National Security

Risks for a Chinese scholar

May 18, 2024

Saturday 18 May 2024
Jamie Walker
The Australian

To his peers, Xiaolong Zhu is a pleasant young man who lives and works quietly in Brisbane, conducting university research that could save lives when disaster strikes. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t the view of the Australian government.

According to a 2020 determination by then foreign minister Marise Payne, the 35-year-old Chinese national may be “directly or indirectly associated” with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and is not welcome in this country. Canberra wants him gone. Zhu has gone to court to stay.

And the stand-off is shining a light on the shadowy efforts of our strategic adversaries – think the so-called Axis of Upheaval comprising China, Russia, Iran and North Korea – to steal dual-use technology transferable from the civilian realm to war-fighting, while security services here and across the West scramble to keep up.

Increasingly, the target is university programs – juicy marks that can provide backdoor access to the jewels of militarily applicable research, absent the protections generally in place for in-house defence and government-run projects.

It’s easy to see why Zhu would have been red-flagged. He is working on navigation systems to allow drones to operate in GPS-denied environments on search and rescue missions; say, people are trapped in a burning building where satellite guidance won’t work; or a team of miners is caught in an underground collapse, beyond the reach of the GPS signal.

Zhu’s drones would be able to go in independently to locate and potentially help them, according to his PhD proposal to the Queensland University of Technology.

The big Brisbane university, placed top 10 in most Australian rankings and top 200 internationally, is adamant his research has nothing to do with WMD.

And while then QUT pro vice-chancellor Helen Klaebe acknowledged in 2020 that larger drones could “have a dual purpose” bridging civil and defence applications, she said in Zhu’s defence his project used off-the-shelf platforms weighing less than 2kg, not military-grade kit.

But that misses the point, warn national security experts polled by Inquirer, when any number of countries are aggressively in the market for an edge on drone weaponry, legally obtained or not.

Armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have proved to be lethally effective for both sides in the Ukraine war and were used by the Iranians last month to bombard Israel, as well as for a devastating 2019 attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations launched by Tehran’s puppets, the Houthi rebels, from Yemen. Along with advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonic weapons systems and cyber disruption, drones and UAVs are a big part of the future of warfare in the 21st century.

“It shouldn’t require any imagination at all to understand why operating a drone in a GPS-denied environment would have military applications,” says federal opposition home affairs and cyber security spokesman James Paterson, who chaired parliament’s powerful joint committee on intelligence and security.

“This is a classic case of drones in military conflict where you would hope to be able to continue to use them for surveillance, for target identification and for reconnaissance when a GPS network has been taken out, as is highly likely in any major conflict.”

Broadly, Zhu fits the profile of a foreign postgrad who might be approached or co-opted to infiltrate a sensitive university research program, in this case the world-recognised QUT Centre for Robotics, to which he is attached. This is not to say he spied for China, only that he is the subject of an Australian government finding that he was a person whose presence in this country “may be directly or indirectly associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

It didn’t help that Zhu is a product of China’s technology-focused Beihang University, having graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. His alma mater is one of the elite “Seven Sons of National Defence” institutes tightly connected to Beijing’s military-industrial complex. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute notes that up to half the academics employed at Seven Sons’ centres reportedly are involved in defence projects.

“Someone with his pedigree isn’t just allowed to leave China,” says one close watcher of the sector. “There are usually strings attached, especially when it concerns research in an area the Chinese military or state security is interested in – and I have to say that just about anything involving drone technology would be near the top of that list.”

Much remains unknown about this troubling case.

Zhu arrived in Australia on a standard six-month tourist visa in March 2018 and applied for a student visa that August. It’s unclear whether he reached out to QUT or was recruited to its PhD program, a key distinction if he had an ulterior motive. This is one of the many questions from this masthead that the university failed to answer.

In October 2019 he was informed by Klaebe that he had been offered scholarships from CSIRO’s Data61 division worth $75,192 across two years plus subsidised tuition from the university to “assist you with your doctor of philosophy candidature”. Then, in October 2020, came the bombshell notice from the Department of Home Affairs that his visa application had been rejected: he had failed the public interest test under the Migration Act after “adverse information” emerged – the WMD finding by Payne or her delegate as foreign minister. The government was “unable” to offer an explanation, including the reasons for the determination.

Zhu challenged the decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, lost, and filed in the Federal Circuit and Family Court where Judge Gregory Egan ruled against him on May 3. Zhu’s solicitor, Dan Jebsen, says no detail of the WMD finding has been provided to the defence.

“Our case is that he should be given the reasons why he has been deemed a threat to the public interest,” she says. “That has not happened at any point in the process.”

In his judgment, Egan recounted how the WMD finding was encumbered by non-disclosure certificates issued by Home Affairs. The judge said the AAT had explained to Zhu that the documents concerned “shed no light” on why he had been cited, “merely that the determination had been made”. The balance between the individual’s right to know what they’re accused of – the essence of open justice – and the wider interests of national security is a fine one, and to date courts in Australia and abroad have come down firmly on the side of the latter.

Four similar cases here have been turned up by academic Brendan Walker-Munro, of Southern Cross University, who has published on the shortcomings of research security, an issue pursued in a parliamentary inquiry by the intelligence and security committee under Paterson.

