The Five Eyes And Canada’s ‘China Panic’: PART 2 – U15-CSIS Collaboration

We wish to express our deep concerns about the seemingly increasing campus presence of CSIS and its impact on students, faculty, and the University of Waterloo’s reputation. Specifically, we want to emphasize the unwelcoming and intimidating atmosphere that their presence is creating on campus. — Open Letter to president of University of Waterloo, 77 faculty, April 2023


U15-CSIS Collaboration: The Perils of Geopolitics and Research Surveillance Systems

Over the past five years, the top fifteen research universities in Canada (the U15) have been collaborating with the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to develop what are termed “national security research guidelines.” Unfortunately, the emerging guidelines are based not on actual threats to research, such as ransomware attacks, abuse of artificial intelligence (AI), or war, but on a nebulous “China Threat.” CSIS and the U15 have prioritized geopolitics over research security in new guidelines that will soon apply to all research grants funded by the government of Canada. Already, universities are putting in place the infrastructure for rigorous screening, turning research safety into a research surveillance process that embeds CSIS on campus.

These policies have elicited growing consternation. Chinese Canadian scholars first sounded the alarm regarding racial profiling, seeing distinct parallels with similar developments in the United States. As it became clear that the government intended to expand the screening to all projects involving research partnerships with colleagues in China, more voices of concern surfaced, as illustrated by the introductory quote above. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has since intervened, expressing its concerns regarding racial profiling and the need to protect academic freedom. University researchers (including faculty, research fellows, and graduate students), faculty associations, and professional organizations in Canada now find themselves at a crossroads – they must decide on how to respond to the new guidelines.

This study aims to assist in that process. It provides a chronological overview of the origins and development of the research guidelines as background. It then focuses again on the year 2018, documenting how CSIS first held meetings with the U15 to promote the geopolitical “China Threat.” Finally, it examines the impact of substituting geopolitics and threat inflation for research security in the US and Canada, focusing on both similarities (racial profiling) and critical differences. 

Trajectories of CSIS/U15 Collaboration

Chad Gaffield, the CEO of the U-15, stated, “The notion that national security guidelines will need to be built into the research ecosystem really came to the fore in 2018.” Using this year as a baseline, the following chronology tracks the evolution of the research guidelines.

In 2018, the U15 met with David Vigneault, the newly minted director of CSIS, as well as other representatives of CSIS or its intelligence-gathering arm, the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE). CSIS warned that the People’s Republic of China represented a significant threat to university research. At CSIS’s request, the Public Health Agency of Canada ordered a security review of the National Microbiology Laboratory, leading to the suspension and then firing of award-winning scientist Dr. Xianguo Qiu in 2019.

In 2019, CSIS created a Stakeholder Engagement Unit. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISE) took on responsibility for inter-agency meetings and working with Universities Canada and U15, from which emerged a Government of Canada-Universities Working Group.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, an arm of the CSE, issued an alert – “Cyber threats to Canadian health organizations,” advising, “Sophisticated threat actors may attempt to steal the intellectual property (IP) of organizations engaged in research and development related to COVID-19, or sensitive data related to Canada’s response to COVID-19.” CSIS’s mandate was broadened to identify “research entities, university labs, and health networks across the country” to assure that they were aware of potential threats, particularly in the biomedical sphere. CSIS appointed a new director general of academic outreach and stakeholder engagement, who described CSIS’s new motto: “Spies are no longer wearing trench coats; they’re wearing lab coats.”

That October, a National Post article implied that Dr. Ke Wu, an award-winning researcher at Polytechnique Montréal, had a double career in the PRC. Wu refuted the charges but has faced lingering suspicions.

In May 2020, the intelligence agencies issued a Joint CSE and CSIS Statement warning that “it is near certain that state-sponsored actors have shifted their focus during the pandemic, and that Canadian intellectual property represents a valuable target.” The statement asserted that the Canadian government was working closely with its “Five Eyes” alliance partners, including the US.

Then, in early 2021, ISE issued a “Research Policy Statement – Spring 2021,” in which it announced that a newly formed Government of Canada-Universities Working Group would be issuing new national security risk guidelines. Prior to the guidelines appearing, however, Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education unilaterally ordered Alberta universities to cut ties, individual and organizational, with all Chinese institutions, in response to unverified charges in a media article.

In July 2021, ISE announced National Research Guidelines for Research Partnerships for those applying for NSERC-Alliance grants. Researchers were forced to fill out a Risk Assessment Form that many researchers found problematic.

