Margaret McCuaig-Johnston: National Security & Human Rights Must be Paramount when Collaborating on Science & Technology with China

National Security & Human Rights Must be Paramount when Collaborating on Science and Technology with China

An Interview with Margaret McCuaig-Johnston

Can you tell us about your background and what insights you have gained from your experience collaborating with China on science and technology? 

During my time in government, I worked closely with China’s capacity-building efforts. I first visited China in 1979, when China was beginning to emerge from the Cultural Revolution. The progress the country has made since then, mostly on the shoulders of Canadian and Western expertise, is remarkable.

Xi Jinping has revolutionized China’s technological sector, though some inefficiencies of a top-down system still exist. Collaboration among scientists and engineers is often stifled by their competition with one another. The integrity of peer-reviewed research has also been called into question as papers often pass through peer-review committees based on the quality of personal relationships, rather than merit.

Despite these challenges, China has maintained a long-term vision for its technological, research, scientific and developmental ambitions. Basing growth on official five-year economic plans, Beijing’s ambitions seek to place China as the leading manufacturer in the world by 2025, the leading artificial intelligence developer by 2030, the leading economy by 2035, and the leading military power by 2049—a significant date marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party coming to power in China. 

For eight decades, our countries have engaged in comprehensive collaboration in science, technology and innovation. Is collaboration between China and Canada still feasible, considering events that have transpired over the past five years and the tensions that have come up in our relationships in this time? 

Canada’s cooperation with China on science and technology dates to the 1950s, and 60s, when Canadian scientists helped their Chinese counterparts improve the productivity, yield and efficiency of their agricultural practices, particularly with oats. Canada further provided China’s Three Gorges Dam with environmental specifications and the appropriate turbines. Bombardier has also played a leading role in China for many years.

Since 2015, however, joint Canadian-Chinese ventures in technology have raised concerns as arrangements built on Canadian technologies unfairly favour the Chinese counterpart. More worryingly, Western technologies have made their way into the hands of the Chinese military. This has been particularly concerning as safeguarding Canadian universities and their critical research on artificial intelligence and other technologies is critical to our security. Additionally, although collaboration continues on climate change, environmental and medical science, concerns have been raised with China’s illicit collection of Canadian genetic and RNA research.

How does the CCP view the digital domain and digital governance? What will happen if Canada and our allies leave China unchecked? Does the digital Silk Road pose any significant security threats from your perspective? 

It poses threats on so many levels. This is one of the things that I am most concerned about. It is not just China’s influence on digital standards internationally, although that is a big thing. In 2014, Xi Jinping instructed Chinese officials to move into the top ranks of international standards organizations. They have done that, and it has benefited China remarkably—setting standards that reflect Chinese standards. I am concerned about the surveillance technologies in China that are being used to survey their own citizens, especially in Xinjiang, but it is spreading across the country as well. Companies like iFLYTEK, which does voice recognition so that police can monitor exactly who is talking on a phone call, and facial recognition technology that will pick out a Uyghur or Lower Mongolian out of a crowd of Han and others—and genetic technology, which poses a big risk for Canadian data stored in China. I have lot of concerns on the whole digital front. I think that we need to get our act together in the West. I think countries are starting to do that. I think the G7 and D-10 are the first efforts to address these issues.

In your opinion, should there be concern about China’s desire for a role in resource development of the Arctic? Do China’s ambitions pose a threat to Canadian sovereignty and security? 

Securing the Arctic is critical for Canada’s national security. China is committed to developing its Arctic capabilities, most recently by building two science and research icebreakers, with a third on the way, and announcing intentions to develop military infrastructure to support Beijing’s resource extraction and shipping capabilities. As Arctic sea ice continues to recede, Arctic shipping lanes will look increasingly attractive to China, particularly due to their efficiency in comparison with traditional shipping routes through the Suez and Panama canals.

Additionally, of great concern and worth noting is a reference made in China’s 2015 – 2021 Five Year Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation calling for a five-year project for investigating the security of the Canadian Arctic. China is not an Arctic nation. Why is it concerned about the security of the Canadian Arctic?

China’s research icebreakers have been doing navigational mapping of the Northwest Passage. When entering Canadian territory, they have always asked permission, but someday, they just won’t. What do we do then? They must have a Canadian navigator, and a Canadian Inuit to make sure that environmental concerns are mitigated, but those people are not allowed to enter certain areas of Chinese ships. Why is that? It is concerning that only Chinese nationals have full access. One has to think that China has got designs on our Arctic. China will seek to leverage its close relationship with Russia, Chair of the Arctic Council, to further its agenda, which includes becoming a fully fledged member of the group. Canada must invest resources into securing our Arctic sovereignty. We have ships being built—that’s great. We need as many as possible, as fast as possible, as far as I am concerned. Nuclear-powered submarines are also important if we are to protect our three coasts, and would allow us to participate in the recently announced AUKUS with our allies.

What national security concerns are associated with the collaboration between Canadian universities and Chinese tech firms? 