All five cases concern foreign PhD candidates – four Chinese, one Iranian – designated over WMD association. As with Zhu, none was given reasons. Federal Court judge John Dowsett weighed the fairness of this in relation to an Iranian woman codenamed B60, who was refused a student visa to take up a PhD in engineering at the University of Queensland in 2010, despite being awarded a government scholarship.

She, too, professed to have been “amazed and shocked” to be accused of involvement in proliferating the likes of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Dowsett received both classified and non-classified affidavits from then ASIO director-general David Irvine, also a former head of overseas spy agency the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and then deputy secretary for intelligence and security at the Department of Defence, Stephen Meekin, justifying the withholding of the allegations against B60.

Dowsett accepted Meekin’s evidence, albeit with reservations, that the information could not go on the public record without prejudicing national security. “Disclosure of the WMD assessments, either alone or in conjunction with other facts which I consider would likely already be known to other persons, would enable foreign intelligence agencies to draw reliable inferences in relation to sensitive sources of intelligence, including methods of intelligence collection,” Meekin cautioned.

“I further consider that this would present a real risk to Australia’s national security and defence because it would allow foreign intelligence sources and capabilities used today to be circumvented or deployed against the commonwealth’s interest.”

Last December, Canada’s Federal Court revisited the question in an important judgment by Chief Justice Paul Crampton, rejecting an application by Chinese PhD student Yuekang Li for access to the adverse security review that blew up his visa application. He is another Beihang University graduate, who wanted to pursue nanoscale science research in Canada with the professed aim of dedicating “his career to improving China’s underdevelopment of the application of advances to point-of-care technology in the field of public health”.

Crampton, however, upheld a risk assessment that Li could be targeted by Chinese state security and coerced into turning over sensitive information “detrimental to Canada or contrary to Canada’s interests”.

As Walker-Munro points out, these researchers don’t need to have been recruited as spies – willingly or not – to become an intelligence asset for a foreign power. “It’s what’s in their head that matters and in the case of Chinese nationals enormous pressure can be exerted on them to co-operate if and when they return home,” he says.

Still, there is “significant tension in managing research issues in universities given the secrecy that surrounds determinations by ASIO, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Home Affairs”.

Walker-Munro continues: “Those agencies must carefully balance the procedural rights of the subject of the risk assessment against keeping unique law enforcement and intelligence sources and methodologies secret.

“Disclosing how an individual came to the attention of those agencies might reveal a confidential informant or technique that is used to keep Australian interests safe. At the same time, our universities must play a role in protecting the national interest, while respecting the overarching right to academic freedom for its researchers and students by not unfairly or arbitrarily interfering in their right to participate in open science.

“In the five publicly available WMD cases in Australia, all the students continued with their research while the legal system considered the fate of their visas. Yet in all five cases the students were not provided with a list of reasons or evidence on which the determination about them was made. In one extreme case, the applicant’s visa was refused by Home Affairs based on nothing more than a single email from DFAT. So perhaps the balance between confidentiality and transparency around these types of decisions has swung too far in favour of the government and should be reconsidered.

“While it is proper to have appropriate secrecy to protect our national security, it cannot be said that justice is served by keeping an applicant in the dark about the reasons they are said to pose a risk to that security.”

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Michael Cope insists secret evidence is unreliable, unfair, undemocratic, unnecessary and damaging to national security as well as to the integrity of the courts. “It is, in our view, entirely possible to protect the legitimate secrets of government and comply with the fundamental principle of our legal system that everyone is entitled to the disclosure of sufficient material to enable them to answer effectively the case made out against them, which it appears has not happened in this case,” he says, referring to Zhu.

“To accuse someone of being involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and not be required to explain the basis of that allegation is both extraordinary and appalling.”

Paterson, however, has limited sympathy for the young man. “Without being specific about this case, let me assure you that all of these people who have had visas cancelled on these grounds know exactly why it happened and … it would have come as no surprise that they were identified by the security agencies,” the Liberal senator says.

A prominent China hawk, he wrote this week to QUT and the CSIRO expressing concern at how Zhu had been allowed to undertake “sensitive research … with apparent disregard for the national security implications” and then remained in place after the WMD finding.

Paterson complained to CSIRO chief executive Doug Hilton: “Five years on from the establishment of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce and three years after the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report into national security risks in the higher education sector, I had hoped that taxpayer research institutions like yours were more aware of the dangers of international research collaboration.”

In his letter to QUT vice-chancellor and president Margaret Sheil, he queried why the rejection of Zhu’s visa application had not “rung alarm bells”, especially when Zhu came out of the “very high risk” Beihang University.

They’re good questions, much like the ones this masthead put to both organisations about what they did or didn’t do to ascertain why Zhu had been identified by the Australian government as a potential WMD proliferator. Was the researcher himself asked for an explanation? Were independent security checks conducted?

CSIRO said in response it could “not comment on individual student or scholarship arrangements”.

QUT said: “The student is currently a lawful non-citizen of Australia with study rights and is continuing in the PhD project. Visa matters are handled by the Department of Home Affairs.”

Our inquiry to the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong was referred to Home Affairs, which declined to comment. Let’s hope Paterson has more luck. Some meaningful answers surely would be in the national interest.

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