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28 December 2020

Independent Senator Rex Patrick has called on the Australian Government to use its new powers over foreign relations to review and cancel Australian university agreements with China’s Tianjin University (TJU) which has been blacklisted in the United States for espionage activity. 

“A national university under the direct administration of China’s Ministry of Education, Tianjin University has been directly connected with Chinese Government espionage activities and intellectual property theft. It is contrary to Australia’s national interests for our universities to collaborate with this institution,” Senator Patrick said. 

A number of Australian Universities have entered into cooperative research and information exchange agreements with Tianjin University including the University of Sydney for the operation of the Australia-China Centre for Energy Informatics and Demand Response Technologies (a project that also involves the State Grid Corporation of China); RMIT University for the establishment of a virtual Research Centre for Advanced Automotive Technologies, Design Innovation and 3D Printing; the University of South Australia for the operation of a China-Australia Centre for Sustainable Development; and University of Queensland for the operation of a Confucius Institute. 

Earlier this month the United States Treasury Department blacklisted Tianjin University as an entity that has and continues to pose ‘a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.

While TJU is under the administration of the Ministry of Education, it is also supervised by China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence and hosts two defence laboratories. TJU also carries out research for the Ministry of State Security, China’s civilian intelligence agency which is responsible for political oppression and gross human rights abuses.

TJU has a track record of involvement in economic espionage and intellectual property theft. In 2015, the US Justice Department announced the indictments of three professors from Tianjin University who were suspected of stealing technology from the United States. One of the professors, Zhang Hao of TJU’s School of Precision Instrument and Opto-Electronics Engineering was arrested by US federal agents in Los Angeles. In June 2020 he was convicted for economic espionage offences relating to the theft of trade secrets from two US companies 'for the benefit of the Chinese Government'.

“The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has assessed Tianjin University as a ‘high risk’ entity owing to its Chinese defence and state security connections and the direct involvement of its personnel in espionage and intellectual property theft,” Senator Patrick said.

“Earlier this month the Australian Parliament enacted legislation that allows the Federal Government to cancel agreements with foreign entities made by states, local governments or universities if the deals are deemed harmful to Australia’s national security and foreign policy interests.”

“While some of the agreements Australian universities have entered into with TJU may be mutually beneficial, collaboration with a Chinese state controlled institution that has been directly connected with economic espionage and intellectual property theft is not compatible with Australia’s wider national security and foreign policy interests.”

“The Chinese Government has been engaged in extensive espionage and political interference activities in Australia, including efforts to hack into the information databases of universities, research institutes, businesses, government departments and political parties and indeed the Australian Parliament.”

“We need to send some very clear signals that these activities will no longer be tolerated and that collaboration with Chinese research bodies cannot continue while China continues to engage in aggressive espionage and economic coercion against Australia.” 

“It would be appropriate for the Australian Government to consult with the Australian universities engaged with Tianjin University and seek their agreement to wind up these collaborative research arrangements without delay. If agreement is not forthcoming from the universities, then the Government should use its new legislated powers to cancel all agreements with TJU without delay.”