Australian v-cs ‘in a coma’ over China collaboration risks

‘Overblown’ media reports focus on state control over students and perils of joint research

October 14, 2019
Source: iStock

Australia’s public broadcaster has rekindled concerns over universities’ collaborative work with China, saying they are being drawn into research designed to boost the “technology-enhanced authoritarianism” of one of the world’s “most sophisticated surveillance states”.

Broadcasts by two ABC investigative units suggest that universities are contributing to China’s surveillance capabilities, both through active research collaborations and by providing information to help hone China’s artificial intelligence technologies – including, potentially, data harvested through state-sponsored cyber-attacks.

The reports cite four Australian universities’ joint research on covert communication, vehicle tracking, stealth, drone and facial recognition technology. Their Chinese collaborators include a high-tech surveillance start-up which has been implicated in human rights violations, and was recently added to a list of companies banned from dealing with US firms.

Another two Australian universities have worked with Chinese agencies on technology allegedly used to monitor ethnic Uighurs in China’s troubled west, the reports claim.

In a Four Corners programme scheduled to air on 14 October, prominent China critic Clive Hamilton accused universities of flagrantly ignoring the human rights and national security risks of their work with Chinese organisations.

“Australian universities have not been sleepwalking – they’ve been in a coma,” said Professor Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University. “It’s astonishing. Perhaps three or four years ago, vice-chancellors could have said ‘we didn’t know’. There is no longer an excuse.”

In a related report broadcast on 13 October, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said it was “very difficult to determine exactly what the outcome of a research collaboration might be”.

“If we stop conducting collaborative research we will create no new knowledge. I’m not saying these are simple issues but universities are absolutely diligent in making sure they comply with the laws,” she said.

The reports follow the federal government’s August pledge to establish a “university foreign interference taskforce” to help boost universities’ cyber defences and prevent research collaborations from harming Australia’s national interest.

On 11 October, a briefing published by Australian policy institute China Matters argued that a “critical centre for research collaboration” was needed to assess the security risks of individual joint projects, and “fill gaps” in the regulation of technology with potential military applications.

In September, the Australian National University released an incident report on a massive cyber-attack in which China has been implicated.

China concerns are likely to feature at the Australian International Education Conference in Perth from 15 to 18 October. The ABC reported that Chinese students were being drafted to implement Beijing’s agenda.

It said founding documents of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s Canberra branch showed that all Chinese students in the Australian Capital Territory were automatically “coordinating” members. As such, they were expected to “follow the decisions” of the association’s executive committee, which was obliged to report regularly to the Chinese embassy and whose aims included a requirement to “love the motherland”.

Fran Martin, a University of Melbourne cultural studies scholar who is researching Chinese students’ experiences in Australia, said she had been aware of the branch’s links with the Chinese embassy and students’ default membership. She said her research suggested that most students had little involvement with the association.

“What I’ve seen so far [of the ABC reports] is not new information – the media ‘revelations’ on this point seem rather overblown,” she said.

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