Federal Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee is holding an inquiry into foreign interference at Australian universities, including the role of the Chinese government’s talent recruitment programs.
The Australian government has been increasingly concerned that talent-recruitment initiatives such as Beijing’s Thousand Talents Plan may facilitate espionage and theft of intellectual property. The programs give researchers funding and the opportunity to commercialise their work in return for Beijing getting access to their research.
In a submission to the inquiry, CCP-influence expert Alex Joske identified 59 cases of academics and researchers receiving highly competitive fellowships from the Australian Research Council while apparently working at the same time in China.
All funding agreements require recipients to disclose conflicts of interest and holding an appointment under a Chinese government talent recruitment program could breach grant funding guidelines.
“CCP talent recruitment activity in Australia may be associated with as much as AU$280 million in grant fraud over the past two decades,” Mr Joske’s submission states.
“Australian research grants come with clear requirements to disclose conflicts of interest. In some cases, they prohibit recipients from taking up external employment or other fellowships and require them to predominantly reside in Australia.
“Such behaviour would also breach university policies on conflicts of interest, external employment, intellectual property and research commercialisation.”
The submission highlighted concern about University of Queensland Professor George Zhao being a participant in two Chinese government talent recruitment programs while also winning two of the ARC’s most competitive full-time fellowships worth $3.9 million.
While working as an ARC fellow on energy storage technology, Mr Zhao has taken up a number of positions in China.
The research also identified Brad Yu Changbin, a former professor at the Australian National University and Curtin University, for joining multiple talent recruitment programs while working on Defence-funded drone swarm projects in Australia. Mr Yu trained a PLA scientist who is now chief technician of the Chinese military’s fixed-wing drone swarm program.
The submission recommended the Australian government specifically prohibit participation in foreign talent-recruitment programs by government employees and ensure participation in CCP talent-recruitment programs and similar conflicts of interest are being adequately handled and investigated by CSIRO. It also called for more research funding for priority areas such as artificial
intelligence, quantum science, materials science and energy storage.
The Australian National University said in its submission to the inquiry that any recommendations should support the higher education sector “rather than punish it by imposing a deeper regulatory burden”.
Counter-espionage agency ASIO said Australia’s higher education and research sectors were one of the sectors at risk from foreign interference because they are at the leading edge of policy, research and scientific development.
“Their work leads to the development of proprietary and other sensitive information critical to the development of new technologies, medicines, techniques and practices that are fundamental to the future of Australia’s economy, military capabilities and security,” ASIO said in its submission.
The committee is due to report back to the Home Affairs Minister by July this year.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.