31 Aug China and the curse of hire education
Sharri Markson – The Australian – Sunday 30 August 2020
It was with great fanfare in May 2019 that Curtin University announced Brad Yu, a young and talented professor, had been appointed Optus Chair of Artificial Intelligence, to lead the Optus-Curtin Centre of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence.
The announcement was made after a presentation in Canberra, where Yu, who had been at ANU, was awarded the prestigious John Booker Medal in Engineering Science by the Australian Academy of Science.
A press release was issued celebrating the business deal between Curtin and Optus Business “to develop an artificial intelligence research group”.
Curtin University vice-chancellor Deborah Terry, who now heads the University of Queensland, described Yu as “inspiring and innovative” and said the Academy of Science had “hailed him as the leader of a new generation of Australian researchers”.
A year on, and Yu hasn’t been seen at Curtin University for most of this year, with the university admitting he has only spent “some time” in Australia.
Despite being paid as a full-time professor at ANU and then Curtin University, where he is understood to receive a 60 per cent loading of his professorial salary, and his research centre has been funded to the tune of $4m, he has been working in China, where he is affiliated with three universities.
He is employed by Westlake University in Hangzhou. He has also worked at the Hangzhou Dianzi University, designated “high-risk” by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s China Defence University tracker for its level of Chinese military defence research. It has two major defence laboratories and five designated defence research areas.
ASPI’s report states that in 2011 the Zhejiang State Secrets Bureau established a State Secrets Academy in HDU.
Yu’s work has a defence application; he was listed at a 2015 defence conference, the 34th Chinese Control Conference, as a session chair from both Hangzhou Dianzi University and ANU.
The chair of this conference was Xue Anke, who runs Hangzhou Dianzi’s main defence laboratory and served on an expert advisory committee to the PLA on information technology, according to ASPI.
Yu specialises in drone automation and artificial intelligence, and is currently working on an area of intense interest to the Chinese government — the future of aerial warfare and co-ordinated drone swarms involving thousands of unmanned vehicles co-operating in the air. His Hangzhou University profile is no longer accessible for public view, after Inquirer submitted questions.
China and its influence have been the red-hot topics of politics this week, starting with Monday’s revelations by The Australian that dozens of academics at Australian universities had been recruited to Chinese research programs, including the Thousand Talents Plan, offering second salaries and other perks including research facilities at Chinese institutions. The programs — described by the FBI as “economic espionage” and which resulted in several arrests of academics in the US — frequently involved contracts requiring participants to abide by Chinese law and to register any inventions or patents in China. It was also revealed several universities had no idea their employees were participating in the program or had patents filed in China.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced this week the government was investigating cases exposed by The Australian, and powerful Liberals, with influence on the backbench, such as the chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, Andrew Hastie and colleague James Paterson, have been joined by Labor’s deputy chair, Anthony Byrne, in demanding the Morrison government hold an inquiry into the Thousand Talents Plan and other issues of interference at universities.
Scott Morrison also flagged legislation that could see the commonwealth axe deals with China made by states or institutions including universities deemed not in the national interest.
But Yu isn’t the only Australian academic who has worked for Hangzhou Dianzi University, although there is no suggestion any individual named in this story has engaged in any wrongdoing.
Two Australian professors from ANU have spoken to Inquirer about their involvement with HDU.
Photographs show ANU professors Brian Anderson and Ian Petersen at the opening ceremony of a base aimed to recruit top international experts from around the world including Russia, Germany and France.
The Hangzhou University base — titled “Innovation and Intelligence Induction Base for Cyber-Physics System Perception and Control Discipline” — was created under China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the Ministry of Education in 2017, according to documents uncovered by ASPI.
“The goal of the base’s construction is to introduce a number of top international experts and intellects in this discipline, to create a truly internationally influential and sustainable international collaborative innovation group of ‘cyber-physical system perception and control’, and to train a number of people with international vision and international-level young and middle-aged talents,” Hangzhou’s website stated.
For a short time, Petersen, who had been working at UNSW, said he was actually leading the Hangzhou Dianzi centre as its “overseas head”.
After this, he said he discussed his arrangement with ANU and “came to the agreement that it would be better for me not to be involved subsequently”.
“I was asked and initially agreed to act as the overseas head of a centre at HDU in 2017 and went to their official opening in October 2017,” he said.
“However, subsequent to this in late 2017, I found that I was going to be interim director of the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering and so I would not have time to be involved in the HDU centre. Hence, I withdrew my involvement with HDU at this time.”
Petersen’s research has defence application in the fields of system control and robust control theory, aircraft and missile control, sensing and control, pattern recognition and future aerial warfare.
Asked if he was concerned his work could have been misused for defence purposes, Petersen said: “My work is theoretical and could be applied to many different areas but I have not been involved in any direct applications of my theory to real defence applications. I have not had any interactions with the Chinese military.”
ANU Emeritus Professor Anderson said his time at ANU and HDU did not cross over, so he did not need to disclose his affiliation.
