Calls Abound for Scrutiny of Chinese Money and Influence in Canadian Universities and Think Tanks

March 12, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

News Analysis

A recent meeting of the Canada-China parliamentary committee played out something akin to a courtroom drama as one MP tried to get to the crux of a matter that all governments must now contend with: Can they trust the objectivity of their China experts?

In a meeting on Feb. 24, when a Liberal colleague on the committee challenged the relevance of Conservative MP Garnett Genuis’s line of questioning to an expert witness, Genuis said it was important to establish the integrity of the advice the committee was receiving.

Epoch Times Photo
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis in a file photo. (NTD Television)

Genuis is among those calling for more scrutiny on financial ties between Canadian academic institutions and China.

“Should we be concerned about the fact that our institutions may be quite exposed to Chinese influence through various channels? And what can we do about that exposure?” Genuis, the Conservatives’ shadow minister for Canada-China relations,  said in an interview with The Epoch Times.

Several Canadian universities have partnerships with Chinese telecom giant Huawei worth millions of dollars, many host Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, and many are reliant on tuition fees from international students from China, with university admins concerned that souring China-Canada tensions could lead to Beijing pulling these students back to China.

But there are other financial ties that haven’t been subjected to as much public scrutiny.

“So many think tanks are recipients of People’s Republic of China-associated funding, and I think we need to demand much more transparency about where the money comes from,” said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat to China and a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, in an MLI forum last October. Burton was also one of the expert witnesses speaking during the Feb. 24 committee session.

Academics have historically played an important role in Canada-China relations, with some playing key roles in paving the way for Canada’s establishment of formal ties with the Chinese communist regime in the 1970s, and influencing Canada-China policies in the years after.

Financial Ties

Genuis was questioning Yves Tiberghien, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, and executive director of the university’s China Council as well as director emeritus of the university’s Institute of Asian Research (IAR), during the Feb. 24 Canada-China committee meeting.

Genuis asked Tiberghien if China Council academics ask university admin for speaking points before speaking publicly, pointing to some of the University of British Columbia’s financial exposure to China-linked projects and initiatives, including a $7 million partnership with Huawei and the Vancouver Summer Program, a $10 million-generating initiative inviting international students to take summer courses.

UBC
Students walk on the University of British Columbia campus on March 10, 2020. (Jerry Wu/The Epoch Times)

“No,” Tiberghien responded, “and the main reason is because the prime role of a professor in a university is academic freedom.”

Tiberghien similarly answered “no” to the question of whether professors are involved in commercial negotiations with Huawei, and answered “not in many years” when asked if the China Council provides advice to the university on fundraising.

In his next round of questioning, Genuis read from emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing that Tiberghien wrote to UBC’s vice president in charge of public relations and the university’s media relations senior director asking for advice on how to respond to a reporter on issues related to Huawei in January 2019.

“I can of course provide my expertise on the analysis of the larger Huawei event and Canada-China relations. But I will be asked about impact on UBC and UBC relations. So it is good for me to know well the official response,” Tiberghien wrote, adding, “And do you encourage me to do this interview?”

Genuis next presented an email sent in March 2019 by Paul Evans, another UBC professor and IAR and China Council member who also appeared before the Feb. 24 committee, writing to Tiberghien that “(four of five were with us) negotiating with HW [Huawei] now. Meigan made the case that this is an issue where UBC could play a national leadership role.”

Another email sent in the same month by Tiberghien regarding a Presidential Advisory Council on China reads, “Jack Austin [one of the co-chairs of the China Council] remains very excited about this process and thinks that it holds the key to a higher-quality relation of UBC with China, but also to fundraising related to China.”

The Epoch Times has seen copies of these email exchanges.

In response to Genuis’s questions and comments, Tiberghien said what was presented was “taken out of context” and wasn’t “representative of the usual function.”

“Out of 200 interviews I may have given in three years, this one may be the one where I asked for some thoughts,” he told the committee.

He also said the emails about Huawei were in response to discussions on the issue in Ottawa, saying that the “issue was not about managing media, it was responding to what we heard from government, and we had a very fair discussion.”

He added that fundraising is not a “primary goal” of the Presidential Advisory Council.

Genuis told The Epoch Times that he was concerned that two out of the six experts or entities appearing before the committee “were people specifically involved in the UBC China Council, and their involvement wasn’t identified until after I pointed it out.”

“What I was able to demonstrate through the testimony is that the China Council at UBC appears to be having some discussions about the strategic interests of the university, even while people that are part of that Council, including professor Tiberghien, the executive director, are also offering ‘advice’ to the wider public about engaging that relationship,” he said.

He added that the meeting brought out at a high level the “financial exposure that UBC and perhaps other institutions” have to Beijing-linked sources, saying the issue should raise concerns about “the influence of the Chinese government.”

