CBC News has learned Western University is collaborating with China on 16 joint-research projects and has indicated no plans to end them — despite a growing cloud of suspicion such agreements are being exploited by Beijing.
The revelation by Western comes as a number of Canadian universities sever their own research agreements with China in the wake of a decision last year by the federal government to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from Canada’s 5G network, citing security concerns.
The University of Waterloo announced earlier this month it would end its collaboration with the Chinese phonemaker, saying the decision was part of a wider effort to “safeguard scientific research” at the school.
Western University has numerous ties to China, but a spokesman would not specify whether the school has any partnerships with Huawei, saying the research agreements with China-based organizations cover areas of health, electronics and the environment.
Western ‘awaiting guidance’ from Ottawa on security risks
“Western researchers are currently participating in 16 research projects with Chinese-based organizations,” senior media relations officer Stephen Ledgely wrote in an email to CBC News.
“We are awaiting guidance from the federal government with respect to entities that pose national security risks,” he said.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the agency in charge of providing such guidance, was not able to immediately respond to a request for comment from CBC News.
Universities in Canada once welcomed research partnerships with China, but the federal government has become increasingly suspicious Beijing is exploiting the openness of Canadian institutions to acquire sensitive taxpayer-funded research to benefit its military.
In response, the federal government announced in February it would make protecting Canadian research a “top priority” by banning all research with Chinese organizations that have ties to the military. One China expert told CBC News that’s easier said than done given the level of integration between civilian and military interests in China.
Western University might be bound to silence, says China expert
“It’s very difficult for a Canadian researcher to know whether their research and their Canadian innovation that they develop in partnership with a civilian scientist might be going out the back door to the Chinese military,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and a member of the Canada China forum advisory board.
The integration of civilian and military development is being led by Xi Jinping himsef,” she said. “This is a big focus for China and it’s a risk for Canadians that they might be contributing to the development of technologies that might be used against our fellow democracies, Taiwan, or against certain citizen groups within China.”
By even admitting the number of joint-research projects it has with Chines organizations, Western University has been more transparent than most, according to McCuaig-Johnston.
She said Western likely can’t discuss the details of the research because of the nature of the agreement it signed with Chinese researchers.
“Their contract with a Chinese company may have a clause that requires them not to speak about this. So, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to tell you what they’re doing.”
The University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal are among a few Canadian schools that have recently announced an end to Chinese research partnerships with Huawei, over security concerns, she said.
For Western University to do the same, administrators will need more proof the research could fall into the wrong hands, according to McCuaig-Johnston.
“I think they need to see more evidence,” she said. “With Western specifically, it sounds like it’s more complicated than simply severing ties.”
“They should be having informal discussions with those other universities about why they chose to cut off that source of funding and frankly, I think the federal government and the province need to step up and fill this research gap.”