Stigmatising China connections: Problems with research on research collaborations

Researchers of Chinese heritage have come under increasing suspicion in countries such as the US, Australia and New Zealand, as potential sources of national security threats. In recent years, media reports have regularly insinuated their wrongdoing and divided loyalties. These stories are often based on studies that purportedly reveal the shadowy connections between these researchers and the Chinese party-state or military.

But this sweeping narrative is based on dubious (and often unstated) assumptions, mischaracterisations, and studies with questionable research methodologies. This narrative contributes to the stigmatisation of China connections, generates undue suspicion on Chinese researchers, and underplays the benefits of research collaboration with China.

Let’s look at one recent case as a way of highlighting the importance of being critically-minded on this issue.

A recent parliamentary submission

A submission by Alex Joske, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, to the parliamentary inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector made headlines this week. The Australian reports:

The Chinese Communist Party has recruited more than 300 scientists and scholars at Australian tertiary and government research institutions through its talent ­recruitment programs — and maybe as many as 600 — a new submission to a parliamentary ­inquiry has revealed.

The submission…warns that the secretive recruitment programs could be associated with up to $280m in grant fraud and raises concerns that Beijing could ­obtain backdoor access to sensitive technology and lucrative ­innovations.

The submission claims that its author has identified 325 participants in China’s talent-recruitment programs who work or worked in Australian research institutions.

The submission details the cases of three individuals (the rest of the 325 participants are not named). As with all parliamentary submissions, the author of the submission is immune from legal action in respect of any statements contained in it.

Methodology problems on grant violations

The submission has identified major concerns with the researchers’ “conflicting commitments”. This is where a researcher maintains employment with different institutions. This may be against the rules of some grant programs, which prohibit the grant recipients from taking up external employment.

As the submission notes, joining a talent-recruitment program is not illegal nor does it necessarily involve misconduct. The problem is violating grant funding agreements or university policies. The submission claims that misconduct and non-disclosure are common among participants in China’s talent-recruitment programs.

However, the method of this research is problematic. For example, we do not know whether misconduct and non-disclosure is a widespread problem among all researchers since this submission only deals with researchers who participate in China’s talent-recruitment programs.

Looking at the crimes or violations committed by only one sub-group can lead to conclusions that are highly prejudicial. In addition, it can miss other important correlations and motivations.

For example, if similar levels of misconduct and non-disclosure are recorded for those not participating in China’s talent-recruitment programs, then participating in these programs cannot explain these behaviours. Collecting more data on other aspects of the researchers can potentially uncover factors that could better correlate with misconduct.

It is also important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. But in this submission, we do not even have the evidence for “correlation”.

Underlying assumptions on technology transfer

The submission also claims that being employed by an Australian university and a Chinese university (either concurrently or subsequently) facilitates problematic technology transfer. This claim is underscored by three assumptions, none of which are explicitly stated:

  1. Technology transfer to China, or more specifically, universities connected to the Chinese party-state or military, is detrimental to Australian interests.
  2. These researchers gain knowledge in an Australian university and then disseminate this knowledge in China — that technology transfer is one way only.
  3. Researchers absorb knowledge from Australian universities while not producing value for these universities — instead, researchers exploit the openness in Australian institutions for China’s gain.

All of these assumptions are highly problematic.

First, not all technology transfer to China is detrimental to Australia’s national interests or the interests of Australian institutions.

Second, most of what universities produce and what these researchers work on is open source, that is, available to anyone wherever they are.

Third, Australian universities hire these researchers for a reason. Presumably, there is a mutually beneficial employer-employee relationship where they contribute to these institutions through teaching, research and other activities. These researchers, therefore, contribute to Australian universities and research as much as they gain from working there. Indeed, they may even be hired because of their demonstrated ability to deliver benefits from collaborating with institutions and researchers in China.

The fear that an individual may take what they’ve learnt from a previous employer to the next employer is the motivation behind non-compete clauses used by some employers. Universities generally do not have non-compete clauses, and such clauses are void in many jurisdictions for good reasons.

Much of the prejudice against Chinese researchers appears to be the misconception that they are only working to extract knowledge from Australian institutions, when in reality they are also knowledge creators. In fact, Australia and other Western countries have benefited enormously from China’s “brain drain”. According to research by MacroPolo, although China is the largest source of top-tier AI researchers in the world, 56 per cent of these researchers studied and remain working in the United States.

Criminalising China

As Margaret Lewis notes in relation the United State Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which targets China-connected crimes:

Using “China” as the glue connecting cases under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an overinclusive conception of the threat and attaches a criminal taint to entities that have an even tangential nexus to “China.” It further contends that implying part of the justification for prosecution and resulting punishment is a shared connection to China is worrisome when assessed in light of the goals of deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and retribution.

Countries such as Australia are facing many challenges that come from a rising China and the changes in the international system. However, seeing national security challenges through an exclusive China lens is counterproductive. It can, for example, blow these challenges out of proportion and lead to the wrong policy responses.

In this particular case, the “threat” narrative on research collaboration with China is doing our societies harm.

First, wittingly or not, this narrative is driving the stigmatisation of China connections. People with Chinese heritage, naturally, are the ones to suffer most from this stigmatisation, including through rising suspicion, alienation, discrimination at workplace, and racism.

Second, we should acknowledge the threats coming from China, take them seriously and respond appropriately in our national interest. But to stigmatise China connections, including mutually beneficial scientific collaboration, is contrary to the national interest. This is especially so for countries that are net importers of knowledge, such as Australia.

Third, we are at the risk of myopia from “over-national-securitising” and focusing too much on China at the expense of squeezing out other priorities. This could be just as damaging as not taking China policy challenges seriously.