Canada Pivoting to Block Chinese Research Students

A Canadian judge has confirmed a decision by the country’s immigration department blocking a Chinese graduate student from receiving a student visa. But the broadness of the judgement has raised questions about the viability of any research collaboration with Chinese nationals at Canadian universities.

The student, Mr Yekuang Li, had been admitted to study a PhD in engineering at Waterloo University, just outside of Toronto. His supervisor is a world-renowned expert in fluid mechanics.

Mr Li says he planned to pursue research in microfluidics with public health, pharmaceutical and biotechnology applications. Microfluidics is the key technology used in, among other things, rapid antigen COVID tests.

Nonetheless, according to Globe & Mail, the federal judge reviewing the immigration department’s decision found the student’s plan fit within the category of “non-traditional” espionage. “As hostile state actors increasingly make use of non-traditional methods to obtain sensitive information in Canada or abroad contrary to Canada’s interests,” the Federal Court judge wrote in his judgement, “the Court’s appreciation of what constitutes ‘espionage’ must evolve.”

The judge noted that the immigration officer responsible for the decision cited an article about China’s plans to become a world leader in microfluidics. The absence of a direct military link to Mr Li’s research suggests many more Chinese students could be blocked by such a policy. 

Canada’s move follows developments in the US. In 2020, Donald Trump cancelled thousands of Chinese research students’ visas. 

The presidential proclamation targeted students who had studied or received funds from “an entity in the People’s Republic of China that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy’.” Biden declined to cancel the measure.

The development raises the question of the future of Chinese student numbers in Australia. Last year, the Immigration Department granted 71,000 Chinese student visas, nearly returning to the 2019 high of 81,000.

Further pushback from China or pressure from the United States may mean the profitable Chinese student degree industry comes to an end for Australia’s university administrators.

Feature image courtesy of @camille1030 and article image courtesy of @_louisreed via Unsplash.

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