Experts call on Canadian universities to close off China's access to sensitive research

Three Canadian universities are among the most active in the world when it comes to collaborative work with Chinese researchers. Now, some are calling on post-secondary institutions to take steps to keep the Chinese military away from Canadian science.

Former CSIS director says China views Canada as an 'easier target'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tours Velocity, an entrepreneurship program at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ont., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The University of Waterloo is one of three Canadian institutions that conduct a lot of shared research with Chinese academics. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The U.S. State Department revealed last week that, over the past three months, it has expelled more than a thousand Chinese "high-risk graduate students and research scholars" who were working at American universities.

The State Department said their visas were revoked under Presidential Proclamation 10043, issued by President Donald Trump at the end of May to counter "a wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of its military, the People's Liberation Army."

The individuals whose visas were revoked represent only a small fraction of the 370,000 Chinese nationals studying in the U.S. — and a big escalation in Washington's conflict with China over the control of the world's most coveted technologies.

Washington is not alone in suggesting that the Chinese military has encouraged or even enlisted academics to collaborate with counterparts in the West, in person or remotely, while masking their affiliations with the People's Liberation Army [PLA] or its institutes of learning, such as the National University of Defence Technology.

In Canada, the Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations heard similar allegations in testimony in the weeks leading up to prorogation — including the claim that some of the core technology behind China's surveillance network was developed in Canadian universities.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald documented a startling array of projects which saw Australian scientists collaborate with Chinese universities to carry out military research beneficial to the PLA — some of it funded by Australian taxpayers. Much of that research found its way into new Chinese weapons systems or the surveillance networks employed by the Chinese regime, the Herald said.

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I think we're a bit bonkers in that we don't really restrict the areas in which Chinese students can study.​- Richard Fadden, former CSIS director

In 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a study that looked at the number of peer-reviewed papers co-authored by PLA scientists and overseas researchers. It found that universities in Australia and Singapore had the highest level of collaboration.

But three Canadian universities also made the top ten ranking: the University of Toronto (10th place), McGill University (9th), and the University of Waterloo (4th).

There were just over 140,000 Chinese nationals studying in Canada before the pandemic hit. Waterloo's vice-president of research Charmaine Dean said her university's focus on science and engineering makes it naturally attractive to Chinese researchers, citing artificial intelligence and robotics as two areas of particularly strong cooperation.

She said science — not geopolitics — is front of mind for Waterloo researchers. "Individuals tend to work with other researchers that are brilliant around the world in order to advance an area," she said.

Dean is one of a group of research VPs from Canada's 15 main research universities who have met with officials from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to discuss their work with Chinese counterparts.

"I do reach out to them routinely," she told CBC News. "I would say before the pandemic hit, we're talking about every month, every other month, to identify whether there are any issues with any of our collaborations … And I will tell you that there has been no specific or general direction that I am expected to take in how I am approaching collaborations with China on the research file."

Dean said the university is more than open to being given more direction by the federal government.

"If the government of Canada would like to provide universities as a whole advice on national security matters, or if there are any specific concerns with regards to the University of Waterloo, I think that is really important for us to hear that," she said. "We can't make assessments on issues of national security."

If we're partnering with China on these areas, our R&D ...could be going directly to the Chinese military.- Researcher Margaret McCuaig-Johnston

But some in academia are pushing back on that viewpoint.

"I believe it's up to every citizen of Canada to be defending national security," said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, who spent decades in some of the federal government's top scientific posts and served on the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science & Technology before joining the University of Ottawa, where she researches China's science and technology strategy.

She said AI and robotics are two areas of great interest to the Chinese military.

The U.S. Army's new Crusher combat robotic vehicle rolls over a car on a test range Tuesday Feb. 19, 2008 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The Chinese military is said to be actively pursuing cutting edge robotics and AI technology. (The Canadian Press/AP-Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Carnegie Mellon via The El Paso Times)

"They're really putting a big focus on artificial intelligence and developing lethal autonomous weapons. So that would be robotics in the field of war," she said.

"They're looking for help from Canada in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced materials, quantum computing, all areas that can help their military and help other aspects of their economy as well.

"And what it means for Canadians is, if we're partnering with China on these areas, our R&D, government funded R&D often could be going directly to the Chinese military. And I've talked to scientists about that, including in artificial intelligence. And it's quite concerning that they often say, 'Well, I've been friends with these researchers for 20 years, they wouldn't do that kind of thing.'

"But in China, it's required that researchers partner with the military."

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa told CBC News there is nothing to fear from scientific collaboration with China.

"China believes that international cooperation is an inevitable requirement for scientific and technological development, and is an unstoppable trend of the times as well. Countries should create favourable conditions for normal exchanges and cooperation between the educational and scientific communities and create a suitable atmosphere," said spokesman Du Xudong in an email.

"The PLA has always been a staunch force for maintaining the world peace and stability. We firmly oppose the politicization of normal exchanges and cooperation on academic and scientific research and the demonization of the Chinese military."

