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Commentary / Canada’s China panic

Commentary / Canada’s China panic

By John Price

CSIS and other agencies in Canada have promoted the concept that “non-traditional collectors” (NTCs) of intelligence, including students and researchers with ties to China, are espionage agents.

It is a flawed, dangerous and racist concept that is being baked into research surveillance policies as well as judicial decisions.

In a recent discussion paper, Canada’s China Panic: A Threat to Diplomacy, Research and Peace in the Pacific?, we document how this began in April 2018 when David Vigneault, the head of CSIS, met with the presidents of the U15, the main research universities in Canada. He advised that China was a major threat to Canada: “China’s use of non-traditional collectors (NTCs), e.g., students, researchers, business delegations and others, to acquire sensitive and proprietary information from Canadian individuals and entities is particularly challenging.”

Five years later, the concept has been embraced in policy and judicial decisions that put at risk academic freedom and open research.

In January, the government announced new research surveillance policies, Sensitive Technology Research Areas and Affiliations of Concern (STRAC) that prohibits funding to researchers or graduate students with ties to many of China’s top universities.

A month earlier, a Federal Court decision ruled a PhD candidate accepted to study at the University of Waterloo was ineligible for a visa because he might, at some point, transfer information to colleagues in China.

These decisions are a result of a concerted five-year campaign that began in early 2018, when U.S. intelligence agencies under Donald Trump targeted Huawei. It escalated into a crisis in Canada-China relations with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou and subsequent arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. This was followed by the COVID pandemic and accusation of Chinese biowarfare that aggravated anti-Asian racism around the world. China was then accused of political interference, fanned by dissidents and opportunistic politicians.

Severe fault lines lie beneath the China Panic. For example, Michael Kovrig has been accused by Michael Spavor of spying for Canada as part of Global Affairs Canada’s “Global Security Reporting Program” now under criticism from the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency.

In the U.S., the whole premise of the NTC idea has been shot down by what happened with the FBI’s China Initiative. This 2018 program aimed to prosecute NTCs, but eventually had to be rescinded after fierce criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union asserted that “the initiative was accompanied by xenophobic, anti-China rhetoric from the Trump White House, as well as public statements by the FBI director that cast suspicion on virtually anyone with family or professional ties to China — thousands of accomplished Asian American and immigrant scientists who have contributed to our country for years.”

The China initiative saw the FBI open thousands of investigations over its three-year existence, only 77 of which led to prosecutions. Of these, only about a quarter led to convictions, and most had little to do with national security, according to an investigation by MIT Technology Review.

Reputable academic surveys in both the U.S. and Canada have revealed waves of racial profiling associated with the NTC concept. One study in The Review of Higher Education reveals that over 40% of Chinese and Asian scientists felt targeted by neo-racism and neo-nationalism. Another recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed “general feelings of fear and anxiety that lead them to consider leaving the United States and/or stop applying for federal grants.”

In Canada, many Chinese Canadian researchers already feel targeted by earlier CSIS-university initiatives. A recent survey undertaken by York University’s Dr. Qiang Zha has shown that among researchers familiar with the CSIS guidelines for research, 40% felt “considerable fear and/or anxiety that they were being surveilled by the Canadian government.” 

Universities as well as CSIS are culpable for this state of affairs.

What we are witnessing in both Canada and the U.S. is a major dose of Sinophobia in the form of “Techno-Orientalism.” This posits America as a declining power due to the scheming of a diabolical, communist aggressor. This reinforces the notion of China as an illiberal enemy responsible for espionage, intellectual property theft, and unfair competition. Such assertions draw on the deep well of historical anti-Chinese racism.

In the 1980s, similar accusations were levelled against Japan, when the racist myth took hold that Japan could only imitate, not innovate, and relied on American technology.

Creso Sá, vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Higher Education, points to similar problems today in a recent commentary. China, he points out, “has dramatically increased its scientific output in this period, overtaking the United States not only in terms of publication volume but also in scientific output in selective journals.”

CAUT has also spoken out against the China Panic and is taking measures to confront the challenge to academic freedom and open international research. However, the political landscape creates fear among people of being tarred with charges of disloyalty or being a spy for China.

To avoid calamity, other labour unions, civil liberty organizations and anti-racist groups need to step up to oppose this ominous slide towards the creation of a national security state.


This article is an abridged and revised selection of information from Canada’s China Panic: A Threat to Diplomacy, Research and Peace in the Pacific? written by John Price. John Price is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific.

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