Why Alberta must rethink its ban on Canada-China university collaborations

Written by , Ryerson University; , University of British Columbia; , University of Victoria . Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young. Originally published in The Conversation.
The Conversation
People wearing masks attend a rally opposing discrimination against Asian communities in Toronto in March 2021.

Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education recently ordered the province’s four major research universities to suspend pursuing new or renewed partnerships with organizations linked to China or the Chinese Communist Party. This order has triggered serious concern among Canadian scholars and academic institutions.

Both Gordon Houlden and Wenran Jiang — former directors of the University of Alberta’s China Institute — have defended the importance of fostering a better understanding of China among Canadian policy-makers as well as the general public.

The Alberta government’s order is not in isolation. It was a direct response to a May 3 news report that criticized the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China.

Earlier this year, the federal government also issued a research security policy statement warning, while not naming China specifically, that “Canada’s world-class research, and its open and collaborative research environment, are increasingly targeted by espionage and foreign interference activities.”

Equally noteworthy has been the push for additional anti-China measures immediately following the Alberta government’s order. Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, for instance, has urged the federal government to take a harder line against Beijing by scrutinizing Canada-China collaborative research activities in sensitive areas.

Anti-China hysteria

The push for curbing research ties with China increases anti-China hysteria at a time of heightened tensions between Canada and China.

This alarming trend not only negatively impacts Canada’s research and innovation system, but also stokes public hostility against scholars working on China-related subjects and creates difficulties for anyone having any kind of relationship with China. That includes, in particular, Canadians of Chinese descent and those seen as Asian in general, thereby fuelling the flames of anti-Asian racism in Canada.

Human knowledge is often created in isolation. Globalization and technological innovation have significantly lowered barriers in international mobility and communication. As a result, international research collaborations have become a norm for many disciplines.

As Alejandro Adem, president of Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, noted in a 2018 interview with University Affairs:

“Science is an international, global endeavour, with ideas transcending borders and no country controlling the marketplace of ideas.”

Scholars collaborate internationally for a variety of reasons.

Collaboration involving multiple institutions is often a prerequisite for projects demanding expensive infrastructure. To scholars in humanities and social sciences, working with international colleagues brings valuable intercultural perspectives.

Scholars’ global mobility also affects the impact of their research. A 2017 peer-reviewed study published by Nature found that “limiting the circulation of scholars will damage the entire scientific system.”

Isolationism during COVID-19

Extensive collaborations among scientists, universities, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies paved the way for the rapid development and clinical success of COVID-19 vaccines.

On the other hand, isolationism has also resulted in tragic consequences during the pandemic. In the early months of the crisis, knowledge about the coronavirus amassed by experts from China as well as other Asian countries was marginalized, discredited and distrusted. We have paid a terrible price for such ignorance.

The Alberta government’s embrace of academic isolationism comes at a time when climate action demands concerted research efforts across borders. Alberta cited national security and intellectual property concerns in defence of its decision. But whether such concerns warrant cutting off all research ties with China requires a thorough examination instead of a unilateral order from the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education.

A recent Nature editorial argued that escalating geopolitical tensions should not diminish mutually beneficial exchanges of people and knowledge.

COVID-19 vaccine development presents a good case study illustrating the inherent limits of intellectual property rights. There is a growing worry that future research and development of mRNA technology may be impeded by legal barriers put in place by pharmaceutical companies due to the patents, trade secrets and know-how they own. This is why waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines presents a crucial step toward ensuring access to them around the world.

Cold War mentality

Considering the timing of the Alberta government’s order, we can’t help but ask whether China is being used as as a bogeyman to invoke an ill-intentioned new Cold War mentality — a dangerous trend.

Besides irreversibly damaging valuable social ties that contribute to the vigour of the academic community, such anti-China measures will disproportionately threaten instructors and students of Chinese descent.

People attend a rally in Toronto opposing discrimination against Asian communities and to mourn the victims of a mass shooting in Atlanta. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.

If banning research ties with China is implemented at the federal level, for example, would Chinese-Canadian academics be obligated to impose continuous self-censorship when talking to family members and colleagues back in China? If so, this seems the dawning of a chilling new era of McCarthyism — a troubling period in American history that saw peoples’ lives destroyed in the 1950s due to false allegations they were communist sympathizers.

Far from claiming that “questioning government policy on China is not fomenting racism,” as one newspaper columnist recently did, these policies can and will do exactly that.

It’s rare to find public discussions that make a rational distinction between a state and its people in today’s polarized media environment. As shown in the return of “Yellow Peril” tropes incited by former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “China virus” rhetoric, propaganda use to amplify external threats directly contributes to the surge of xenophobia and hate crimes.

The Canadian government has its own history of xenophobia, detaining thousands of innocent immigrants and citizens by declaring them “enemy aliens” during the Second World War.

Systemic racism against Indigenous, Black and racialized communities has been ingrained in the Canadian socio-political system. Now more than ever, any policy that may lead to increased discrimination against racialized groups requires critical and thorough scrutiny.

For this reason, banning research ties with China should be vetoed not only by the academic community, but also the general public for its recklessness in fanning the flames of anti-Asian racism.