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Red Flags

By February 25, 2022Feature Article, North&South

Red Flags

Amid concerns that China is co-opting academics and acquiring sensitive technology from universities around the world, New Zealand scientists are being forced to navigate a perilous geopolitical maze.

By Pete Mckenzie
Illustration by Rachel Salazar

“Who’s the random who tried to crash my meeting?”

I’m standing in a nondescript hallway in the Robinson Research Institute, one of Victoria University of Wellington’s most prestigious research facilities. It shares a campus with scientific giants like Callaghan Innovation and GNS Science — a warren of white labs nestled below the gorse-covered Wainuiomata Hills.

In April I went to the institute and tailgated another academic through a locked door into the institute’s restricted building. Engineering students with long ponytails and sheepish smiles walk past, discussing how to measure the torque involved in a turbine’s rotation. One man in a high-visibility orange vest asks me to move: he’s carrying a delicate alloy and I’m blocking the door to the Materials Preparation and Furnace Lab. In front of me stands Professor Rod Badcock, the institute’s deputy director, who is in the middle of a meeting with a PhD student.

Badcock is a stocky man with a gentle lisp and cushioned English accent. One of his eyebrows seems always to be cocked slightly above the other, fixing a look of slight doubt to his face. Originally from the United Kingdom, he graduated with a PhD in engineering from Brunel University London in 1995 and moved to Farnborough — a middling-sized town distinguished only by its status as the home of Britain’s military industrial complex.

He spent four years there as a senior scientist with the British Ministry of Defence, researching how to monitor battle damage to military vehicles and structures. In 2006, after stints in the private sector and academia, he relocated here to take the position at the Robinson Research Institute. That’s where he became entranced with a project on high-temperature superconductors that promised to unlock technology out of a sci-fi comic.

High-temperature superconductors are usually made from ceramics like copper oxide and are unique in their ability to conduct electricity at extraordinarily high temperatures without resistance, making them capable of carrying much more energy than a normal conductor with much less electrical loss. Enormous spinning discs which absorb and spit out the energy of high-speed trains. Magnetic wind turbines which operate with minimal friction. Gigantic electric engines capable of powering a Boeing 737 without fossil fuels. Rockets which can access the far reaches of the solar system. “With [superconducting] technology, who knows, a New Zealand Mars mission may be possible!” the institute’s director, Dr Nick Long, once enthused.

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Badcock’s proposal sparked an urgent discussion in New Zealand’s national security community.

Because the field is so highly specialised, in 2017 Badcock reached out to Professor Jin Fang, a hightemperature superconductor expert at Beijing Jiaotong University (BJTU). The two academics had worked together before, supervising PhD students and co-authoring papers. Their institutions were already partnering on a high-speed train project. They decided to create a joint lab where graduate students would demonstrate the commercial viability of superconducting systems. The first students would be New Zealanders, but they hoped to arrange visas for some Chinese students as the programme matured. They also expected to bring over engineers from Chinese companies like China Railway and Goldwind to observe or collaborate on the work.

Fang was, as Badcock wrote in documents disclosed under the Official Information Act, an “influential champion” whom Victoria University would be lucky to partner with. He had multiple connections to China’s science authorities: as an intellectual property forensic expert for its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as a project reviewer for China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and as an assessor for prestigious awards administered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 2017 he secured funding from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology for another ambitious high-speed rail project through the government’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative — its multi-trillion-dollar global infrastructure project.

Thanks to their extensive work together, Badcock had been appointed as a foreign expert at BJTU under the Chinese government’s “Thousand Talents Plan”, which recruited foreign experts to bolster China’s universities. In early 2017 he was selected by BJTU to attend a small symposium hosted by Premier Li Keqiang, the second-most powerful man in China, who expressed “heartfelt gratitude” for Badcock’s work.