In late January 2023, the Globe and Mail published a report alleging that researchers in Canadian universities had collaborated with researchers at the PRC’s National University of Defense Technology. The insinuation was that this constituted military espionage, a questionable conclusion given the way in which Canada’s own military seeks to “support and leverage the expertise of Canada’s defense and security academic community.” Nevertheless, the government responded in a knee-jerk attempt at policymaking in a Statement from Minister Champagne, Minister Duclos, and Minister Mendicino on protecting Canada’s research that ordered “the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Canada’s federal research granting councils—the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, as well as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research—adopt a further enhanced posture regarding national security.”

This episode marked a major escalation in government preparations to institutionalize research surveillance. New guidelines are being developed in consultation with the Government of Canada-Universities Working Group, and the government is opening a new research security center. The government expects universities to apply the new guidelines in all research projects, government-funded or not.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers began to question the government’s approach and established a National Security Reference Group to monitor and consider possible actions to be taken. In April, 77 researchers at the University of Waterloo wrote to the president in response to memos from the administration, one on ‘Safeguarding Research” and the other outlining what to do if contacted by CSIS. It stated that researchers were not required to talk to CSIS agents. Faculty expressed their appreciation for the advice regarding CSIS and emphasized, “At the same time, we want to express our deep concerns about the seemingly growing campus presence of CSIS and the effects of this on students, faculty, and the University of Waterloo’s reputation. Specifically, we want to stress the unwelcoming and intimidating atmosphere their presence is creating on campus.”

A clearer understanding of the nature of CSIS-U15 collaboration requires turning back to the year 2018 when CSIS first approached university presidents.

2018: Examining the Origins of CSIS/U15 Collaboration

CSIS began discussions with U15 in the spring of 2018, before they or other government agencies had developed specific policies regarding research, and well before the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, that sparked a crisis in Canada-China relations. A careful review of what happened in 2018 is revealing.

According to information obtained through FOI requests and reported in the National Post, the director of CSIS met with representatives of U15 on numerous occasions, including:

APRIL 2018: In a meeting with university presidents, CSIS head David Vigneault explicitly stated that China represents “the most significant and clear” challenge when it comes to espionage targeting Canadian campuses.

OCTOBER 2018 (a): Vigneault told a cybersecurity workshop: “CSIS assesses that China represents the most significant and clear challenge for (human-enabled espionage) targeted against Canada’s universities.” China’s use of “non-traditional collectors (NTCs),” such as students and researchers, to acquire sensitive and proprietary information from Canadians is particularly challenging, he stated. He continued, “NTCs have little-to-no formal intelligence tradecraft training but are often in a position to acquire vast quantities of data or knowledge.”

OCTOBER 2018 (b): In a second meeting that October, CSIS officials told a meeting of U15 vice-presidents that they should be cautious about their research relationship with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunication corporation.

The timing of these meetings with U15 officials corresponds to two summits (April and July) of national spy agencies that are part of the Five Eyes. As described in Part 1, these meetings were part of an “unprecedented campaign” to portray China and Huawei as a major security risk to the Five Eyes telecommunications systems, particularly 5G networks. What Vigneault brought to the U15, however, was not an independent, verifiable analysis of global or Canadian circumstances, but a wholesale adoption of a geopolitical stance articulated by US intelligence agencies under Donald Trump.

That stance was articulated before a hearing on “Worldwide Threats,” sponsored by the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2018. The transcript of the testimony of FBI director Chris Wray includes this passage:

“I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline. I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it.”

Wray’s allegations that “professors, scientists, students” in universities were being used as spies were shared by the National Security Agency and Department of Defense and was the basis for the campaign that ensued. In the United States, it inspired the FBI’s “China Initiative” that year, a program terminated in the face of broad opposition (see below).

Noteworthy here, however, is the way in which both Wray (FBI) before the Senate committee, and Vigneault (CSIS) in his meetings with the U15, used the same language (e.g. “nontraditional collectors”), and that both targeted China and Huawei. It seems that Vigneault and CSIS plucked their information directly from the FBI geopolitical playbook on “Worldwide Threats,” and failed to factually determine whether this “worldwide” threat actually applied to Canada before presenting it as fact to U15 representatives in 2018. Given the track records of both CSIS and US intelligence agencies (see Appendix A), close scrutiny of their assertions seems advisable.

Yet U15 university leaders, all scholars, failed to submit CSIS assertions to any form of scientific scrutiny. This would appear to represent a major failure of leadership on the part of the Canadian academy. Over the next four years, CSIS and the U15 collaborated closely to develop research surveillance measures targeting the People’s Republic of China. Initially, those measures moved in tandem with what transpired in the United States, but then took on a life of their own.