“Immediately after ceasing employment at ANU, I became part-time at HDU on a five-year contract in mid-2016,” he said. “I made no secret of my involvement from the time it started.”
Anderson said he has never “recruited” researchers to HDU, has never worked under Xue Anke and has never participated in any foreign recruitment program.
Anderson’s work also has defence application. His ANU profile page lists his research interests as signal processing and control and distributed control of multiagent systems.
Like Yu, he is focusing on unmanned aerial vehicles — or drones — and researching what is required to maintain a certain shape formation.
“I am focusing on the principles governing the control and use of formations of unmanned airborne vehicles,” Anderson says in his ANU profile. “Much of my work is on particular problems suggested by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.”
Asked if he was concerned his research may have been misused in China to help the Chinese military, Anderson said: “No. My research is largely theoretical. I am unaware of any military application by a foreign government. All my research is in the public domain and freely accessible to anyone who wants to engage with it.”
Anderson said he spent about six weeks in China in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and cannot remember how many trips he made prior to that. He is recorded as having spoken at Hangzhou Dianzi University in 2011, giving a lecture entitled “Control and Information Architectures for Formations”, which examined co-ordination of drones and robots.
Petersen said he has never participated in the Thousand Talents Plan but has “written references for colleagues (mainly Chinese) who have applied for support under this plan”.
While trips to China can raise red flags for universities — if they are paying attention — not all recruitment is happening offshore.
Chinese government officials have travelled to Australian university campuses to directly recruit top academics and students to their talent programs.
UNSW, the University of Sydney and University of Melbourne have all hosted PRC officials at recruiting sessions.
The Huazhong University of Science and Technology held talent recruitment presentations in Melbourne and Sydney in October 2018. Huazhong University’s vice-president, Chen Jianguo, travelled to Australia to “invite outstanding young talents from overseas to join” in “recruitment seminars” at the universities of Melbourne and Sydney.
Some academics were invited to attend the seminars and told their round-trip transportation within the country would be paid for. There was particular interest for those in the field of natural sciences or engineering technology.
There was also salary information provided on the Chinese-language website about the “Thousand Talents program youth project”.
The salary is listed as “not less than 500,000 yuan” ($100,000). It also says that academics will enjoy other incomes including high-level scientific research grants worth from 1 million to 3 million yuan ($200,000 to $600,000).
It also says a resettlement allowance and house purchase subsidy will be provided, along with other perks including “arrange spouse work, implement children’s school enrolment in kindergarten”.
At UNSW, talent recruitment programs seemingly operate openly and visits by PRC officials are not hidden.
Chinese officials, including Secretary of Dongying City Science and Technology Bureau, Shoukai Li, and Dongying City (Shandong) Vice Mayor Jineng Wang, were among a group of Chinese officials who visited the UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications in September 2016 to discuss “talent projects”.
“Director Yang introduced the project and policies of High Level Talents Development Promotion of Dongying,” a report on the UNSW website states.
“Both Secretary Li and Director Yang warmly invited Prof Peng to serve as the Master of the Workstation of Overseas Talent/Association of Talent Development Promotion of Dongying.”
In Brisbane, the Queensland Chinese Association of Scientists and Engineers facilitated a visit by a Chinese government official — Vice Mayor Yang Mengshu from Dongying, Shandong.
The association’s newsletter stated the visit “helped disseminate recruitment information to all QCASE members and friends”.
The Chinese Association of Professionals and Scholars Australia has also advocated joining Chinese government recruitment programs and targets young academics through its youth initiatives.
New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady, who published a report last month titled China’s Exploitation of Civilian Channels for Military Purposes in New Zealand, revealed prestigious journal Nature had published a paid content article about the Thousand Talents Plan in January 2018.
She reported it stated “All successful applicants can expect a 1 million yuan starting bonus, and the opportunity to apply for a research fund of 3-5 million yuan”.
“What was not mentioned is that copyright for any research connected with the program is required to be registered in China, even if it is part of a research program funded elsewhere,” Professor Brady wrote.
While the Australian government ponders setting up an inquiry, following The Australian’s revelations this week about academics who have been recruited to Chinese government talent programs, the US has already held a Senate investigation.
Its report was critical of how long it took the FBI to act.
“Despite the Chinese government’s public announcements in 2008 of its intent to recruit overseas researchers with access to cutting-edge research and absorb, assimilate and re-innovate technologies, the FBI did not identify Chinese talent recruitment plans as a ‘threat vector’ until 2015,” the Senate report said.
In Australia, scrutiny of these programs is falling through the departmental cracks; it’s not strictly in the remit of ASIO or the AFP.
Hastie said this is why it’s essential for the commonwealth parliament to hold an inquiry into foreign interference in our universities.
“That’s what we do: we conduct oversight and scrutiny of our sovereign institutions,” he said.
“Every Australian taxpayer has a stake in the academic culture and the research conducted on campus. Every tax dollar must advance the national interest. We want to know that academic freedom is being upheld and that government-funded research serves the Australian national interest, not that of foreign governments.”