Consequently, Badcock didn’t expect there would be many issues kickstarting the project. He applied for $150,000 from the Royal Society’s Catalyst Fund. Long, the Robinson Institute’s director, provided a glowing endorsement. According to a letter from Long to the fund’s selection committee, “Professor Fang’s active links with China’s power and transport industry will be invaluable,” he wrote. “[I] commend Professor Fang in the highest possible terms.”

And then the exciting venture took an unexpected turn. To Badcock’s surprise, the proposal became the subject of intense speculation among fellow academics, university bosses and Wellington’s diplomats and intelligence analysts. He had stumbled into the middle of allegations that Chinese researchers and institutions are co-opting Western technology for military purposes, prompting questions about whether and how New Zealand scientists should partner with them.

The resulting controversy would ultimately doom Badcock’s proposal, smear his reputation and signal a fundamental change in how our universities interact with the world beyond our islands. This is not a subject that many New Zealand academics are eager to discuss. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Badcock had been ignoring my emails.

For the last two decades, New Zealand universities have been on a mission to expand their ties with China. Many Chinese academics are at the top of their fields, so engagement can mean better research. Strong connections with Chinese universities help create a pipeline of international students, who pay higher fees than domestic students. Prior to Covid-19, Chinese students alone brought in $1.8 billion for New Zealand’s universities. After Covid-19 hit, the director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, acknowledged that our universities were financially dependent on international students — particularly those from China. “Whether or not we want to be overly reliant on China, we’ve had to accept that China is a huge and important market for us.”

This wasn’t considered much of a problem until 2017, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) passed a National Intelligence Law requiring all Chinese nationals to support the CCP’s intelligence activities. The move — which effectively expanded the government’s control over the country’s companies and universities — prompted significant international concern. Dr Catherine Churchman, an Asian Studies academic at Victoria University, wrote that “any trade or sharing of technologies with possible military applications to [People’s Republic of China] companies or institutions carries with it an ever-increasing likelihood that these will end up in the hands of the [People’s Liberation Army] or [Ministry of State Security]”.

Aware of these concerns, Victoria University reached out to the New Zealand government seeking an informal endorsement of Badcock’s proposed joint lab. This sparked an urgent discussion within our national security community. The connections to the One Belt, One Road policy had seemed like an advantage to Badcock and Victoria. But security analysts had been watching as the Chinese government used these policies to exert influence in universities and other institutions around the world. In Australia, for example, figures affiliated with the Chinese government made major donations to institutions like the University of Technology Sydney in order to foster pro-China advocacy by researchers. Professor Fang’s deep connections to China’s ministries of science and technology may also have caused alarm.

Eventually, according to a person familiar with the discussions, the government advised Victoria University that there was a risk of Chinese governmental interference and they could not endorse the proposed lab. The project was shuttered. Stuff has reported that there was a directive from university senior management for the Robinson Institute to cut ties with China. A spokesperson for the university said to me that this was incorrect. When asked whether Badcock’s proposed joint lab was closed due to government concerns, the spokesperson declined to comment.

In early 2018, two of the university’s senior staff, Professor Margaret Hyland and Blair McRae, were dispatched to China. One of the trip’s main purposes, according to McRae’s subsequent report, was to advise BJTU that the joint research lab would not go ahead and try to repair the damage to the relationship. Following a scenic campus tour, Hyland delivered the message “with clarity and tact” to Xia Mingchao, who was then the vice dean of BJTU’s School of Electrical Engineering; his “disappointment” was obvious.

The official reason Hyland gave for the cancellation, according to McRae’s report, was “resource constraints at the Robinson Institute”. Everyone knew that wasn’t the full story.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady is arguably New Zealand’s most controversial modern academic. A specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury, in 2017 she worked with the Wilson Center, an influential American think tank, to publish “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping”. It has become a core part of the academic foundation on which much Western scepticism of the Chinese government rests. Brady was interviewed by overseas media outlets like NPR in the United States and influential think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a column for The Times, long-time British diplomat Charles Parton lauded her “courageous” work.

