Australia’s top universities have been collaborating with companies linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in developing mass surveillance and military technologies, a joint investigation carried out by Four Corners and Briefing Investigation has revealed.
The investigation found at least 30 instances of collaboration between the Australian National University (ANU) and Chinese Defence Universities, as well as collaborations between the University of Technology Sydney, University of Adelaide, and University of Sydney.
At least two of these Chinese companies have been blacklisted by the United States in the past week amid reports that their technologies have been used to monitor Uyghurs and Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang area. Uyghurs are among the religious groups who face severe persecution inside China for their beliefs.
“We’re all dealing with what is an emerging threat. A threat that has reached levels of unprecedented proportions,” Dan Tehan, minister for Education, told Four Corners.
“We want to make sure it’s very clear what the responsibilities of universities are when it comes to collaborating with any government, foreign government, because it’s incredibly important that we get that collaboration right and that the collaboration is in Australia’s interests.”
Chinese-Linked Companies Target Australian Universities and Its Research
Global Tone Communication (GTCOM), a global data mining company majority owned by the Chinese regime, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to test its technology.
GTCOM boasts its ability to mine data in 65 languages at a rate of 16,000 words per second from websites and social media.
Samantha Hoffman, an analyst with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told Four Corners that despite GTCOM appearing to be a translation service provider, the company collects data that supports the Chinese state’s security.
“Then it turns into information that is usable in a variety of contexts, whether it’s China’s social credit system, efforts related to military civil fusion, efforts related to military intelligence collection,” Hoffman added.
A spokesman for UNSW told Four Corners that GTCOM had “no influence on any of UNSW’s programs.”
“The university … is keen to pursue greater transparency as well as increased [Australian] Government collaboration … to ensure its operations are always in line with the national interest,” he said.
GTCOM also shares information with Huawei, which was recently blacklisted by the United States and is banned from Australia’s 5G network.
Additionally, GTCOM is partnered with Haiyun Data, another Chinese company which provides surveillance technology to monitor Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Haiyun Data announced in January its joint artificial intelligence laboratory with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). UTS confirmed to Four Corners that it has a research project with Haiyun to develop technology for handwriting recognition.
However, UTS said that there is no joint laboratory and that the Chinese report on the January announcement was a “complete misrepresentation.”
ASPI analyst Samantha Hoffman said that Haiyun has other signed agreements with the university, such as a research center funded by Chinese-owned military company China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC). The research is worth AU$10 million.
CETC is also implicated in the mass monitoring of Uyghurs, which UTS denies being complicit in.
Other Australian universities who have collaborated with CCP-linked companies, as reported by Four Corners, include: University of Adelaide with Megvii, a recently blacklisted company known for facial recognition technology; University of Sydney and SenseTime, another U.S. blacklisted company which tracks moving objects through video surveillance; and ANU with China’s National University of Defense Technology which studied covert communications, among many other studies.
A spokesperson for University of Adelaide said that the Megvii project is not a formal collaboration, while Sydney University said that the SenseTime collaboration was subject to ongoing review.
ANU’s vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said that he was not aware of the study but told Four Corners that ”if there are specific areas of research that are detrimental to the national interest, we need to look at them.”
Alastair MacGibbon, former head of Australian Cyber Security Centre, Australian Signals Directorate told Four Corners: “We need to understand that technology can be abused and in a society where technology is ubiquitous and it is now in Australian society, then we’ve got to ask questions about whether or not we’re contributing to something that will end up becoming quite an oppressive thing for us and for other people.”
Taskforce Set to Curb Foreign Interference at Universities
The move was seen as a response to curb CCP influence at Australian Universities, after incidences of pro-Beijing demonstrators having clashed with pro-Hong Kong protestors.
Additionally, on Aug. 22, the NSW Department of Education announced the scrapping the CCP-linked Confucius Institutes in NSW public schools after a year-long review.
“Our government is taking action to provide clarity at the intersection of national security, research, collaboration, and a university’s autonomy,” Tehan said in a statement.
Charles Sturt University ethics professor Clive Hamilton said, “Some universities are starting to get the message.”
“Many universities just have their ears closed, they’re unable to hear the kinds of warnings. There is no excuse anymore. Perhaps three of four years ago university vice chancellors could’ve said, ‘Oh, well, we didn’t know.’ That is no longer an excuse. Naivety is no longer an excuse.”
Richard Szabo, Mimi Nguyen-Ly, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.