Time to dial down racist rhetoric targeted at Australian universities

Feb 1, 2021

Racial profiling characterises some submissions to the Senate inquiry into universities, and the Australian Chinese community is again being targeted. Meanwhile, President Biden is instructing agencies to avoid xenophobic rhetoric, a wise strategy for Australia.

Australian universities have strong management systems governing research receiving outside funding or collaboration with other institutions to ensure there are no security issues, especially against espionage and data theft.

Despite this, a number of submissions to the Senate joint committee on intelligence and security have alleged that the People’s Republic of China is trying to steal intellectual property and subvert Australian values through financial incentives and underhand agreements and by planting spies in research institutions.

These include submissions from former PRC diplomat Yonglin Chen, who defected to Australia in 2005, the quasi-religious cult Falun Gong, which is banned in the PRC, and Alex Joske, a China analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is holding an inquiry into security risks facing universities and research establishments through their international connections. The inquiry terms of reference relate generally to foreign interference, foreign influence and espionage. The Committee report is due by July.

Fifty submissions were made by universities, the CSIRO, relevant government departments and some individuals and community organisations. While no country is singled out in the terms of reference, those who chose to make submissions assumed, probably with good reason, that the inquiry is concerned specifically with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In his submission Joske alleges that the Chinese Communist Party maintains talent-recruitment programs targeting Australian universities, which are often not aware of the programs. He claims ASPI has identified 325 local participants in these programs and hundreds of millions of dollars in grant fraud.

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He singles out unnamed researchers who participated while working at the universities of Adelaide, UNSW and Queensland, and an unnamed scientist in the CSIRO (whose case is disputed by the CSIRO). His submission also mentions by name six other professors employed in the CSIRO and Curtin, Queensland, UNSW and UTS universities.

Joske gives no space to discuss possible benefits to Australia of research collaboration with the PRC or that researchers and their employers might be capable of managing security issues in their research programs. His submission rather implies that ethnic Chinese are untrustworthy, and that misconduct and non-disclosure is widespread.

In a similar vein, US universities are increasingly reporting that their ethnic Chinese scientists are being targeted by government agencies in what seem to be clear cases of racial profiling. One of the characteristics of former US President Donald Trump’s administration was his practice of keeping people constantly on edge by the insinuation of threats, blamed on domestic or overseas forces. Ben Tarnoff cited this in his 2016 definition of Trumpism in The Guardian. Such Trumpism has led to racial vilification and has increased international tension.

In a well-publicised case in the US, mechanical engineer and nanotechnologist Professor Gang Chen, of Massachusett’s Institute of Technology, was issued with an affidavit by the Department of Homeland Security. It was alleged that Chen committed wire fraud, failed to account for foreign bank accounts and falsified his tax return; interestingly, not that he prejudiced national security or was involved in illegal technology transfer. It is clear, however, that the charges against Chen were made in the context of the US Justice Department’s China Initiative, which focuses on wrongdoings in China connections.

One commentator for SupChina has noted that under this Initiative, concerns have expanded from national security to broader connections with the Chinese government even if there has been no actual or attempted transmission of intellectual property. Moreover, there is obvious discrimination against people of Chinese descent.

MIT’s President and nearly 100 of Gang Chen’s colleagues have publicly challenged the allegations of fraud and defended the university’s record in managing international collaboration. There is now some prospect of a review of the case.

In 2020, the FBI held a major investigation into research institutions’ links to China, following a report from the US National Science Foundation that concluded that existing disclosure practices should suffice and prevent problems of coercion or theft.

Australian universities have worked hard over many years to build international collaboration programs, with the encouragement of the Australian government. As the CSIRO notes in its submission, although such engagement has become the international norm in recent years, other OECD countries have led the way. Australia ranks only 18th after Sweden, Belgium and Denmark and way behind the UK and the US. Our most common research partners are the US and the PRC, almost equally.

The status of the PRC has risen rapidly. Chinese universities and research centres are now leaders in several fields such as engineering and materials science. Those who may be sceptical about the achievements of PRC research programs and the depth of government support they receive should look at articles such as the profile in Nature of Beijing’s Materials Genome Engineering Project led by Dawei Zhang.

Funding for this research into new materials and prevention of corrosion more than quadrupled between 2008 and 2017. Such centres of expertise naturally attract our scientists to work collaboratively with China. The extent of our research cooperation was detailed in a 2020 study by the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

Australian universities have strong management systems in place to govern research receiving outside funding or collaboration with other institutions. Details were spelled out in their submissions to the Senate inquiry, which also emphasised their commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and their improved systems to guard against data theft and espionage, particularly since the cyberattack on the Australian National University in 2018.

Now it seems President Biden is beginning to wind back attacks, for instance with a recent memorandum instructing staff and agencies to avoid xenophobic rhetoric and not to describe Covid-19 as a Chinese virus, recognising that this has led to discrimination against the Chinese American community.

It is a strategy that Australia would be well advised to follow.

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