Brady’s paper made a number of concerning allegations about Chinese governmental interference in New Zealand politics. Brady alleged that the Chinese government was pressuring the Chinese diaspora to support Communist Party interests, pushing for the placement of friendly politicians in Parliament and arranging major donations to political parties to gain influence.

Partway through 2019, Brady was invited to appear before a New Zealand parliamentary inquiry into the 2017 election. In the United States, Republican politicians like Senator Marco Rubio and former President Donald Trump’s national security advisor HR McMaster have publicly cited her as an influence. She said in 2020 that she’s been consulted on political interference by “about 16 different governments in the last two years”.

Brady also believes her work has brought her major enemies. After the paper was published, she says her home was broken into and that her office was burgled twice. She says her laptops and mobiles were stolen, that someone interfered with her family’s car and that she received intimidating letters and late-night calls related to her research. Brady has said the acts were a “psychological operation, it was intended to intimidate”.

It’s unclear how reliable these claims are. An official police investigation into Brady’s claims never laid charges. According to RNZ journalist Guyon Espiner, who gained access to some of the investigation’s documents for his podcast Red Line, “Brady’s public statements about how sinister this was went well beyond what could be supported by the evidence the police have handed over to us.” Brady’s husband told police he was not worried that anyone had tried to break into their garage.

Despite her concerns for her family’s safety, Brady doubled down. In 2020 she published another report with the Wilson Center titled Holding a Pen in One Hand, Gripping a Gun in the Other. It described how the Chinese government had introduced an “international technology transfer strategy, which includes academic exchanges, investment in foreign companies, espionage, and hacking”.

According to Brady, this strategy “has helped the PLA acquire a variety of innovative technologies ranging from next generation fighter jets, advanced missile systems, and foundational technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI)”. Crucially, according to Brady: “Many foreign universities, research institutes, and corporations who partner with Chinese entities have been unwittingly drawn into the PLA’s technology transfer project.”

Earlier this year, The Times of London reported that almost 200 British academics at a dozen universities were under investigation for unwittingly violating export laws designed to prevent sensitive intellectual property from being stolen by foreign states. According to The Times, “The individuals are suspected of transferring world-leading research in advanced military technology such as aircraft, missile designs and cyberweapons to China.”

In 2020 a report from the Hoover Institute, a conservative American think tank, found that China’s “Seven Sons of National Defence” — universities with deep connections to the country’s security state — had developed research relationships with more than 100 American research institutes, “including seven Department of Energy national laboratories and the US Naval Research Laboratory. US government funding sources were also credited in thirteen articles.” This apparently included research on classified Chinese defence projects.

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Australian researchers and their families have been threatened “by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state”.

Also in 2020, the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security launched an inquiry into foreign interference in Australian universities and research. A submission by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation revealed that researchers and their families had been threatened “by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state”.

Alex Joske, a China analyst who worked for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute until the end of 2020, told the committee that the CCP’s recruitment efforts had led to a “former University of Queensland professor providing AI-enabled surveillance technology to authorities in Xinjiang”, where the Chinese government is engaging in widespread human rights abuses against its Uighur Muslim population. Joske identified “325 participants in CCP talent-recruitment programs from Australian research institutions”.

In Holding a Pen in One Hand, Brady identified specific New Zealand universities and academics who she believed had been ensnared in the CCP’s activities. While noting that “the majority of New Zealand-China scientific partnerships are benign”, Brady asserted there were problematic links between Chinese institutions with military connections and all of New Zealand’s universities except Lincoln and Waikato. She named 12 current or recent senior New Zealand academics who she believed were being “used to boost China’s military development”, through partnerships in areas including artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, quantum encryption and scramjets, all of which have military applications.

