Skip to main content

The University of Alberta campus, in Edmonton, in an undated file photo.

The Alberta government has eased some restrictions on the province’s four major universities that prevented them from forming new partnerships with entities or individuals linked to the Chinese government.

But it is leaving in place prohibitions against new agreements or the renewal of agreements on graduate student research, research with possible implications for “national and economic security for Canada and Alberta” and arrangements that include the commercialization of academic work or technology transfer agreements.

About 13 months ago, Premier Jason Kenney’s government ordered the universities to suspend the pursuit of such partnerships with Chinese state entities, citing concerns over national security and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses.

The order affected the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University, institutions with a strong research focus.

This May, however, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides sent a letter to the schools saying some of the restrictions were coming off.

Sam Blackett, the press secretary to the minister, said the universities were told they could resume “low-risk agreements” with China – limited to arrangements regarding “undergraduate student mobility and transferability,” as well as “corporate training opportunities.”

He said the restrictions were eased because “they were deemed low risk to intellectual property and national security.”

The province is still maintaining the 2021 prohibition against new agreements for graduate student research and participation in study or research programs that are potentially related to national and economic security for the country and the province. Mr. Blackett said the prohibition applies primarily to doctoral and post-doctoral research.

The universities are also still prohibited from signing new agreements involving visiting researchers or post-doctoral fellows, as well as arrangements for research commercialization, technology transfers and intellectual property.

The government did not issue a news release regarding its May 27 letter to the schools, Mr. Blackett said.

Western countries have grown increasingly concerned about China’s efforts to scour the world for technology with both civilian and military value – what Richard Fisher, the senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center think tank, has called a global “intelligence vacuum cleaner.”

A few years ago, a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra think tank, found that Canada had become the third-largest destination for scientists affiliated with the Chinese military.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior official at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council whose career includes serving on the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology Co-operation, said the balance Alberta has struck with its recent adjustment to the restrictions seems appropriate.

She said the enticement of civilian researchers in China to collaborate with the military – what’s been called “military-civil fusion” under President Xi Jinping – means Canadian universities need to be wary of collaboration that could be hijacked.

“We don’t want our researchers helping the Chinese military – they are not our friends,” said Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, now a senior fellow with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

She said major areas of concern are artificial intelligence, photonics and biotechnology, as well as genomic and brain research.

She questioned, however, why other provinces haven’t announced similar restrictions on collaborations with Chinese government entities. “Alberta is still the only province that has done its own intensive review.”

Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said what the government is doing by keeping restrictions in place makes sense if the goal is to “reduce all risk of intellectual-property loss or of significant research with natural-security implications getting into Chinese hands.”

If he were advising on the matter, he would lift restrictions that cover social sciences and education and sports medicine while perhaps leaving others in place.

Canada-China relations hit a low point when Beijing jailed two Canadians in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver in December, 2018. All were freed in September, 2021, when a deal was brokered by the United States.

But a chill remains, and now U.S.-China relations are worsening as Beijing offers Moscow respite from Western sanctions and U.S. and Chinese officials trade barbs over Taiwan.

Mr. Houlden said he doesn’t see a warming of relations between Canada and China unless relations between Washington and Beijing improve. “Trust is badly eroded.”

In May, 2021, when Mr. Nicolaides introduced the ban on new partnerships with China, he also requested that the boards of governors at the universities prepare reports within 90 days detailing all agreements, research relationships, institutional ties and joint ventures with entities connected to the Chinese government.

In addition, he asked for details on the “scope and scale” of any university ties to Chinese companies, government agencies or institutions.

Mr. Blackett said the province will not be making the reports public.

The Globe and Mail reached out to the four universities to seek comment on the restrictions. The schools did not all respond immediately.

Ross Neitz, a spokesman for the University of Alberta, said Friday that, at the request of the government, the school “paused all new and renewals of research agreements with entities in China” in May of last year, “while both our institution, and related federal bodies, re-evaluate the risks involved.” He added that the “pause continues at the U of A while those discussions and evaluations are ongoing.”

Sean Myers, a spokesman for the University of Calgary, said on Aug. 5 that the school did not have “anyone who’s available for comment at this time.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.