In April 2018, the University of Canterbury signed an agreement with Harbin Institute of Technology to collaborate on teaching and research.
China has been accused of stealing sensitive technologies and intellectual property through academic exchanges and some experts warn the university could be putting the country’s national security at risk for jumping into a partnership before doing its homework.
Experts have called the University of Canterbury “naive” to enter into an agreement in April 2018 with Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), which is widely known to have links to the Chinese military.
UC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Wright said no inquiries about HIT’s defence links were made at the time, but said New Zealand’s university sector had been increasingly aware of the sensitivity of some specific areas of research and technology.
International security analyst Dr Paul G. Buchanan said he was struck by the lack of due diligence from Canterbury University leaders.
“To approach the subject of a partnership in hard sciences with a university that is known for its relationship with Chinese Military is naive at best and cynical at worst. The Chinese communist party uses educational relationships and liaisons as a means of conducting intelligence operations to include international property theft.”
In May, the US announced tighter controls on the Harbin Institute of Technology, one of the main Chinese universities doing research in sensitive civil-military technologies.
Wright said its agreement with the Chinese Institute involves working together on renewable energy generation, marine science, engineering and international finance and trade.
Buchanan said UC could not, however, guarantee future collaboration research would not be used for military purposes.
“Virtually every hard science can have a military application… so even something as innocuous as oceanography can be translated into a military purpose. But once you get into the physical sciences the field is broad and open but either way it is not a good look in light of everything that is known.”
HIT has hosted five UC students on two-week summer programmes in 2018 and 2019 and HIT similarly sent two undergraduate students to study abroad for a semester in Christchurch.
Wright said it did not make any inquiries about the institute’s military connections because “the collaborations don’t include defence.”
Director of the Canterbury China research centre Jason Young said universities needed to do their homework and have a team which understood how China works before entering into any agreements.
Buchanan said “what they should do is a serious sit down conversation with the security intelligence service and the department of the prime minister and speak to the intelligence officials about whether this is a feasible project and whether the relationship can be protected of intrusions on the Chinese part.”
Wright said to date, no collaborative research had happened with the Institute.
Canterbury University furnished RNZ with a list of hundreds of universities HIT collaborated with, including some Ivy league universities such as Harvard and Stanford University.
However, since it was reported that the US added HIT to its “black list”, making it harder for international students to get visas, several universities cut ties with HIT, including universities of Arizona and California.