One of the academics she named was Badcock. While she didn’t know about his proposed joint lab, she noted his appointment at BJTU under China’s Thousand Talents scheme, which she described as a Chinese government tool. Far from being a sign of prestige, to Brady it was an enormous red flag.

Soon after the publication of Holding a Pen in One Hand, Brady’s own university opened a review into her work. Academics at the universities of Auckland and Victoria had complained that the paper contained “manifest errors of fact and misleading inferences”. Brady has said the University of Canterbury placed her under a “gagging order” while the review took place.

When approached for comment, Canterbury University insisted that it protects “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”.

Victoria was particularly critical. In response to questions from North & South, it said Brady’s report “failed to uphold accepted scholarly standards and research integrity principles. The work contains unsubstantiated assertions and incorrect information.” It went on to complain that “Professor Brady and colleagues named individual Victoria University of Wellington researchers without giving them the opportunity to respond or clarify the information in the report”.

The University of Canterbury’s review cleared Brady of all complaints in late 2020. Nevertheless, it noted that “given that [the report] was intended for parliamentary submission”, some of its language could have been phrased more precisely.

When Andrew Lapthorn, a senior engineering lecturer at the University of Canterbury who has worked with Badcock on superconducting materials research, first read Brady’s research, he found it “a wee bit subjective”. While emphasising that he respects her work, he said, “It was like: there’s this and this, and therefore that infers this other thing. But I was like, I fail to see the concrete connection there.”

That alleged imprecision is important. Not only is Brady a leading voice on Chinese governmental interference in New Zealand — she’s often the only voice. In Red Line, Espiner found that many recent stories in the New Zealand media about Chinese governmental interference could be traced back to Brady. “It is interesting that most of these roads lead back to Professor Brady .!.!. That means: A, she’s the only one with the language skills and knowledge to do this in New Zealand. And B, she does see the world through a certain lens. I do think it’s fair to factor that into any assessment.”

Brady refused to comment on these criticisms. She declined to be interviewed for this article because, she said, “she believes it is a hatchet job”.

At issue is a fundamental difference in how people view partnerships with Chinese institutions and researchers. Brady seems concerned about partnerships with anyone from Chinese institutions with military links — like BJTU. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which tracks the military connections of Chinese universities, has designated BJTU as “medium risk” because of its “involvement in defence research”.

It’s a broad-brush perspective which harks back to the Cold War. She has previously said that when speaking to the media about the Chinese government, she seeks out older journalists for that reason. “The first journalist I spoke to [about Magic Weapons] — I asked how old was he. He was a bit surprised. But I wanted to know whether he lived through the Cold War era.”

That oppositional approach — where affiliations with entire institutions are ruled out — is starkly different to the mindset of academics like Badcock, who are inclined — perhaps naively — to see collaborations in a positive light. They argue that we should have specific reasons to suspect wrongdoing by individual Chinese academics before choosing not to partner with them.

Of course, neither Brady or Badcock’s approaches were evident in New Zealand’s enthusiastic foreign policy towards China during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Ever since New Zealand formally recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the expansion of trade has been our overwhelming focus. In 2008, we became the first developed nation to sign a free trade deal with China. It is now by far our largest trading partner, taking almost 30 per cent of our exports and providing more than 50 per cent of imports.

To that end, New Zealand has inked numerous agreements on science and technological cooperation with China in recent decades, with priority areas ranging from animal husbandry to nanotechnology. In 2012 China and New Zealand committed to “further enhance and support bilateral science and technology cooperation and exchange for mutual benefit”. Later that year, the government finalised a high-level strategy for China-New Zealand relations which emphasised the importance of “high quality science and technology collaborations with China to generate commercial opportunities”.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013, it has become clear that the much-desired liberalisation of China will not take place. Xi has presided over the mass abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the gradual suffocation of Hong Kong’s independence and semi-democracy, the rapid growth of the People’s Liberation Army, and brutal crackdowns on free speech and thought. Brady credits Xi with introducing both the CCP’s international political influence campaign and its military technology transfer strategy.