Genuis requested in the meeting that the committee study the relationship between “Canadian universities and Chinese government-controlled entities,” and that the co-chairs of the UBC China Council appear before the committee as part of the study.

‘Echoing’ Business Interests

Genuis isn’t the only one asking for more transparency in links between Chinese regime-associated entities and academia. Burton also thinks there is a need for more scrutiny on funding for Canadian think tanks.

Epoch Times Photo
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau shakes hands with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong in Beijing on Oct.13,1973. (CP Photo)

The “domination of Chinese money” in Canada, Burton said during his October talk, is the reason why there is no “significant discourse” on issues related to China compared to what goes on in the United States and other countries.

Burton wrote in an MLI paper that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and “the Red Tories of his period” had a general admiration for dictators such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and China’s Mao Zedong who challenged “U.S. liberal democratic political and economic agendas.”

“This paved the way for elite capture” by China’s United Front Work Department (a Chinese Communist Party organization charged with spreading Beijing’s influence abroad), Burton argued, “with the result of a strong majority view in the uppermost circles of Canadian politics and business that catering to the will of the Communist Party should be Canada’s policy toward China.”

“We have been told that it is these interests [of major businesses], as opposed to questions of national security, that should be at the core of Canada’s China policy,” he writes. “This line is echoed by numerous think tanks, public policy schools, and government relations firms that focus on China.”

Burton cited China Research Partnership, a web portal launched in 2017 described as a joint effort by “leading Canadian institutions dedicated to the study of China,” as an example of a partnership between business-focused organizations and academic centres during his October talk.

“The top three members [of the partnership] are the Asia Pacific Foundation, the Canada China Business Council, and the Canada-China Institute for Business & Development. The bottom three members are the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, the Munk School for Global Affairs University of Toronto, and the China Institute at the University of Alberta,” he said.

“You can see that the ones with the money are at the top of the list, and the ones producing the policy reports are below that, and one could assume that there is some relationship between the funding and the reluctance of these institutions to issue documents which suggest that there is anything wrong with what the People’s Republic of China is doing,” he added.

The news of the start of the web portal was praised by the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa at the time of its launch, with a tweet reading  “That’s a good move! Congratulations!”

The domain of the website is no longer active, redirecting users instead to the website of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a business-focused research institute.

Talks in Committee

Genuis said he found Burton’s testimony at the Feb. 24 committee meeting “much more representative” of what he has observed about the situation in China and its behaviour compared to what he heard from the other witnesses.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea, on Jan. 2, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

On the geopolitics side, some witnesses said that both China and the United States are distorting the rule-based international order.

Genuis says it’s not reasonable to equate what is happening in the United States “around a possible changed nature of engagement with international institutions” to the “massively destabilizing efforts of the Chinese government.”

Burton said during his testimony that in the United States, there is “non-partisan political consensus” on the issue of China.

“It’s not just Mr. [Donald] Trump. His nemesis Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has also articulated that we need to stand up for the principles of the rules-based order, which protects middle powers like Canada from the arbitrary domination of hegemonic superpowers,” he said.

Evans, director emeritus of UBC’s IAR and a past co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, said in his talk that “we’re facing a double challenge: a China challenge and an America challenge.”

“We need to push back against efforts to unravel or corrode the multilateral rules-based system, whether those challenges come from China or, as we have increasingly seen, from the United States,” he said.

Evans also stressed that there is a need for Canada to navigate “an independent course” on issues such as supporting China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or its views on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure plan to establish China-centred land and maritime trade routes. The initiative is seen as part of Beijing’s plan to expand its global influence and has been criticized as a “debt-trap” for some participating countries.

Tiberghien said that “to a large extent, the Canada-China crisis is part of the larger U.S.-China crisis and is a prism for challenges to the rules-based order.” He also said at one point that there is “broad support” for the Chinese regime in China, and that Chinese people “feel a sense of great progress, growing wealth and prosperity, greater freedom, except for political freedom, particularly the ability to criticize the Party.”

Jeremy Paltiel, a professor of political science at Carleton University, said in the committee meeting, “We can’t simply rely on our ally [the United States] to protect us, because our ally has turned its back, in some ways, on the rules-based international order.” He also said that “Canada’s prosperity and global influence depend on having a workable relationship with China,” adding that currently Canada has “the worst relationship of any of the G7 countries with China.”

Also speaking at the forum were representatives from the Canada West Foundation (CWF), one of whom said, “China has become an important trading partner for Canada and for Western Canada.”

‘More Diverse Opinions’

André Laliberté, a professor of political studies focusing on China and Taiwan at the University of Ottawa, says it’s important for Canada’s decision-makers to hear from experts with more diverse opinions than those they currently consult with.

University of Alberta
A building on the University of Alberta campus on April 24, 2019. (Gary Bai/The Epoch Times)

“People in the Liberal Party certainly have their own mindset on what our policy [on China] should be, and they’re looking for people who will confirm their opinion,” he said in an interview.

