Aussie varsities under scrutiny over research with China entities

Students gathering during a protest at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, on July 31. Protesters were calling for the university to close its Confucius Institute - a Chinese government-funded education centre - over concerns that th
Students gathering during a protest at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, on July 31. Protesters were calling for the university to close its Confucius Institute - a Chinese government-funded education centre - over concerns that the institute had enabled Chinese interference in university affairs.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Australian universities have increasingly been looking to China as a source of foreign students and research partnerships.

But the close ties are leading to occasional points of friction, including concerns that Australian universities are failing to properly assess the uses to which such research will be put.

The latest revelation, reported by ABC News, involves the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Curtin University. The universities had allegedly each formed partnerships with Chinese entities to develop technology which could be used by Beijing for its mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang province.

In 2017, UTS entered into a A$10 million (S$9.4 million) partnership to set up a research centre with state-owned China Electronics Technology (CETC), which produces military surveillance technology.

The company's role in developing an app which is being used by Chinese security forces to track and detain Uighurs was revealed earlier this year by Human Rights Watch.

After Human Rights Watch raised its concerns, UTS said it has been reviewing its partnership with CETC since April this year.

A statement by UTS said CETC had confirmed that "they have not used research output from the partnership with UTS in any products or applications to date".

The university said it had worked on five projects with CETC, such as developing algorithms for an indoor robot for use in offices and warehouses. Only one of the projects, relating to public security video data analysis, was of potential concern, but it was in its early stages then and is still under review.

UTS added that it has submitted its research projects with CETC for approval to Australia's Defence Department, as required by laws regulating exports that have potential military purposes.

Curtin University was also criticised over the involvement of one of its academics in Chinese state-funded research which enables ethnic profiling. The academic had allegedly worked on developing facial scanning technology that could be used to identify Uighurs.

Curtin University said the academic's contribution had been limited to technical advice, but added that it was setting up guidelines for informal research partnerships.

"Curtin University unequivocally condemns the use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, for any form of ethnic profiling to negatively impact and/or persecute any person or group," Professor Chris Moran, deputy vice-chancellor of research, told Business Insider.

In recent years, allegations have been raised about Australian universities working on sensitive technology with Chinese researchers who have links to China's military.

Ms Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, urged universities in Australia to review their research arrangements with Chinese institutions, particularly in areas that could be used for surveillance or racial profiling.

"I think no Australian university wants to be collaborating with a Chinese company that is basically building these tools of repression in China," she told ABC News.

"There are real questions about how those projects were allowed to proceed. I think this should cause a rethink for all Australian institutions, companies and organisations that are collaborating with Chinese state institutions."

Universities insist that cooperation and knowledge sharing with China is vital, and that they comply with government laws ensuring that such research does not pose a future security threat.

Research cooperation between Australia and China has been on the rise. A report by UTS' Australia-China Relations Institute found that China will overtake the United States this year as the main research partner for Australian universities.

"In 1998, only 1 per cent of Australian (peer-reviewed journal) articles, or 248 in absolute terms, included an author affiliated with a Chinese institution," the report said. "By 2018, the proportion of articles with a Chinese co-author had grown to 15 per cent, or 10,732 in absolute terms."

Australian universities have benefited from a massive influx of Chinese foreign students in recent years. As of May this year, there were 361,161 foreign higher education students in Australia, of which 135,966 - almost 40 per cent - were from China.

 
 

Some Chinese students and student groups have, at times, shown loyalty to Beijing, which has led to occasional tension on campus.

On July 24, scuffles broke out at the University of Queensland between supporters of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and Chinese nationalists.

On July 31, fresh protests were held at the university, calling for it to close its Confucius Institute - a Chinese government-funded education centre - over concerns that the institute had enabled Chinese interference in university affairs.

One placard said: "Confucius Institute is code for propaganda centre".

An organiser of the protest, which attracted 70 people, said students from China and Hong Kong had stayed away, as they feared being identified by China's authorities.

"Some of my friends have said to me, 'I'm really supportive of your cause, but I'm afraid to even like the comments on (social media) posts just because I don't want to be put on a list'," student organiser Ji Davis told the Australian Associated Press.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie varsities under scrutiny over research with China entities'. Print Edition | Subscribe