As the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian tendencies have grown clearer, so has New Zealand’s contribution to the tools at its disposal. In one relationship identified by Brady, Massey University partnered with Chinese technology giant IFlytek to jointly fund a professorial position. According to a recent Stuff Circuit investigation, IFlytek is the leading supplier of technology “used to take voice samples from the minority Muslim Uyghur population”. Wang Ruili, an academic who specialises in artificial intelligence and image and speech processing, was appointed to the position. He split his time between work for IFlytek and work for Massey until the position was disestablished in 2019.

Wang also worked as a professor at Zhejiang Gongshang University, designated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s tracker as “high risk” on the basis that it was “jointly constructed with defence industry agency SASTIND”, which oversees research related to China’s national security and regulates the exportation of military technology.

Brady also alleged that Wang supervised several doctoral students engaged in military-related research at China’s National University of Defence Technology, classified as “very high risk” by ASPI because it is “directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission”, a state organ chaired by Xi Jinping and which is responsible for directing the Chinese military. The internet links that Brady provided in Holding a Pen in One Hand as proof lead to error messages; she says this is because the pages on Massey’s websites have since been removed.

Wang did not respond to requests for an interview. In a statement, a Massey University spokesperson said, “At our university, the culture of freedom of research, teaching and expression is strongly defended .#.#. Several other policies are in place to ensure research at Massey is carried out to appropriate, internationally recognised standards”. The spokesperson noted that, “Government agencies will also bring to our attention any activities that may be problematic and if concerns are maintained, we would comply with all guidance or instruction from the relevant Government agency.”

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Prior to Covid-19, Chinese students alone brought in $1.8 billion for New Zealand’s universities.

Another research partnership identified in Brady’s paper related to Otago University. In 2016, senior lecturers Chen Yawen and Zhang Haibo received a grant from the Royal Society’s prestigious Marsden Fund to pursue a joint partnership with academics at Xidian University researching how to “develop new, efficient architectures and communication paths for a light-based microprocessor”. Better microprocessors are essential for smarter and more capable computers.

The Royal Society promoted the project as an opportunity to advance “state-of-the-art network theories and techniques for microprocessor design”. But ASPI classifies partnerships with Xidian University as “very high risk” because of its close affiliation with China’s military. According to ASPI, “Xidian appears to be an important training ground for Chinese military hackers”.

Chen and Zhang also declined to comment. An Otago University spokesperson said that “there is no obvious current military use for the research. Any potential military use also applies to almost all computer science research.” The spokesperson also noted: “The University is not aware of any research being directed towards harmful military purposes outside of New Zealand”.

In response to partnerships like this, our government has spent the last few years urgently passing a host of laws and regulations designed to limit the export of technology with potential military applications. In 2018 Cabinet approved a new set of National Security and Intelligence Priorities which charged the NZSIS and GCSB, our main intelligence agencies, with monitoring and addressing foreign interference. The NZSIS in particular has become increasingly focused on academic collaborations with foreign universities involving research which could be used for military purposes.

In March, the NZSIS issued a set of detailed guidelines for researchers, warning that: “Joint research can be misused by organisations and institutions in nations with interests and ethical values that are different from our own. Joint research can provide opportunities for people with hostile intent to access expertise, IT networks, and research.”

To minimise the risk of aggravating the Chinese government, the government has insisted that these measures are “country agnostic”, said Jason Young, the director of Victoria University’s Contemporary China Research Centre. But he doesn’t doubt they’re a response to Chinese governmental interference. “This is the New Zealand approach. We’re quite different to the United States and Australia, who are quite loud about how they go about things. New Zealand is more quietly-quietly behind the scenes, tweaking institutions and regulations.”

At the Robinson Institute, I explain to Badcock who I am. His expression catches halfway between amusement and indignation. His student chuckles. After a moment’s thought he sends me to sign in at reception, then guides me to an internal courtyard for a chat.