“And it’s my impression after years of observation that the Liberal Party has a policy that tends to downplay issues such as human rights in China when it comes to trade.”

He adds that it’s a problem when the academic experts the government invites to Ottawa to give advice on China-related issues often tend to be not very critical of China.

Two of the main China-focused research centres hosted on Canadian campuses are the China Institute at the University of Alberta and the IAR at UBC.

The commentary section of the China Institute’s website includes recent articles on the COVID-19 outbreak in China, China’s arrest of Kovrig and Spavor, and the Hong Kong protests, among other topics.

One of the two pieces published on the Hong Kong protests in 2019, both of which are penned by the same author, notes in one part that some protestors damaged public property and injured police officers, adding that “Beijing has put the rule of law, as a direct response to the protests,” and that this deserves “some degree of respect by foreign governments.”

Of the eight articles published in 2018 up to December, when Meng was arrested in Canada and Kovrig and Spavor were subsequently detained in China:

-two commentaries urge Canada and China to seek closer relations despite restrictions imposed by the USMCA trade deal on Canada’s engagement with non-market economies, i.e. China;

-one offers advice to Chinese state-owned companies that in order to seek approval for investments in Canada they should invest more funds in government relations and gaining “social capital” in Canada;

-one is a rebuttal by the institute’s director, Gordon Houlden, about what he calls “troubling inferences” in an op-ed by Burton, in which Burton had argued for regulations to monitor retired civil servants and politicians who go into “lucrative businesses” with China-related sources;

-one piece is about a white paper published by Beijing on its Arctic policy, arguing that the “international community welcome the transparency and increasing confidence China shows in participating in Arctic governance.”

The other three pieces discuss U.S.-China relations, North Korea, and an import expo in China.

Xi jinping trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese leader Xi Jinping greet each other during the official welcome at the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

In an online post, Houlden says the federal government sends diplomats to the University of Alberta’s China Institute to train, adding, “We’ve helped shape the views of a new generation of Canadian diplomats.”

The institute was founded in 2005 by Wenran Jiang, at the time a faculty member at the University of Alberta. In a January 2016 op-ed for The Gobe and Mail titled “Canada must stand up to the United States to secure deals with China,” published soon after the Liberals took power, Jiang wrote: “After a decade of inconsistency and lack of strategic vision by the Conservative government, a reset on China policy is indeed urgent.” Jiang was also at one point a senior fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation and a senior fellow at UBC’s IAR.

Jiang has also defended Beijing’s Confucius Institutes in media interviews. In a 2008 interview with the Globe and Mail he said speculation about the institutes’ political agenda is “total nonsense,” and in a recent CBC interview called New Brunswick’s plan to end its program “arbitrary” and “undemocratic.” The program was halted by the province’s Education Minister Dominic Cardy, who has criticized the institutes for offering a “one-dimensional” view of China. “Their job is to create a friendly, cheerful face for a government that is responsible for more deaths than nearly any other in the history of our species,” he said.

In the articles section of the website of the Centre for Chinese Research at UBC’s IAR, the last six postings are from 2018. Three are written fully or in part by Tiberghien; the other three are on family or labour issues in China or fertility issues relating to China’s new two-child policy.

In October 2017, IAR member Evans, along with fellow UBC assistant professor Xiaojun Li, published a paper based on a survey on Canada-China relations, among other issues.

The paper said that 69 percent of Canadians support negotiating a free trade agreement with China, and that on “global leadership, there is a visible lack of confidence about the role of the United States.” The paper was reported on by Chinese state media Xinhua and China Daily, with the headline “Canadians growing more supportive of deeper trade ties with China: Study.”

The results of the survey were very different from a poll done by Nanos Survey for The Globe in June of that year showing support for a free trade agreement at 54 percent.

Financial Post columnist Kevin Libin said at the time that the survey in Evans and Li’s paper used “unconventional methods,” built from UBC’s own “online survey-making tool” and without a French version, largely excluding Quebec, “where enmity to China’s corporate imperialism runs high.”

Jacob Kovalio, an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, says the extent of the push for “China appeasement” policies in academia is exemplified by a post-2015 election op-ed written by academic Yuen Pau Woo, now a senator, who is also a senior fellow with UBC’s IAR and a former head of the Asia Pacific Foundation.

Epoch Times Photo
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

In the article, published in October 2015 by iPolitics with the headline “Now that Harper’s gone, can we have a sensible talk about China?” Woo says “a return to the Liberal approach to China pre-2008 [before the Conservative majority government] will not be enough.”

He bases his assertion on the argument that since the time of former prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien—who he says “understood well the importance of China” for Canadian exports—China has grown to become an “increasingly assertive global power” and is therefore no longer “content with the status quo of international relations.”

