Canadian academics have collaborated on dozens of projects with Chinese military researchers – some of whom appear to have obscured their defence ties – raising concerns that Canada is inadvertently helping China modernize its armed forces.
The academic exchanges, jointly advancing technologies such as secure communications, satellite-image processing and drones, include the enrollment of Chinese defence scientists as graduate students and visiting scholars at Canadian universities, The Globe and Mail has found.
A Globe survey found that scholars with at least nine Canadian institutions – from smaller campuses such as Nipissing University to top engineering schools such as the University of Waterloo – have conducted research in partnership with Chinese military scholars. For instance, an expert in advanced computer simulations who was an adjunct professor at McGill University has also taught at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), which reports directly to the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party.
In fact, Canada has become the third-largest global destination for such researchers, according to a report published this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which has catalogued People’s Liberation Army sponsorship of 2,500 military scientists and engineers for studies abroad since 2007.
The overseas movement of Chinese military scientists “raises questions about technology transfer, because they’re ultimately doing it to develop skills and learn ideas that will help the Chinese military,” writes the report’s author, Alex Joske, who adds that “helping a rival military develop its expertise and technology isn’t in the national interest, yet it’s not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon.”
Canadian universities say it is the responsibility of the federal government, not individual schools, to decide which foreign researchers can enter the country. University ethics policies generally seek to minimize the potential for harmful application of their research and require transparency, with open publication of results. But none of the universities that responded to Globe requests had specific protocols in place to deal with the transfer of technology to countries such as China that are increasingly seen as military competitors by Canada and its allies.
“Most organizations, including universities, cannot make assessments on issues of national security. If the government of Canada provides us advice on national-security matters, we act on that advice,” said Matthew Grant, the director of media relations at the University of Waterloo.
That has left few obstacles to what Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center think tank, calls “the global Chinese intelligence vacuum cleaner” – an effort to scour the world for dual-use technology, which has both civilian and military value. The aims have been broad, from seeking materials for space weapons to technology for next-generation hypersonic missiles, and such work “has been immensely profitable for China’s military modernization,” Mr. Fisher said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for “rejuvenating the military with science and technology,” and China’s military budget is now the second-largest on Earth.
Some Chinese researchers partnering with Canadian scholars have openly listed their affiliation with the Air Defence College in Zhengzhou, China, with the NUDT and, in at least one case, prior studies at the Missile Institute of China’s Air Force Engineering University.
Others, however, have been less forthcoming.
Yu Hong-yi, one of China’s top experts in visible-light communication – an emerging technology that uses ordinary light sources to transmit data – has published joint research with Jian-kang Zhang of McMaster University. Chinese documents show that Mr. Yu is the dean of the Institute of Information System Engineering at the PLA Information Engineering University and works with the National Digital Switching System Engineering and Technological Research Center, a part of that university. (He also lists the digital switching centre as an affiliation in some publications.) A 2016 photograph posted online by a Chinese news portal shows Mr. Yu wearing a uniform bearing the four stars of a colonel.
When The Globe contacted Mr. Yu’s research centre to request an interview, a staff member said, “We don’t want to do this,” then hung up.
In some papers, Mr. Yu lists an affiliation with the Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute.
The institute, whose name is also used by other PLA researchers, does not appear to exist.
The Zhengzhou name is a “cover,” used in more than 1,300 published peer-reviewed articles, Mr. Joske said. Using alternate institution names “shows that they’re not being open about where they come from. So what else are they not being open about? It increases the risk in my mind that they’re trying to steal technology.”
A researcher who has worked with Australian China critic Clive Hamilton, Mr. Joske tabulated 687 academic papers co-authored by Canadian researchers with Chinese military scholars since 2006. He lists 10 universities as global leaders in publishing such joint research, and three are Canadian: the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and McGill University.
Other Chinese researchers have cited affiliations with civilian institutions, leaving their military ties unmentioned.
Zou Xiaoliang and Zhao Guihua, who published a 2017 paper on advanced satellite-image analysis with University of Waterloo scholar Jonathan Li, say they are with the “State Key Laboratory of Geo-Information Engineering” and the “Xi’an Institute of Surveying and Mapping.” But in online Chinese documents, both researchers are associated with Unit 61363, the Survey and Mapping Information Technology Group of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
A description of Unit 61363 published for a recruitment drive describes it as “the backbone force of our military surveying and mapping front,” whose tasks include “intelligence management.” A person who answered the phone at the unit’s political department confirmed that Mr. Zou and Mr. Zhao are both “senior researchers in our unit.”
When The Globe called Mr. Zou to request an interview, he said, “No need,” then hung up.
Among the frequent Canadian collaborators is Prof. Zhang of McMaster’s department of electrical and computer engineering. He is an expert in optical wireless communications, which uses LED lights, rather than radio frequencies, to transmit data. The private sector has invested in such “Li-Fi” technology, with visions of traffic lights communicating with vehicles or of hospital robots directed by light. But it’s also of military interest – as a form of ultrasecure communication.
Public records show that Prof. Zhang has jointly published articles with almost a dozen Chinese military researchers. His website also lists visiting PhD students, including one from the Shanghai Institute of Radio Equipment, which is under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the country’s main space contractor – a state-owned company formerly known as the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense.
