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The University of Alberta campus in Edmonton, on Aug. 26, 2016.CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Globe and Mail

The University of Alberta is carrying out extensive scientific collaboration with China that involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

In some cases, professors and researchers at the university have set up companies in joint ventures with Chinese companies and state institutions to commercialize Canadian-developed technology.

The University of Alberta declined to discuss its research activities with China other than to say that “we have received no directives related to China” from the federal government to stop its engagement with Chinese institutions.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service and U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that Chinese companies and academics are being compelled to share work they have carried out with Western researchers with China’s military, security and industrial apparatus.

Canadian-linked foundation offers travel to China in exchange for research from academics, scientists

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.

“They’ve been the lead in Canada on partnering with China – there’s no question about it,” said Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, who wrote a paper for the U of A’s China Institute warning about the pitfalls of getting involved in joint ventures with Chinese companies or educational institutions.

“All of these professors feel they are doing the right thing by engaging with China and helping China build their capacity, but they have to look very carefully at each deal to see ‘Are we being taken to the cleaners’ and what is the longer-term plan for the technology,’ ” Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said.

U.S. senators are seeking to improve oversight of grants and contracts to universities from overseas as part of a bipartisan package of legislation to boost American competitiveness with China in science and technology.

In March, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced 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 fund their work, but would not ban them from doing so.

The University of Alberta has forged close ties with China. Since 2005, under an agreement with China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, U of A researchers have gained access to at least 50 state labs in China, while upwards of 60 professors have received grants for more than 90 joint projects with state and national Chinese labs.

Back in 2018, the university accepted a major donation from Hong Kong-based billionaire Jonathan Koon-Shum Choi, a high-ranking member of the political advisory body to the Chinese Communist Party that has ruled China for 70 years. In the past year, Mr. Choi has emerged as an enthusiastic supporter of Beijing’s harsh crackdown on Hong Kong.

The University of Alberta, however, refused to disclose the size of Mr. Choi’s gift, and did not respond to questions about whether it would return the money given his strong support for the Hong Kong clampdown.

Dr. Shrawan Kumar, professor emeritus of rehabilitation medicine at the U of A, said he has long been concerned about scientific co-operation with China.

“China approaches individual researchers and lures them with money and travel and hospitality and all that and they fall for it,” he said. “The Chinese policy by hook and by crook is to get the proprietary information.”

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, said Canadian universities have to rethink research arrangements with state-owned and state-championed companies based in authoritarian states, particularly when there is a risk that the technology may be used in human-rights abuses.

“For years, we have been telling universities to go out and get this money and not really paying attention to it. And now we realize there is this huge problem and we have to slam on the brakes. But we’ve already driven off the cliff.”

In 2019, the U of A signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with HKAI lab in Hong Kong, an incubator for artificial intelligence. HKAI is funded by Alibaba and SenseTime, a Beijing-based AI company that was blacklisted by the U.S. government for its surveillance role in the repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The university declined to answer questions about this collaboration. The House of Commons unanimously declared in February that China is conducting genocide against its Muslim minorities.

The web page for an entity called the Canadian Centre for BioInnovation in Shandong, China, with connections to the U of A, says the organization is to “carry out transnational technology transfer” and attract Canadian talent and projects. Its advisory board includes the University of Alberta’s associate vice-president of innovation and commercialization, Deborah James, according to Lorne Babiuk, a former vice-president of research at the university. He is the honorary president of the Yantai YEDA International Incubator for Biomedical Innovation Centre, where the Canadian centre is located.

Three U of A professors and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alberta have set up a commercial spinoff, Tricca Technologies, that seeks to build and sell handheld biosensors. The university itself has an 8.74-per-cent stake in the company, according to Alberta’s corporate registry. In 2018 Tricca entered into a joint venture with the Yantai YEDA International Incubator for Biomedical Innovation, which corporate disclosure statements say was founded by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Rongchang Pharmaceuticals and local Chinese government.

Tricca has a 40-per-cent share of the joint venture. The Chinese partner, Yantai YEDA International Incubator for Biomedical Innovation, has a 60-per-cent stake.

Tricca chief executive Scott MacKay, who along with three U of A professors represents the team that runs the firm, said the funding their Chinese partner brings will help commercialize, manufacture and market their products. Some research and development will take place in China and the Chinese partner will also bring technology to the venture.

“We recognize that there are always risks when sharing R&D results and intellectual property with other companies,” he said. “While we recognize there are risks with any business partnership, these types of relationships are built on trust. We’re working with individuals in China who have long established relationships with Canada.”

However, Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said Canadians should think twice before setting up new research ventures with Chinese partners.

“This is classic: where 60 per cent is owned by China and 40 per cent is owned by the Canadian company,” she said of Tricca’s joint venture.

She warned of the pitfalls of joint ventures with Chinese partners in a report last year for the University of Alberta’s China Institute. Her research found dozens of Canadian firms that were pressed into unequal partnerships and often found their Chinese partner trying to take over the joint venture.

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said the joint venture has been China’s preferred arrangement for Western technology firms operating in China and it comes from the country’s “Indigenous Innovation Policy,” which seeks to integrate Western technology into Chinese products with a goal of reducing China’s dependence on Western technology to below 30 per cent of the Chinese market by 2025.

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