Under Xi Jinping, China has effectively created a nexus between its military and civilian technological spheres, often through coercing Chinese scientists into collaborating with military scientists. This could potentially allow the Chinese state to effectively collect and synthesize research from Canadian universities, particularly on artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, advanced materials, quantum physics, and photonics. All of these are of great interest to China’s military. It could also see Canadian innovations used in China’s military technology.

In addition to the ongoing federal review of our research collaborations, the government should also look at the presence of military scientists and engineers affiliated with the Chinese military in Canadian universities. Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute ranks Canada as third place among Western countries in relation to incidents of such Chinese collaborations. Individuals affiliated with the Chinese military often use different titles to conceal where they are coming from, creating challenges for staff issuing visas at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

How can we best discuss the challenges China poses to Canadian security without fanning the flames of prejudice and possibly xenophobia? 

It is important to note that many Chinese citizens, having been victimized at home themselves, come to Canada in search of a safety and a better life. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and China’s initial coverup of the outbreak, have further contributed to racism targeting Asian-Canadians. It is imperative that all Canadians stand up to xenophobia and bigotry.

China has capitalized on this hate by equating critiques directed at China with racism, effectively trying to protect the Chinese state from legitimate criticism from abroad. Recent action by the House of Commons to label ongoing human rights violations reported in Xinjiang as genocide was a positive first step. This paved the way for our efforts, alongside those of our allies in the UK, U.S and EU, to sanction Chinese government officials and entities involved in Xinjiang’s prison camps and ongoing genocide. The failure of this initiative to pass a vote in the Senate was disappointing. The vote’s conclusion with 13 abstentions was particularly concerning. Every abstention was a vote for allowing the genocide to continue.

What more could Canada be doing regarding the human rights violations reported in  Xinjiang?

A good first step for Canada would be to add companies operating in Xinjiang to a list of designated entities. The U.S, for example, has included 54 Xinjiang-based companies on its own entities list, effectively limiting their export capabilities and access to the U.S market. Listing these companies further emphasizes the severity of violations occurring in Xinjiang, including forced sterilizations and rape. Those companies across China using slave labour from Xinjiang should also be identified, and no imports from those should be permitted.

There is further evidence that organ harvesting, beatings, and the breaking up of families are all taking place in Xinjiang. Children are particularly vulnerable as some have been forcefully sent off to orphanages, and consequently adopted by Han Chinese families, where they are denied access to their socio-cultural, communal, and religious roots.

Reports of similar practices and re-education camps have been noted in other parts of China as well. Maltreatment at the hands of the Chinese state is not exclusive to Uyghur Muslims either, as Chinese Christian communities have also reported on the state’s interference with their churches and religious beliefs. China aspires to be a superpower, but such state-sanctioned actions should not be tolerated of a superpower.

Do you have any policy recommendations about some of the issues we have discussed, particularly addressing Canadian intellectual property transfers, or concerning the reported human rights violations in Xinjiang?

The solution here should start with the universities, scientists and engineers in question, who have noted a lack of policy guidance from the federal government, guidance that is starting to roll out across the country. They should be responsible for considering the potential consequences of transferring key data to China, which could in effect end up in the hands of the Chinese military.

Recent events in Alberta, where some universities were found to have been concealing funds from Chinese companies and donors, should spur provincial governments into adopting a proactive stance and taking action to ensure that public universities are funded transparently.

The federal government, and its respective agencies, has done its part by providing broad, user-friendly guidelines that help scientists and researchers understand the threat posed to their intellectual property, particularly in the context of collaborating with their counterparts abroad. Although these guidelines avoid naming China specifically, Beijing’s ongoing efforts to access intellectual property, research and technology are at the heart of these policies.

Additionally, we should take the example of the current entities list used in the US to effectively identify and sanction companies contributing to China’s surveillance state and military in Xinjiang. It would be prudent for Canada to further collaboration with our allies, and the U.S in particular, when it comes to addressing the broad spectrum of threats posed by China. We should also consider synchronizing our regulations, such as the Controlled Goods Act and controlled goods regulations, with ongoing developments in the US.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Senior Fellow with the University of Alberta’s China Institute and Distinguished Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Formerly, she was Executive Vice-President at NSERC where she was responsible for strategic operations, including research policy and international relations. She was also a member for seven years of the Steering Committee for the Canada-China Science and Technology (S&T) Initiative.

From 1991 to 2009 Margaret held senior management positions in the federal government. She was the Assistant Deputy Minister of Energy Technology and Programs at Natural Resources Canada and was appointed to the Assistant Deputy Minister level as General Director in the Department of Finance. She also held the position of Director General, Manufacturing and Processing Technologies at Industry Canada and was Assistant Secretary of the Prime Minister’s National Advisory Board on Science and Technology. She was also Director of Science Strategy, in the (then) Department of Industry, Science and Technology and Senior Advisor in the Privy Council Office. In the Ontario government, Margaret held positions in federal-provincial relations, telecommunications and consumer/corporate affairs.


Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.