CSIS seeking changes to law to allow it to warn universities of national security threats
In a decision that could have ripple effects on universities across the country, a Federal Court judge has denied a Chinese resident permission to enter Canada, arguing the engineering student could be pressured by Beijing into spying.
The case centres on Yuekang Li’s visa application to study at the University of Waterloo and take his knowledge back to China to improve its public health system. Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton ruled Li’s proposal falls under the definition of “non-traditional” espionage.
“As hostile state actors increasingly make use of non-traditional methods to obtain sensitive information in Canada or abroad, contrary to Canada’s interests, the court’s appreciation of what constitutes ‘espionage’ must evolve,” he wrote in his December 22 decision, made public this week.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a board member with the China Strategic Risks Institute think-tank, said she expects to see more such rulings in future.
“[Canadian] visa officers in Beijing and likely in other cities in China have been given some guidance as to what to watch for, potential military connections with students and professors who want to come from China to Canada and work with our own professors,” she said.
“This is new and I think it’s something then that universities themselves need to be watching, [to avoid] admitting students who may be a security risk.”
- CSIS chief opens up about China’s interest in Canadian universities
- CSIS warns of Chinese recruitment campaign targeting Canadian government employees
According to the decision, first reported on by the Globe and Mail, Li applied for a study permit in 2022 after the University of Waterloo accepted the PhD candidate into its mechanical and mechatronics engineering program.
He was deemed inadmissible. A visa officer later stated he had multiple concerns with Li’s application, citing his anticipated field of study while in Canada and China’s use of students as “non-traditional collectors of information” to boost China’s research into new technologies, including military tech.
“The officer further noted that Mr. Li has a strong interest in microfluidics, a branch of micro/nanoscale science and technology, and that he indicated in his study plans that he wanted to dedicate his career to improving China’s underdevelopment of the application of advances to point-of-care technology in the field of public health,” says the Federal Court decision.
The visa officer, who was not named in the decision, pointed to China’s strategic interest in certain high-tech industries, including biopharmaceuticals.
The officer cited an article titled “Why is China Becoming a Microfluidics Superpower?” — which says microfluidic devices are important for new medical research — in support of his decision to reject Li.
Judge sided with visa officer
Li asked a judge to review that ruling. He argued the officer went with an overly broad definition of “espionage” and relied on speculation, says the Federal Court decision.
Justice Crampton sided with the visa officer and said there are reasonable grounds to believe that Li may be recruited or coerced by the Chinese government as a spy.
The judge pointed to Li ‘s studies at a Beijing university with ties to China’s defence industry, the fact that Li’s field of study could benefit China’s biopharmaceutical industry and China’s well-known history of targeting scientists and students.
Dick Fadden, former national security adviser to the prime minister, said the decision offers Canada a new tool to “get a grip” on a growing problem.
“Whether or not Mr Li is or could be a spy is neither here nor there. I think that it’s beyond reasonable debate that the Chinese, both in Canada and in allied countries, have used universities as a means of acquiring intellectual property of use to their military,” he said.
The decision comes as concerns mount over China’s interest in Canadian universities and research programs.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been sounding the alarm publicly. Just last month, the spy agency’s director David Vigneault warned in a speech that no one should underestimate China’s efforts to steal Canadian research and meddle in its affairs.
“They are stealing the intellectual property of Canadian businesses, universities and governments – the very essence of our future prosperity,” he said in a speech delivered at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
“No one should be under any illusion about the breadth of [China’s] efforts to infiltrate our political systems, our private sector, government institutions, universities and communities from coast to coast to coast. This is not just a Vancouver or Toronto issue. It’s an all-of-Canada one.”
Fadden, a former CSIS director, said it’s past time to consider sealing off some areas of study from foreign adversaries, including nuclear technologies, high-level optics and space research.
“We should promote bringing other country’s students to this country as much as we should encourage Canadians to study abroad, but surely there must be a certain number of critical areas where we and our allies have decided we do not want to share with a strategic adversary,” he said. “I think this judgment will make it easier to do this.
“I also hope we are not going to do it holus-bolus and start banning everybody. But I come back to my point about the ten or 15 critical areas, dual-use and military, where I think if you give individual visa officers and individual security officers the capacity to check people doubly in the context of these decisions and these areas, it is a good thing for Canada.”
Canada an easy target: China expert
The federal government has introduced national security reviews for academics seeking federal funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and has promised to clamp down on Canadian universities collaborating with Chinese scientists, especially those with links to China’s military.
“I still think we’re behind,” said Fadden. “Because we were very slow in coming to this. I think probably one of the biggest challenges that we face is to acknowledge that national security is no longer the sole purview of the federal government. You have to involve the provinces, you have to involve civil society and the private sector.”
McCuaig-Johnston said China has targeted Canada’s campuses for years because “we are easy to get into.”
“We don’t want to be attracting military scientists to work in Canada, partnering with government funded programs to learn our innovations and use them for their own military applications,” she said. “That’s not very wise. And so, we need to close that back door.”
- Experts call on Canadian universities to close off China’s access to sensitive research
- CBSA thought he might be a Chinese spy. A federal judge called the intelligence ‘dubious’
David George-Cosh, a spokesperson for the University of Waterloo, said the university is reviewing the language of the court decision “as it contains helpful guidance on the government’s interpretation of risk that will help us in assessing applicants in future.”
Currently, CSIS is restricted to sharing classified intelligence only with the federal government. CSIS has long argued that its enabling law needs to be revised so it can better warn other institutions, including universities, businesses and Indigenous governments, of national security threats.
The federal government is in the midst of consulting on potential amendments to the CSIS Act. George-Cosh said Waterloo hopes an amended CSIS Act could “allow the service to share more information with institutions like universities … so that we can more effectively evaluate our activities.”
In a written statement, China’s embassy in Ottawa said Beijing was opposed to espionage and that it wanted to work toward greater education cooperation with Canada, describing it as mutually beneficial. The embassy expressed hope that there would be an end to what it called “groundless accusations” against China.
“The Chinese side urges the Canadian side to stop stretching the national security concept and provide an equitable and conducive environment for Chinese students. China will take necessary measures to resolutely ensure the security and lawful rights and interests of Chinese students in Canada,” the embassy said.
Fadden said China doesn’t respect its own rhetoric on international scientific cooperation.
“There’s another principle involved here. In international relations it’s called reciprocity — that if we allow them to do x, they should allow us to do x,” he said.
“If you look into what the Chinese allow, I think you’ll find that very few westerners are allowed to study at Chinese universities looking into those 10 or 15 categories I’m looking at.”