The Globe was unable to obtain comment from any Chinese researchers contacted for this article. Wang Yijie, a Chinese computing expert at the National University of Defense Technology who has published research with scholars from Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary, said she was not authorized to conduct an interview, saying, “You should know the nature of our university.”
The Globe dialled six numbers listed for the PLA Information Engineering University. None rang through. Instead, the line filled with audible static before being disconnected. Zhu Yi-jun, a researcher there who has been a visiting professor with Prof. Zhang at McMaster, requested questions via e-mail, then did not respond.
Prof. Zhang, in an e-mail, said that as a researcher at a global university, he undertakes “studies with other professors in different countries. Most of my research findings are published in public or open journals that are available to anyone. This is the work of open academic collaboration.”
Annie Touchette, the senior communications adviser at Polytechnique Montréal, where a researcher has written on electricity-consumption management with a scholar from the National Digital Switching Centre at the PLA Information Engineering University, said: “To our knowledge, the federal government and Canadian intelligence agencies have not issued any warning with regard to any potential collaboration with researchers” there.
Many of the Chinese military researchers conducting work in Canada come from the NUDT, which, according to a 2016 academic article found by Mr. Joske, received $56-million in Chinese government funding to send graduate students abroad.
The NUDT counts 15,700 graduate and undergraduate students and hosted a visit in 2013 by Mr. Xi, who said, “We should speed up our efforts to build a first-class global university that has our military characteristics.” In another visit, in 2017, he called the institution “a highland for the cultivation of high-quality military talent and innovation of national defence technology.“
The university has also boasted that its students have been active in setting up overseas branches for the Communist Party. The PLA refers to a strategy of “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China,” Mr. Joske writes in his report.
NUDT-linked scientists have studied drone aerodynamics with a University of British Columbia researcher; mobile sensing and computer vision at the University of Waterloo; satellite navigation at the University of Calgary; and the “zombie-city model” as part of broader studies of emergency management response.
The latter was conducted with Haibin Zhu, a former faculty member at NUDT who is now at Nipissing University. A tenured professor at the school’s department of computer science and mathematics, he holds a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. He has published joint work with Chinese military scholars, a researcher with telecommunications giant Huawei – and a scientist at Defence Research and Development Canada, the research arm of the federal Department of National Defence.
He said his work with the NUDT “belongs to general research questions that are not directly related to the technological advancement of the Chinese military.” He has delivered three lectures at the NUDT since 2011.
Nipissing spokeswoman Meghan Venasse said the university had no concerns that Prof. Zhu’s work could be contributing to Chinese intelligence gathering. His hiring and research have been subject to the same standards as anyone else’s, she said. “If Chinese citizens are admitted into Canada, the university does not provide a separate layer of screening.”
At McMaster, director of communications Gord Arbeau said international scientific collaboration “is an essential part of being a research-intensive global university.” Individual scholars, he said in an e-mail, "are free to choose who they work with and how they undertake their research,” and the “Government of Canada is the arbiter of whether someone can come into the country.”
Neither Global Affairs Canada nor Citizenship and Immigration Canada responded on Monday to a Globe request for comment.
At McGill, graduate students are admitted “based on their academic records at recognized postsecondary institutions,” spokesman Chris Chipello said. He cited the university’s research guidelines, which stipulate that scholars “balance the potential benefits against the possibility of harmful applications” of their work. The university bars academics from any arrangement where ”the conduct of the research is to be kept secret.”
McGill’s school of computer science hosts a website for Hans Vangheluwe, an adjunct professor with a specialty in the “design of complex, cyber-physical systems” who, in a speaker’s bio for a 2014 conference, is also listed as an adjunct professor at the NUDT. Prof. Vangheluwe did not reply to a request for comment and no longer teaches at McGill, Mr. Chipello said. The “listing on the school of computer science website is outdated,” he said, although that was unrelated to any collaboration with China. “We’re not aware of any concerns having been raised.”
Academics debate the value of working with Chinese military researchers. At Nipissing, Prof. Zhu said in an e-mail that “banning collaboration with Chinese military researchers will definitely make Canadian scholars lose the shared human resource that can contribute to their related research in Canada.”
Others are more wary. Paul Fieguth is the director of the Vision and Imaging Processing Lab at the University of Waterloo, where he has worked with at least one visiting researcher from the NUDT. That work, he said, had “no military connections,” adding that he tries to avoid research with any military researchers, Western or otherwise.
“If Canada banned all collaborations with Chinese military researchers, I would have no problem with that,” he said. “Although I expect such a ban would cast an exceptionally wide net, probably interfering with a wide range of legitimate research.”
And while cutting off research collaboration may slow some technological development, it “may not prevent China from making breakthroughs,” given Beijing’s vast spending on such projects, said Jeremy Paltiel, an expert in Chinese foreign policy at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
Still, he said, “it may be worthwhile to build some aspects of security clearance into the ethical review process and make sure that all collaborative research programs are reviewed for security risks.”
Even more serious measures may be warranted, says Mr. Fisher, the author of China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach.
“The West,” he said, “will not be able to begin to gain control over this broad Chinese intelligence gathering assault until there is a revival of previous, Cold War institutions like the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), which was very successful in denying and delaying Soviet access to Western military technology.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Nipissing University professor Haibin Zhu as calling China’s National University of Defense Technology “a small and local university.” In fact, Prof. Zhu had used that description for Nipissing University. This version has been corrected.