The Alberta government ordered four of its major universities to suspend partnerships with individuals or organizations with ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), citing threats to Canadian national security and the possibility that related research could be used to promote human rights abuses by the communist regime.
One of the Province’s top institutions, the University of Alberta (UofA), was found to have a long and deep relationship with China, with several staff and researchers having formed joint ventures with funding from Chinese state-run enterprises to commercialize Canadian research in China, according to a report in The Globe and Mail.
The universities named in the government’s order are the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge, and Athabasca University. The institutions have 90 days to review their cooperation with China and submit a report to the Province detailing all agreements, research relationships, institutional relationships, and joint ventures with entities that have ties to the CCP.
“I am deeply concerned about the potential theft of Canadian intellectual property and further concerned that research partnerships with the People’s Republic of China may be used by Chinese military and intelligence agencies,” reads a statement from Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.
“My priority is to work with our post-secondary institutions to protect Canadian intellectual property and to ensure that Alberta institutions do not enter into agreements with entities that would undermine our country’s core national interests.”
Nicolaides in his statement also stressed the province would welcome a “comprehensive national framework from Ottawa on these serious pressing issues.”
“International partnerships, which include research projects, teaching and mobility agreements, and international learning opportunities are what allow the academy to provide students, post-docs, and faculty with the experiences needed to ensure that knowledge flows around the globe.”
The UofA and the UofC responded to The Globe on May 23 that they were working on an email from the chancellor and would not comment immediately. The other two universities have not responded to requests for comment.
In March, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada issued a policy statement warning the Canadian research community of the need for greater protection of research results, particularly in the field of COVID-19.
“Canada’s world-class research, and its open and collaborative research environment, are increasingly targeted by espionage and foreign interference,” the statement said without naming a particular country conducting the interference.
Charles Burton, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told CTV news that “The Alberta taxpayer has a right to know what grants these public institutions may have been received and what conditions may have been attached.”
The Globe And Mail reported in May that despite previous federal warnings about the national security risks of working with China, the UofA has maintained close research collaborations with China, including sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
According to the report, university professors and researchers have set up joint ventures with Chinese companies to commercialize Canadian research results.
When questioned by The Globe, The University of Alberta declined to discuss its research activities with China other than to state “we have received no directives related to China” from the federal government.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior official at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said UofA has been a leader among Canadian universities in establishing ties with China.
“All of these professors feel they are doing the right thing by engaging with China and helping China build their capacity, but they have to look very carefully at each deal to see ‘Are we being taken to the cleaners’ and what is the longer-term plan for the technology,” she told The Globe.
UofA signed an agreement with the CCP’s Ministry of Science and Technology in 2005 to gain access to at least 50 national laboratories in China. Beijing has given research funding and grants to at least 60 UofA professors who are involved in at least 90 national-level research projects in China.
Moreover, in 2018, the UofA received a large donation, whose size was refused to be disclosed by the University, from Hong Kong tycoon Jonathan Koon-Shum Choi. Choi is a high-ranking member of Hong Kong’s political advisory body to the CCP and has an extremely close tie with Beijing.
He is also an enthusiastic supporter of Beijing’s political crackdown on Hong Kong.
In 2019, the University of Alberta signed a Memorandum of Understanding to partner with Hong Kong-based HKAI Labs, a private company researching artificial intelligence. HKAI is funded by Alibaba and SenseTime, a Beijing-based artificial intelligence company that has been blacklisted by the U.S. government for its surveillance role in the crackdown on Uyghurs and minorities in Xinjiang.
In Shandong, China, there is a Canadian Centre for BioInnovation (CCBI) which has an affiliation with the UofA. The organization’s website clearly states that it was established “to attract Canadian talent for transnational technology transfer.”
The UofA’s Associate Vice President of Innovation and Commercialization, Deborah James, who is among the standing committee of CCBI is also the honorary president of the Yantai YETDA International Incubator for Biomedical Innovation Centre, a Chinese state-funded venture and CCBI’s parent organization.
In addition, three UofA professors and researchers established Tricca Technologies, a company selling handheld biosensors, in China. In 2018, Tricca established a joint venture with Yantai YETDA, in which the Chinese side holds 60 percent of all shares, making the Chinese side the decision-maker over key issues such as technology and personnel.
McCuaig-Johnston said Tricca is a classic example of how Canadians should think twice before partnering with China, “This is classic: where 60 percent is owned by China and 40 percent is owned by the Canadian company,” she said.
On May 28, two more Ontario universities, York and Queen’s were accused of collaborating with another U.S. government’s blacklisted Chinese artificial intelligence company, iFlyTek, whose research was used against and to violate the human rights of ethnic minorities in China.
The Globe’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife said in a comment, “For the last 20 years, universities were encouraged to collaborate and accept funding from Chinese entities. Universities largely turned a blind eye to the rise of an aggressive China under the one-man rule of President Xi Jinping. Brutal repression of Muslim Uyghurs and the harsh crackdown in Hong Kong were ignored. Nor was much attention paid to China vacuuming up Canadian intellectual property and scientific data.”
“This is clearly no longer acceptable but it requires strong leadership from Ottawa to set down criteria for collaboration with China and fields of scientific study that should be protected. We await a federal report on this issue on June 25 to see if the federal government will finally act.”