'Not Our Friends': Experts Warn of Security Risks in Research Partnerships With China

"As I've said many times, the PLA are not our friends," said China expert Margaret McCuaig-Johnston.
'Not Our Friends': Experts Warn of Security Risks in Research Partnerships With China
A file photo of students on a university campus. (Spiroview Inc/Shutterstock)
Andrew Chen

A China expert is warning MPs about security and ethical concerns regarding Canadian universities and institutions engaging in research partnerships with China, underscoring the potential transfer of sensitive technologies to the Chinese military.

"The risk for Canada is that our university scientists could be partnering with civilian scientists or engineers at any university in China, and not be aware that their research is going out the back door to the PLA [the People's Liberation Army]," said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Ottawa.

"As I've said many times, the PLA are not our friends."

She noted that the Chinese regime has prioritized the integration of military and civilian technology development since 2014, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally overseeing this strategy through his roles in the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Central Military Commission and the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development.

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston's remarks, made during a session of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research (SRSR) on Sept. 25, followed the decisions of several Canadian universities to terminate or phase out their research collaborations with the Chinese regime earlier this year.
According to a January report by U.S. strategic intelligence company Strider Technologies Inc., some 50 Canadian universities have been partnering with a Chinese military scientific institution to conduct academic research in sensitive areas like quantum cryptography, photonics, and space science.
In a motion passed in June, SRSR was tasked with investigating grants provided to institutions that engage in research collaborations with China in sensitive areas such as photonics, artificial intelligence, quantum theory, biopharmaceuticals, and aerospace. Ms. McCuaig-Johnston also recommended the inclusion of space science, genomics, and polar research for review.


Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, expressed similar concerns to those of Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, during her testimony before the SRSR on Sept. 25. She highlighted the absence of clear policy and mitigation strategies in the United States to address the Chinese system, in which the lines between technology development in the public, private, civilian, and military sectors are blurred.

"This is not just a Canadian problem or a U.S. problem but one of open democracies because China's system is not the same as ours," Ms. Puglisi said. "Regardless of their personal views, Chinese scientists, businesspeople, and officials interacting with our universities or companies have to respond to the PRC government or security services if they're asked for information or data."

She said that existing policies and laws are "insufficient to address the level of influence the Chinese Communist Party exerts in our society, especially in academia."

Apart from monitoring Chinese institutions, Ms. McCuaig-Johnston highlighted concerns regarding individual scientists who may ostensibly be working for an independent institution while actually serving the Chinese regime.

She pointed to the "China Defence Universities Tracker," an online tool developed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, aimed at monitoring the potential military and security links of China’s universities. She said that the list of Chinese institutions identified as posing risks should be shared with all Canadian universities and government laboratories, advising them against partnering with individuals from any of those institutions.

"Chinese scientists have sometimes listed a different institution to obscure where they are really from," she said.

Ms. McCuaig-Johnston acknowledged the importance of upholding academic freedom and allowing researchers and institutions to collaborate without hindrance. However, she stressed ethical concerns should be considered when Canadian researchers collaborate with Chinese military and surveillance technology companies.

She noted companies like SenseTime, Tencent, Alibaba, iFlytek, and Huawei have worked with the Chinese military, including the design and sale of equipment used to support the CCP's repression of several minority groups such as the Uyghurs.

"I would just remind them of the ethical lens that they should be applying as a human being with Canadian values. Surely, if they had a Uyghur or someone from Taiwan sitting in front of them, they would be ashamed to talk about how they helped with Uyghur repression, and weapons to attack Taiwan," she said.