Canadian researchers risk helping China build its surveillance state

International cooperation among scholars is a hallmark of the open and sharing culture of science at its best. But partnering with Chinese researchers comes with an ethical cost.

By: /
October 19, 2020
An Uighur woman entering a bazaar in Hotan, in China's northwest Xinjiang region. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

For decades, Canadian scientists and engineers have collaborated with their counterparts in China to help develop that country’s technological capacity. This reflects the open and sharing culture of science at its best. But in the new, more aggressive approach to innovation embodied by President Xi Jinping, it is alarming to see the talents of Chinese inventors and engineers used in surveillance technologies both to control their own citizens and to surveille the citizens of other countries.

It should be alarming, too, to Canadian researchers whose cooperation with Chinese partners may be helping China develop the technology it deploys so repressively.

Chinese state surveillance should alarm Canadian researchers who collaborate with Chinese partners.

Within China, the extent of surveillance is impressive and chilling at the same time. New facial recognition technology with artificial intelligence, combined with CCTV cameras everywhere, track where everyone is going.

The Chinese conglomerate Tencent’s WeChat app is the platform for China’s Social Credit System, which monitors the conversations of more than a billion users to screen for criticisms of the government and unauthorized religious activity.  Those who fall out of line with Communist Party policy are punished, for example by constraints on travel and schooling. A similar Corporate Social Credit System for companies monitors and rewards or punishes the behaviours of companies and their employees including foreign firms in China.

In Xinjiang, surveillance technologies have played a facilitating role in the detention and forced labour of millions of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority. iFlytek voice recognition technology, which is used in Huawei cellphones, registers the voice modulations of Uyghurs so that the police can monitor who is on any given phone conversation. In addition, Human Rights Watch reverse engineered a police app to show how the data inputted by police officers in Xinjiang is used for social monitoring and control. It is now known that such technologies have been extended to communities in other parts of China, and are being exported to authoritarian regimes around the world, facilitating digital authoritarianism that engages in censorship, surveillance and citizen control.

Internationally, we know that China is acquiring or building ports as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and in some cases militarizing them. That is why Chinese investment in Arctic ports and infrastructure projects is concerning. China, which now calls itself a “near-Arctic” nation, has also developed technologies to support surveillance in the Arctic, including an Arctic Autonomous Remote Vehicle, a “new concept” underwater vehicle; the Seawing Glider, which is self-powered up to three months and can provide undersea surveillance that could support submarine warfare; the Gaofen satellite project providing global surveillance capabilities with the fastest download speed in the world; and Polar Eagle drones to see below where satellites can see. 

The significant security risks associated with permitting Huawei in our 5G network has received a lot of attention in Canada. Most of these risks are associated with Chinese surveillance via Huawei and China Telecom systems. China has been accused of such surveillance, with Huawei’s help, all over the world. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, which quoted unnamed African Union sources, China bugged the Chinese-built African Union headquarters building in in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and transferred sensitive data out of the country — charges China denies. The Huawei-built data centre in Papua New Guinea was shown to have serious security vulnerabilities, putting government information at risk. There have been numerous charges and prosecutions of spying and stolen intellectual property, with company financial incentives allegedly given for such thefts. Concerns are not just back doors — required for updates and problem fixes — that can facilitate spying, but also about “bug doors” being put into the 5G system to be released at a later date, and the hijacking by China Telecom of internet traffic between Canada and South Korea to several locations in China first. These concerns are underlined by the National Intelligence Law that requires Chinese citizens and companies to spy if requested, to keep that spying secret, with a commitment that if the spying is discovered, the Chinese government would support the company.

A similar but less-known surveillance technology via Internet-of-Things-enabled light rail vehicles is also worrying. The Chinese state-owned enterprise CRRC builds such railcars for the North American market. There has been bipartisan concern in the U.S. Congress about the prospect of Chinese rail cars laden with software, China’s economic dominance in rail, Chinese state-owned enterprises’ involvement in U.S. infrastructure, security risks with facial and voice recognition and China’s National Intelligence Law. In December 2019, Congress passed legislation preventing any further Chinese company contracts beyond those now in place in Boston, LA, Philadelphia and Chicago. CRRC is now supplying the cars for Montreal EXO’s light rail system, and the CEO plans to bid on more contracts in Canada. These issues deserve attention from all three levels of government in Canada.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has undertaken impressive data mining to identify the extent to which China’s military is establishing linkages with the top researchers around the world. Among western countries, Canada is the third-most linked in joint research with scientists and engineers from China’s 160 military universities and labs, and Canada has three universities in the top ten in the number of joint publications over an 11-year period. We should be getting ourselves off these lists.

With China’s focus since 2016 on the integration of military and civilian technology, Canadian researchers need to be especially cautious when partnering with counterparts in China. Chinese scientists, engineers and companies across most sectors and disciplines are required to cooperate with military scientists to proactively develop any innovations they can find. This puts Canadian researchers in the position of inadvertently bolstering China’s surveillance and military technologies.

All these initiatives by the People’s Republic of China are challenging for liberal democracies like Canada. Ottawa’s concerns go beyond China’s treatment of its own citizens. Beijing has now targeted Canadians — jailing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in an apparent effort to force Canada to halt extradition proceedings against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and, most recently, threatening the well-being of Canadians living in Hong Kong if Canada continues to accept Hong Kong democracy activists as refugees.

The Canadian government has and should continue to challenge China on its human rights abuses at the United Nations, and in concert with allies and like-minded nations. It should also do more about partnerships between Canadian and Chinese researchers that may serve to advance Chinese surveillance technology and other means of repressions. It might, for example, quietly flag which Chinese military universities to avoid in research collaborations. Canadian scholars and researchers have ethical obligations of their own. Research for the sake of advancing human knowledge is a wonderful idea. When it comes to cooperating with China, it’s rarely so simple.