Australia's universities are unwittingly creating major security risks by collaborating with universities in China that operate as arms of China's military, intelligence and political leadership, a new report finds.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a new China Defence Universities Tracker on Monday, naming identifies 92 Chinese universities as a "very high risk" to Australian security for their deep links to the People's Liberation Army, security or intelligence agencies and defence.
Among them are China's "seven sons of national defence". The ANU has links with at least five of the "seven sons", including the Northwestern Polytechnical University, the Beijing Institute of Technology and Beihang University, and Nanjing University of Science and Technology.
All are ranked "very high risk". They all have top-secret security credentials, high involvement in defence and are supervised by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
They are variously involved in armaments, precision missile technology, weapons and other military equipment. Nanjing has a collaborative relationship with a People's Liberation Army signals intelligence research institute. A fifth, the Harbin Institute of Technology, is ranked very high risk for covert activity among other reasons, and also takes part in ANU summer schools.
The ANU has an arrangement under which students from the Chinese universities can transfer to the ANU after two years if they meet entry and visa requirements, and operates summer school exchanges with them. The ANU's North Asia recruitment team holds recruitment sessions at Beihang University.
The ANU website touts Northwestern as "making tremendous achievements adhering to school motto "Broadness, Honesty, Bravery, and Persistence", and the spirit of "solid foundation, earnest work, plain attitude, and innovative spirit". But an ANU spokesman said the words were not the ANU's, but Northwestern's, taken from the Chinese university's own site.
The Strategic Policy Institute's Alex Joske says the "seven sons" are best described as defence universities, feeding their graduates into defence jobs and high-tech companies such as Huawei and ZTE. Forty-one per cent of Northwestern's graduates work in Chinese defence - the highest of the "seven sons".
The ANU spokesman said all sensitive collaboration was heavily scrutinised, requiring permits from the Department of Defence for any project involving military research or any project that could have military applications. The university worked closely with national security agencies and regularly took their advice. Sensitive research was vetted by its own policies and processes, as well as ethics approval, and the students had to meet "robust checks" from the Department of Home Affairs for a visa, he said.
The warning about university collaboration came as the Australian parliament reacted with alarm on Monday to the news of a claimed attempt to plant a Chinese operative in the parliament itself at the last election.
Liberal party member Nick Zhao told the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation last year that a Chinese intelligence group had offered him $1 million, asking him to stand for election in the Melbourne electorate of Chisholm. Mr Zhao was found dead in a hotel room in March, with cause of death reportedly yet to be established.
The seat was won by Liberal Gladys Liu, and while no one has suggested any link, crossbencher Senator Rex Patrick called for Ms Liu to make a statement to parliament about her background and China connections.
Labor's Kimberley Kitching went further, saying Ms Liu's former involvement with Chinese propaganda group United Front was "compromising". Ms Liu had claimed to have examined all of her previous links with Chinese groups but had not released the result.
"What's the idea of a self-audit?" Senator Kitching asked.
Ms Liu should also explain the source of the $100,000 that she donated to her own campaign, Senator Kitching said.
The government is also weighing a claim for asylum from defector Wang Liqiang, who claims to have been a Chinese spy and went public on the weekend.
Mr Joske, a China expert, has met Mr Wang and analysed his confession, International Cyber Policy Centre, and said there was support for some of his claims and evidence that China was attempting to silence him.
Mr Joske has now released a China Defence Universities Tracker, which he hopes the government and universities will use before signing up to collaborations with Chinese universities and before issuing visas. "There's a growing risk that collaboration with People's Republic of China universities can be leveraged by the People's Liberation Army or security agencies for surveillance, human rights abuses or military purposes," his report said.
Mr Joske said universities were not managing the risks, lacking expertise and resources to understand their foreign partners.
They should set the bar higher, he said. They should avoid collaborations with Chinese universities in defence research or that could contribute to human rights abuses.
Receiving large amounts of public funding, they "have an obligation to avoid recklessly harming human rights or national security, such as by training scientists from nuclear weapons programs or working with suppliers of surveillance technology used in Xinjiang".
The tracker lists 160 Chinese universities, assessing them based on involvement in espionage or cyber-attacks, and other markers of concern including links with China's defence industry. Mr Joske said China's hold on its universities went well beyond the seven sons, including 61 universities that were to be built as part of China's national defence industry agency. More than 160 laboratories operated in civilian universities.
His report highlights the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu which runs a joint fibre optics research centre with the University of NSW. The Chinese university had links to the nuclear weapons program, and had been implicated in the surveillance technology in Xinjiang, and had expertise in signal processing and anti-jamming technology, optics and radar-absorbing materials.
Last year, Mr Joske released a report which found that the ANU and the University of NSW were among the top 10 worldwide for collaboration with People's Liberation Army researchers.
The tracker was far from comprehensive, Mr Joske said, with more research needed on the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its dozens of subordinates, and on the hundreds of thousands of subsidiaries of China's defence conglomerates.