Badcock is adamant that the cancellation of his and Fang’s joint laboratory had nothing to do with wider security concerns. “We started to run into hesitations when the institute started growing as fast as we are.” It’s unclear whether the institute was in fact growing, or who had these hesitations.

Badcock seems surprised when I tell him national security analysts in Wellington were concerned about his proposed research with Fang. When I ask him why he thinks they were worried, he shrugs. “They can pick up our research on the grid transformer and read about it. You only need to look at my Google Scholar record,” he says. “There was no dual-use opportunity for my work. It was purely civilian. We’re talking transformers, trains, power grids.”

As our conversation goes on, however, he indicates that Brady’s work has made him hesitant about partnering with Chinese scientists or researchers in the future. “One of the reasons I wasn’t keen [on initiating new projects] was that I read what was written by our colleague down in Christchurch.” He says that while Professor Brady’s research was “thought-provoking”, it was “far off the mark of what we were doing. I didn’t want to get caught up in it”.

Badcock believes that this unwarranted concern is harmful for New Zealand scientists and our economy more broadly. When I ask whether the cancellation of the joint laboratory was a loss, he replies, “Absolutely. There’s commercial opportunities for New Zealand .#.#. The supply chain for these trains — we could have been a key part of that in New Zealand. A lot of our power systems are imported into New Zealand, they come from overseas. We could [have changed that].”

“At the science level, people are people. Scientists are scientists. We just want to get on and do good science,” explained another senior New Zealand engineer specialising in superconductors, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That comes with all sorts of concerns in the geopolitical space, which I think people are only just starting to consider.”

“It’s only in relatively recent times that this stuff [relating to Brady’s research] has come to light,” said Lapthorn, the engineering lecturer at the University of Canterbury. Lapthorn has previously supervised a Chinese PhD student looking into superconducting materials and hosted a Chinese engineering researcher who was on sabbatical. Both times, he said, “I was not aware of any checks, or red flags, or anything like that.”

“A lot of [these concerns are being raised] at a personal level,” said the senior New Zealand engineer. “I don’t think that institutions have necessarily been particularly proactive by and large.”

But the questions about Chinese governmental interference are becoming increasingly difficult for New Zealand universities to avoid. In an appearance before a parliamentary select committee in March this year, the NZSIS Director-General of Security Rebecca Kitteridge noted that the agency has increased its engagement with academic institutions, “particularly universities and Crown Research Institutes, to help them identify and manage risks associated with sensitive technology”.

This increased engagement will hinder and slow down the research of academics like Badcock. It could endanger their academic independence. National security experts believe it’s worth it. Badcock’s frustration was evident during our conversation.

New Zealand academics are unused to the hawkish perspective towards the Chinese government emerging among our diplomats and officials. Many came of age in the last 30 years. Without global rivalries of the sort seen during the Cold War, the concept of a truly international academic family — where researchers put aside national affiliations to cooperate in pursuit of global scientific advancement — became embedded in our universities.

But that approach is fading. As a result, said Young, New Zealanders generally — and researchers specifically — will need to confront the question: “How do we deal with a country which is, politically and institutionally, so different? Particularly when they’ve become so powerful.” He believes “we’re moving towards a partially decoupled world” where China and the West operate independently in some areas — including research into certain types of technology. If larger countries like the UK and US take this approach, he adds, “then if we don’t follow we lose access to them”.

For now, that strikes many in the academic world as paranoid, even absurd. Even with his extensive background in British military research and the sensitivities of some technologies, Badcock is horrified by the idea that he shouldn’t trust some of his Chinese colleagues. “Research isn’t a country,” he said. “It’s a community.”

Pete McKenzie is a freelance writer based in Wellington. His last article for the magazine was about the sweeping legal implications of the Peter Ellis case.

This story appeared in the November 2021 issue of North & South.