Australian security agencies are investigating local universities involved in research collaborations with Chinese firms that have developed surveillance and military technologies deployed in alleged human rights abuses.

The rising scrutiny comes in apparent response to recent US moves to sanction Chinese technology companies said to be complicit in abuses, and at a time Australia-China relations were already on a downward trajectory.

Some Australian institutions have been accused of inadvertently helping Chinese authorities to create monitoring systems that have been used in camps holding minority Muslim Uighurs and to monitor and track political activists.

“Australia’s science and technology priorities are being set by the Chinese government because we enter into collaborations that have really been designed to support China’s goals, not ours,” John Fitzgerald, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“There’s a possibility that some of this research will go toward uses which could place Australia at risk.”

In August, the Australian government set up a task force comprised of security bodies, public agencies and the education sector to develop policies to counter foreign interference on campuses.

Activists protest against Chinese government influence at the University of Queensland in Australia, July 2019. Photo: Twitter

While it is not specifically aimed at China, groups close to the country’s ruling Communist Party are known to be especially active at Australian universities.

University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has confirmed it has a collaborative arrangement with China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC), a state-owned defense company, for a high-tech research center.

CETC was blacklisted by the US in May for apparent involvement in the monitoring of Uighurs in western Xinjiang province.

UTS said the A$10 million (US$6.8 million) program, which includes research into public security video analysis, was under review and would likely be scrapped. The university has denied the work contributed to surveillance activities by the Chinese firm.

UTS also has a program with Haiyun Data, which provides much of the equipment used against the Uighurs, to develop technologies for handwriting recognition.

Haiyun has close links to data mining company Global Tone Communication (GTCOM) and global telecoms giant Huawei.

Huawei has been barred from developing Australia’s 5G network. Photo: Twitter

Huawei has been banned from participation in Australia’s 5G network due to concerns that its technologies might be used for espionage. It has also been blacklisted by the US and certain European nations.

GTCOM has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to test applications.

The university said in a statement that GTCOM has “no influence on any of UNSW’s programs”, but Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Samantha Hoffman told the ABC its function was to support Communist Party security interests.

“Whether it contributes to a state security product or propaganda or military intelligence, all of the data they’re collecting can then be turned into information that supports those objectives,” claimed Hoffman.

Tech startup firm Megvii, which is also banned by the US for alleged human rights abuses, is working with a University of Adelaide professor on ways of tracking vehicles in videos. Megvii also develops facial recognition software.

A university spokesperson denied there was any “formal” collaboration.

University of Sydney researchers are collaborating with surveillance firm SenseTime to track moving objects through multiple camera frames. The company was blacklisted by the US last week over human rights concerns.

China aims to install 450 million surveillance cameras by 2020. Image: Asia Times / AFP

The college, which is one of the most prestigious in Australia, said the research collaboration was under review but gave no further details.

There is also collaboration with Chinese campuses like the Beijing-based National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), which is conducting a study on covert communications with the Australian National University.

NUDT is one of six major Chinese colleges to be blacklisted by the US. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned on Friday that Australia would not tolerate interference by China’s Communist Party in its universities.

“We want university campuses to be free, we want them to be liberal in their thoughts, we want young minds to be able to compete against each other but we don’t want interference in that space, we don’t want theft of IP in our country,” said Dutton.

China responded that such accusations were “irrational” and “baseless.”

“Such ridiculous rhetoric severely harms the mutual trust between China and Australia and betrays the common interests of the two peoples,” a spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in Australia said in an official statement.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP
Chinese students pose during a graduation photo at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

The government’s task force is expected to report its findings next year, but it is unclear what safeguards will be put in place on campuses.

With 200,000 Chinese students at education facilities nationwide, most Australian universities rely heavily on funding from China and until now have been reluctant to upset Beijing.

Allan Gyngell, president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, said policy advisers were themselves unsure how to handle the Chinese.

“Commentators and analysts from the think tanks and universities are marshaling themselves into hostile camps. Those arguing for engagement with China risk being dismissed as agents of influence or naive tools of Beijing,” Gyngell said.

“On the other side, suspicions of security agency conspiracies run deep, reinforced by a pattern of leaks to journalists. China is testing the consensus. The debate is getting sharper,” he said.