'Tip of the iceberg'

McCuaig-Johnston said Waterloo and other universities have received guidance from Canada's security agencies and should be doing more to guard against rogue technology transfers to China — "particularly when your university has been identified as one of the top ten in the world partnering with Chinese military institutions. We need to get ourselves out of this top 10 list.

"In 2017, there were 84 co-publications between Canadian researchers and Chinese researchers with military technologies," she said. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg, because those are the ones where there was collaboration that led to a publication. There's all kinds of other collaboration going on that hasn't yet led to publications."

Dean said researchers can only assume that anyone granted a visa to study in Canada has been vetted already. "So that that assessment was already made by the government of Canada in allowing them to come in here. Same with our research visitors," she said.

WATCH | Calls for Canada to block China from sensitive research:

Calls for Canada to block China from sensitive research

3 years ago
Duration 1:54
There are concerns about Canadian universities collaborating with researchers linked to the Chinese military because their findings could enhance China's capabilities, but the University of Waterloo says it needs better guidance from Canada's spy agency CSIS on what to allow.

"Of course, with all the heat on the China file, there's been a strong interest in making sure that we have all the legal aspects of our agreements in place, with T's crossed and I's dotted. And of course we are looking at security and security risks."

But Dean said her role is to facilitate contacts, not to erect barriers.

"If a vice president research starts interfering with individual collaborations to say, 'Yes, you may do this research, no, you may not do this research,' without some mechanism of providing due rationale to a researcher, then I think we'd be starting to walk down a path that would tread on the freedom of individuals to conduct research and also tread on due justice," she said.

Richard Fadden, then the director of CSIS, waits to testify at the Commons public safety committee on Parliament Hill in 2013. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Richard Fadden headed CSIS from 2009 to 2013 and was the first director to go public with concerns about influence campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party. He triggered a furor in 2010 when he said that CSIS knew of prominent Canadian politicians under the influence of Beijing.

Fadden said he disputes the claim that the agency he once headed hasn't provided guidance and advice to universities. He also said that if universities won't act on their own, the government should block off whole areas of research rather than trying to vet thousands of individuals.

"I think we're a bit bonkers in that we don't really restrict the areas in which Chinese students can study," he said.

While Fadden said that "we mustn't go down the rabbit hole" of suspecting every Chinese student coming to Canada of working for Chinese state security — and that it would be a mistake to consider China the only problem nation — he does view Beijing as the most active and aggressive state player in the acquisition of other countries' intellectual property and technical secrets.

Seal off some areas of research: Fadden

"I think there are probably ... ten or so areas of study that have national security implications," he said, citing the high value of optics research to maintaining NATO's technical edge over its rivals.

"There are some areas where we should simply say, 'You can't study in those areas. You can't invest in those areas, you can't buy in those areas.' And for the life of me, I don't understand why with the Five Eyes or the United States or NATO … couldn't come up with [a] commonly accepted list of areas and say, 'We, as NATO, are not going to allow work in this area.'

"Will the Chinese be annoyed? Absolutely. But they don't allow us to do any of this in their country. So, you know, reciprocity is an important principle of international relations."

Fadden said that if western countries act in unison to stop the bleeding of military technology to China, there will be less blowback for any individual nation.

Right now, he said, the U.S. is actively hunting spies in a way that Canada is not.

"We don't worry as much about national security as does the United States," he said. "So I think, from that perspective, we're viewed as an easier target."

A spokesperson for CSIS, meanwhile, disputed the suggestion that the agency hasn't given universities enough guidance.

"CSIS provides regular unclassified briefings to many stakeholders including universities so that they are fully aware of the threat environment around them," said John Townsend. "These threats can include attempts of espionage to steal privileged information and research as well as the manipulation of students through foreign interference ..."

Mary-Liz Power, spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, also said that the government had "actively engaged" universities and researchers through the Safeguarding Science Initiative, which "provides workshops featuring experts from several federal departments and agencies, and equips participants with the base knowledge they need to better protect and secure their research and data."

McCuaig-Johnston said that while the government needs to take a more active role, "it's still up to [Canadian universities] to be looking at where Chinese universities may be a problem.

"There's a list of 160 Chinese universities and labs that are focused on defence purposes, and that list of 160 should be being given by each university to their researchers in natural sciences and engineering so that they can check themselves as to whether they're partnering with those institutions," she said. "And if they are partnering, they should stop."

Dean said that the University of Waterloo is always open about its research and publishes it as widely as possible.

"Pretty much everything that we do has to be disseminated in venues that are open to the general scientific community to utilize," she said. "So even if we did it with Germany, it would still be available publicly to anybody in China to use because of that open, transparent research process."

But there's a difference between merely reading about research and taking part in it, said McCuaig-Johnston.

"When you collaborate with China, the Chinese scientists and engineers can actually shape the research as it's being done and direct it as it's evolving …" she said.

"What China is doing is it's developing new technologies that wouldn't exist at all. It's force-feeding the military apparatus of China. And we don't want Canadian researchers or Canadian tax dollars to be going into that kind of R&D."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.