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The joint research projects are generating knowledge that could help drive China’s defence sector in cutting-edge, high-tech industries

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Chinese researchers test the supercomputer Tianhe No.1 at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha city, central Chinas Hunan province, on Oct. 27, 2009.He shuyuan/Reuters

Canadian universities have for years collaborated with a top Chinese army scientific institution on hundreds of advanced-technology research projects, generating knowledge that can help drive China’s defence sector in cutting-edge, high-tech industries.

Researchers at 50 Canadian universities, including the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia and McGill University, have conducted and published joint scientific papers from 2005 to 2022 with scientists connected to China’s military, according to research provided to The Globe and Mail by U.S. strategic intelligence company Strider Technologies Inc.

Strider found that in the past five years, academics at 10 of Canada’s leading universities published more than 240 joint papers on topics included quantum cryptography, photonics and space science with Chinese military scientists at the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT). Some of these NUDT researchers are experts in missile performance and guidance systems, mobile robotics and automated surveillance.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has warned that Beijing is increasingly using joint academic research programs to obtain innovative science and technology for economic and military advantage.

NUDT was blacklisted by the United States in 2015 – subject to export restrictions – under former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration because Washington believes it “is involved, or poses a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities that are contrary to the national-security or foreign-policy interests of the United States.”

NUDT reports to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission and has been lauded by President Xi Jinping as a “highland for training high-quality new military personnel and for independent innovation in national defence technology.”

Along with public Canadian universities, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a federal funding agency, has been contributing to projects conducted with Chinese military scientists.

In 2021, however, Ottawa introduced tougher guidelines for NSERC. Researchers applying for NSERC grants would have to complete a security risk assessment. Any project assessed to be “higher risk” would undergo a national-security review by Canadian security agencies and a team of scientists. If judged to be too high risk, the research will not receive federal funding.

But that hasn’t deterred Canadian universities from collaborating with China. Despite the new security rules, none of the Top 10 universities involved in projects with NUDT, the People’s Liberation Army’s main scientific institution, would commit to barring their academics from doing further research with the university.

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Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president of NSERC and current senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, says Canada should not be partnering with China on research.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president of NSERC and now senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, noted that the new security guidelines only cover federal grants and not individual academic research with China’s military. China offers a lot of money to Canadian researchers and universities to work with them, she said.

“The People’s Liberation Army is not our friend and we should not be partnering with them,” she said. “Any collaboration with the National University of Defence Technology is clearly going to a military purpose and Canadian researchers should be using their own personal ethical lens to decide not to move forward with that research.”

Participating universities contacted by The Globe cited a reason that they’ve used for years to justify research with China and state enterprises including 5G technology from Huawei Technologies: Any order to stop working with China and Chinese companies, they say, should come from the federal government.

“On matters of national security, universities look to Canadian authorities for actionable direction, and there is no direction from such authorities to preclude the co-authoring of the research papers you describe,” said Joseph Wong, vice-president, international at the University of Toronto.

But Ottawa has not told them to stop collaborating with Chinese military scientists. Until government does, nothing will change, security experts say.

Alex Wellstead, communications director for Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, would not say if Ottawa would ban research collaboration with NUDT. But he noted federal efforts to integrate national-security considerations into federally funded partnerships.

“This includes working directly with academic institutions to better safeguard Canadian research, new national security guidelines for research partnerships, funding to support postsecondary institutions so they can better identify, assess and mitigate potential risks to research security, and working to establish a research security centre to provide advice and guidance directly to these institutions,” he said.

Dennis Molinaro, a national-security analyst and professor at Ontario Tech University, said “there is a lot of passing the buck” taking place on the subject of university research with China.

The universities say they need clarity from government on risks posed by their joint research. But CSIS, for instance, which gathers intelligence on foreign threats, is prevented from sharing specific details with Canadians – even with law enforcement unless it’s specifically for prosecution and regarding a criminal offence.

“Each are relying on the other to do the right thing, meaning the university wants to know what specific threat exists so it doesn’t curb academic freedom, and the intelligence sector wants the university to act on the basis of, in essence, ethics, that partnering with this kind of institution in the PRC is unethical,” Mr. Molinaro said.

He said the federal and provincial governments need clearer guidelines for academic partnerships and legislative reform to the CSIS Act that enables the spy service to talk more openly about threats that exist.

CSIS declined to say whether Canadian universities should halt their collaboration with NUDT when asked by The Globe. But the spy agency left no doubt that it opposes such activities.

