily investigating PRC-focused academics” and said PRC officials should warn these academics about the investigations.

In 2021, Ottawa put in place stricter guidelines to require national-security reviews for academics seeking federal funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). But that did not apply to other federal funding bodies.

Ottawa extended the ban to all federal granting agencies after The Globe revealed in January that 50 Canadian universities had been collaborating with China’s National University of Defence Technology since 2005. The ban applies to all research with China’s military or state-security institutions.

Aside from attempting to obtain state-of-the-art technology or to take over companies involved in mining Canadian critical minerals, CSIS has also warned that Chinese diplomats and their proxies are interfering in Canadian democracy.

Based on secret and top-secret documents, The Globe reported that China’s tactics in the 2021 federal election included making illegal cash donations, spreading disinformation and using paid students to help preferred Liberal candidates.

The Globe has also reported that Beijing allegedly interfered in the 2019 election through an orchestrated and organized campaign that covertly supported at least 11 federal candidates (nine Liberals and two Conservatives).

With reports from The Canadian Press

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