Woo was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the Senate in 2016 and is now the leader of the Independent Senators Group. In his first speech in the Senate, he spoke against a motion critical of China’s “hostile behaviour” in the South China Sea.

Past and Present

Shortly after the Liberals won the 2015 federal election, a booklet containing a compilation of essays on Canada-China relations became “essential reading” among Canadian diplomats, according to the 2019 book “Claws of the Panda” by Jonathan Manthrope, citing reports from Ottawa.

A foreword of the booklet says the published work “is an effort to reboot Canada-China relations at the start of the twenty-first century,” and notes that Trudeau’s charting of a new course on Canada-China relations “ought to be welcomed.”

Kovalio says it’s not only the current Liberal government whose policies are influenced by academics “who have for years been supporters and strong promoters of China being the way of the future.” He says past Liberal governments have followed a similar course of action, with the state administrators “forgetting about human rights and freedom of expression for the sake of the Chinese market.”

According to Manthrope’s book, Paul Lin, a leftist Canadian academic who lived in communist China and was close to high-ranking regime leaders, was in regular contact with Pierre Trudeau’s foreign policy adviser. Manthrope writes that Lin, who was the head of the Centre for East Asian Studies at McGill University, used his position “to mount a drive for a new political, diplomatic, economic, and academic relationship between China and Canada.”

The book notes that U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies believed Lin to be an operative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

United Front

Steven Mosher, a social scientist and author who has conducted research in China, told The Epoch Times that the Chinese regime has always paid a lot of attention to academia, as it sees academic discourse favourable to its position as an opportunity to strengthen its power.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops practice marching in Beijing in a file photo. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Mosher says when it comes to academia, the CCP is employing two of Chairman Mao’s “three magic weapons,” tools the communist dictator cited as necessary to “defeat the enemy of the revolution.”

The first “weapon,” he explains, is the People’s Liberation Army. The second is propaganda, and the third is the United Front Work Department. When it comes to academia in the West, he says Beijing is using the latter two weapons.

A key function of the United Front, Mosher says, is to compromise scholars in Western institutions and whenever possible place in key institutions these scholars who work to advance CCP’s narrative.

“The United Front department operates by co-opting and penetrating an organization and subverting that organization to its own purposes,” he says.

A 2018 U.S. congressional commission report notes the increasing concern over “United Front activities” in the United States and other countries, and cites examples of Washington think tanks receiving funding from organizations with close ties to the Chinese regime.

“The CCP has sought to influence academic discourse on China and in certain instances has infringed upon—and potentially criminally violated—rights to freedoms of speech and association that are guaranteed to Americans and those protected by U.S. laws,” the report says.

On a broader level, Mosher says, there are financial incentives provided by the CCP to universities in the West that make university administrators reluctant to “offend the goose that lays the golden egg.”

“Presidents of those universities pay attention to the bottom line. And there’s a lot of money that comes from China in terms of tuition [from international Chinese students] and China’s support of various programs,” he says.

One such program is the Confucius Institute, campus-based programs funded by Beijing and branded as offering a chance for students to learn about Chinese history and culture. The institutes are a source of concern for intelligence agencies as they are controlled by an agency of the CCP.

The prevalence of Confucius Institutes in recent years on Western campuses are a sign that the CCP’s efforts to infiltrate academia has become more overt, Mosher says.

Another initiative of the CCP to exert influence in academia, he says, is the Thousand Talents Program, declared by Beijing as being intended to attract foreign experts to China. The U.S. National Intelligence Council says the program is a means to enable technology transfer to China.

The FBI recently arrested the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department, Charles Lieber, for allegedly lying about his financial involvement with the Chinese regime. Authorities allege that he was under contract as part of the Thousand Talents Program while working on sensitive U.S. research.

Mosher says Beijing may co-opt key individuals within the academic institution by, for example, giving large sums of money for a lecture or granting honorary titles, or using the threat of visa denial on a China scholar, who is then compelled to keep silent out of fear that further research work would be hindered if his entry to China was denied.

Epoch Times Photo
A police officer gestures at the photographer as security staff stand guard outside the Canadian Embassy in Beijing on Dec. 20, 2018. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

When the CCP finds a “potential friend of China,” it will invite the person to China and treat him or her very well, Mosher adds, with the goal being for the person to advance CCP policy aspirations when he or she goes back.

Mosher adds that another reason some academics may be advancing views favourable to China is that some intellectuals are “alienated from their own culture in society” and romanticize political systems such as those of the Soviet Union, communist Cuba, and Mao’s China.

Speaking from his own experience, Mosher, who is the first American social scientist to conduct research after the Cultural Revolution in China, said that before moving to China in 1979, he thought Mao had made “tremendous advances” for the people and the country.

“It took a year for the Chinese people to convince me that it wasn’t true,” he said.

Follow Omid on Twitter: @OGhoreishi