“To further its national interests, the PRC’s military-civil fusion policy blurs the lines between the civilian and military research industries. This means that any Canadian research targeted by the PRC may contribute to China’s military modernization,” CSIS spokesperson Brandon Champagne said. “The National University of Defence Technology’s name alone suggests there exists a Chinese military component to its activities.”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) talks with scientific research staff members during his inspection tour at the National University of Defence Technology in Changsha on Nov. 5, 2013.Li Gang/Newscom

Among the collaborations on quantum technology is research jointly funded by the China, Russian and Canadian governments that used lasers to try to hack quantum cryptographic systems, a cutting-edge method of secure communications that could benefit the PLA.

Experiments in a research paper published in 2020 mimicked a “hacking scenario” and lead researchers included Anqi Huang, who was listed as affiliated with the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing as well as an NUDT quantum research unit.

The paper says research funding sources include NSERC, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia.

Nick Manning, associate vice-president of communications at the University of Waterloo, said researchers at the university worked with Chinese military scientists on quantum cryptology to get a better understanding of how laser interruptions can aid eavesdropping.

“The reason the university was involved in doing any kind of quantum hacking, regardless of who it is with, is because the idea is essentially that you understand the vulnerabilities of quantum systems and how they can be exploited in order to build protections down the line,” he said.

Mr. Manning noted that Ottawa encouraged this cutting-edge research and never raised any concerns.

“There was kind of an incentive to partner with people who were doing this research to further the field,” he said. “We know that some of those international partnerships could involve risk to Canada’s national security but we were working then under the guidelines and the allowable practices that existed then. We are in a completely different global context now.”

The Globe asked Strider to use its custom software to comb through widely available sources of information to compile the list of Canadian universities in research collaboration with NUDT.

According to Strider’s research, the University of Waterloo tops the list of such Canadian organizations. From 2017 to 2022, University of Waterloo researchers published 46 papers in collaboration with researchers affiliated with China’s NUDT. Some of that research, published in 2018 and 2020, involved photonics, a key enabling technology for many emerging national-security systems.

The University of Alberta was the second leading organization involved with NUDT, followed by McGill University, University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, McMaster University, Concordia University and the University of Calgary.

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Since 2017, U of T researchers have published 15 papers in collaboration with researchers affiliated with the NUDT. Several papers published dealt with aerospace science, satellites and microchips. One of the NUDT scientists, Yuan-He Liu, presented a paper on spacecraft in 2019. His biography says he also works on guided-missile performance systems for the PLA.

The U of T’s Mr. Wong defended the university’s long collaboration with NUDT, saying the papers were published in “widely available reputable peer-reviewed academic journals.”

McGill University researchers have published 25 papers with NUDT counterparts since 2017. Academics from the two universities conducted work on space-based laser interferometry while another study dealt with hypersonic propulsion systems. In 2020, scientists collaborated on using satellites to guide multiple spacecraft. The biography of one of the Chinese authors, Lei Chen, is listed as an expert in missile guidance and control systems.

Cynthia Lee, spokesperson for McGill, said the university strives to be “as open as possible to collaborations from around the world,” and added that it played a role in advising the government on the new security guidelines for federal funding.

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said that even if some of the research appears to be only for civilian use, it can still help China advance its economic and technological ambitions.

“When you have collaboration with Canada and the U.S. or U.K., it is a two-way street,” she said. “With China, it is one-way street. It is kind of like a vacuuming sound that you hear as Chinese collaborators take all the Canadian technology know-how and innovation.”

Canadian universities have known for some time about the risks of working with Chinese universities and corporations that are controlled by China’s Communist Party. They, along with other Western educational institutions, argue that international scientific collaboration benefits all of humanity, a view that has helped drive China’s economic, technological and military development.

“As is standard practice within the research process to help advance knowledge and innovation, UBC researchers publish the results of their work, including collaborations, in peer-reviewed academic journals, where the findings are made public and available for a global audience, UBC senior media strategist Thandi Fletcher said when asked about UBC’s involvement with NUDT.

Ms. Fletcher said UBC recognizes the “global political landscape” has changed and the university is now aware “some research collaborations may pose potential national-security risks.”

UBC published 20 joint papers since 2017 including research on telecommunications security, aircraft design optimization and signal processing. A review of researchers affiliated with the University of Calgary shows that they published seven papers with NUDT since 2017. Some of the research papers dealt with quantum repeating, mobile mapping and remote sensing.

In 2021, a group of scientists from both universities published an epidemic model to analyze the spread of COVID-19. One of the Chinese authors, Yanghui Fu, has also conducted research on using artificial intelligence to wargame a “ship-defence scenario that includes multiple aircraft and ships.”

Greg Levesque, CEO and co-founder of Strider, said Canadians should be concerned that their world-class research facilities are being used by Chinese scientists to develop Beijing’s military programs.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Levesque said. “Checks and balances need to be put in place within academia to level the playing field and protect open scientific collaboration. … University administrators need to take more proactive measures to address these security gaps.”

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