The Australian – ASIO issues alert to universities over China links25 August 2020
SHARRI MARKSON AND KYLAR LOUSSIKIAN
Australia’s spy agency has warned universities about the risk to national security from Chinese government recruitment programs, including the Thousand Talents Plan, and has alerted them as recently as May to the potential for collaboration to turn into espionage.
ASIO gave private briefings to universities urging them to strengthen their disclosure regimes and making them aware of the risks of foreign talent recruitment programs including technology transfer, security sources said.
The revelations come as the deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Labor MP Anthony Byrne, supported a demand by his Liberal colleague and committee chairman Andrew Hastie for an “urgent” inquiry into the Thousand Talents Plan.
Mr Byrne said the inquiry should take place through the parliamentary committee in order to obtain classified briefings from Australian and US agencies.
An investigation by The Australian revealed dozens of researchers at universities across the country had been recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan, which in some cases pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to academics and provides other lucrative perks. In exchange, academics are bound by contract terms that can include a requirement to assign intellectual property to Chinese universities.
Mr Byrne said: “The report in The Australian would alarm any Australian concerned about our national sovereignty.
“It would appear that Australian universities have turned a blind eye to (their) own academics selling their knowledge to a foreign power through a program that the FBI have identified as a national security and economic espionage threat. This is totally unacceptable.”
As a result of The Australian’s investigation, Education Minister Dan Tehan revealed on Monday night that his department would in coming weeks brief two powerful parliamentary committees on the issue.
“I am working to ensure Australia’s higher education sector has strong protections against foreign interference,” Mr Tehan said.
“In the coming weeks, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment will be providing in camera briefings on the government’s work to strengthen protections against foreign interference to the Senate Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade … and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.”
The Australian has learned that ASIO briefed universities on warning signs relating to academics who had been recruited by the Chinese government and also expressed concerns about some specific academics.
ASIO confirmed the briefings on the Thousand Talents Plan and similar programs in a rare statement.
“ASIO regularly engages with Australian universities, tertiary institutions and academia on national security issues,” a spokesperson said. “The details of those discussions are sensitive and it would be inappropriate to comment further.
“As is longstanding practice, ASIO does not comment on the specific details of intelligence matters, or individuals.” Pressure is mounting on the Morrison government to hold an inquiry into foreign interference. Mr Tehan and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton both declined to comment on whether they supported the push.
Politicians who lent their support to calls for an inquiry included Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson, Jim Wilson, Sarah Henderson, Claire Chandler, Amanda Stoker, Alex Antic, Eric Abetz, George Christensen, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Bob Katter and Labor’s Kimerbley Kitching, who chairs the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
Some politicians, including Mr Christensen, have raised the matter directly with Scott Morrison and Mr Tehan.
Higher education sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the discussions, said ASIO had twice provided high-level briefings about foreign influence in the sector, including Thousand Talents and similar programs. The agency had also provided specific briefings to universities when it had particular concerns about a researcher, said sources involved in these discussions.
But those in the sector said the briefings noted that Thousand Talents and similar programs were not necessarily problematic as long as academics were made to disclose conflicts of interest.
Universities already have disclosure registers for secondary employment and other conflicts of interest, but all contacted by The Australian during its investigation of the Thousand Talents Plan declined to make these available.
A security source said universities needed to be careful international collaboration did not become more serious and that they needed to be aware “there may be an espionage element”.
“The starting point is research collaboration is overwhelmingly a good thing,” a senior security source said.
“There are risks and these programs are sometimes used as a way of IP or technology transfer.”
While the FBI is investigating more than 1000 cases in the US involving real or attempted theft of intellectual property, with many involving the Thousand Talents plan, in Australia, there is no agency that combines intelligence and law-enforcement.
The Thousand Talents Plan does not fall directly into ASIO’s remit and it also involves IP theft in exchange for money. This is not currently illegal in Australia, although it is open to police to make a case for fraud, if one exists.
There is also the question of Australian Research Council grant funding going offshore. There are no checks and balances to ensure this does not happen.
Official regulation of the sector is patchy, with universities themselves left to police questions of foreign interference.
Mr Sharma said the revelations about the Thousand Talents program were deeply worrying.
“If you’re employing an academic, you have a right to assume they are loyal to you … some of these academics seem to have been serving two masters, without the knowledge of their Australian university employer,” the Liberal MP said.
Mr Wilson said: “It’s essential to be vigilant against the Chinese Communist Party’s tentacles.
Senator Kitching said Australia was “playing catch-up with other jurisdictions” when it came to combating this problem.
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