Racial Profiling: The United States and Canada

In the United States, the aftermath of this “unprecedented campaign” became apparent shortly after the Senate hearings. The then US attorney general unveiled the ‘China Initiative’ to “Combat Chinese Economic Espionage.” KC Cole, senior correspondent for Wired and an instructor at the University of Washington, recently characterized the program in Scientific American as “McCarthy-style bullying, aimed at disrupting research collaborations perceived as benefiting China at the expense of the U.S., cost hundreds of scientists their jobs and funding, wrecked dozens of productive research relationships, and spread fear among valued Chinese collaborators.” The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, wrote: “The initiative was accompanied by xenophobic, anti-China rhetoric from the Trump White House, as well as public statements by the FBI director that cast suspicion on virtually anyone with family or professional ties to China – thousands of accomplished Asian American and immigrant scientists who have contributed to our country for years. The statements have encouraged racial profiling and discrimination, including within the FBI.”

The Biden administration was obliged to halt the program last year after overwhelming criticism from scientists, Chinese American organizations, and civil rights groups. The China initiative saw the FBI open thousands of investigations over its three-year existence; only 77 of which led to prosecutions. Of these, only about a quarter led to convictions, and most of those had little to do with national security, according to an investigation by MIT Technology Review. A recent study revealed that over forty percent of Chinese and Asian scientists felt targeted by neo-racism and neo-nationalism. Another recent study, published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), revealed similar “general feelings of fear and anxiety that lead them to consider leaving the United States and/or stop applying for federal grants.”

Driving racial profiling is the trope of techno-orientalism, a technologically-imbued form of racism that posits that America is losing power (technological, but also economic, military, and cultural) due to the scheming of a diabolical, communist aggressor. This frame is constructed through statements such as those of the FBI director Christopher Wray and David Vigneault in regard to China and the “Chinese” as a “whole of society threat,” that are then amplified by the media, and buttressed by state directives (tariffs, sanctions, prohibitions against Huawei) that reinforce the notion of China as an illiberal enemy responsible for espionage, intellectual property theft, and unfair competition. Such assertions draw on the deep well of historical anti-Chinese racism and help to “crystallize in the popular imagination the racial trope of the Chinese “scientist-as-spy.” This is reminiscent of the “evil criminal genius” of the fictional character Dr. Fu Manchu—and made visible the targeted criminalization of this highly educated class of ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers.

Ironically, the concept of techno-Orientalism was first articulated as a means of understanding the backlash against Japan and things Japanese in the 1980s when the Japanese economy was outperforming the US economy. Popular racism of that era prompted two racists, a Chrysler plant supervisor and his laid-off autoworker stepson, to murder Vincent Chin, mistakenly believing he was “Japanese” and responsible for the loss of jobs in the American automobile industry. At the time, a popular myth about Japan’s economic success was that they were good imitators but had little capacity for innovation and were dependent on US technology. This is also the inference regarding Huawei and Chinese technology generally – that they could only have achieved so much by stealing technology from the US or Canada. Technological competition can be fierce and unethical, and illegal actions to obtain knowledge happen by all the players, be they American, Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. Yet such allegations cannot deny the reality that in 2019 “Chinese universities produced 49,498 PhDs in STEM fields, while U.S. universities produced 33,759. Based on current enrollment patterns, the report projects that by 2025 China’s yearly STEM PhD graduates (77,179) will nearly double those in the United States (39,959).” The PRC rush to become self-reliant in technology is only being reinforced by the prohibitions against Huawei, an unintended but real consequence of the US campaign.

In Canada, the CSIS-inspired “China panic” initially had similar impacts to those in the United States, but then developed its own Canada-specific dynamic. One of the first cases of direct CSIS intervention against Chinese Canadian scientists was at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. According to one report, Drs. Xianguo Qiu, winner of a Governor-General’s Innovation Award for developing the ZMAb antidote for Ebola virus, and her husband, Keding Cheng, were suspended in 2019 and later fired after CSIS instigated an NML security review in 2018. Neither NML nor the government has made public the specific reasons for the actions. Around this time, mainstream media began to focus on this topic, as illustrated by a National Post article of 2020 that accused award-winning researcher, Dr. Ke Wu of École Polytechnique of having a duplicitous second career in China, a report rebutted by Wu as well as by the Association of Chinese Canadian Professors in Quebec. As CSIS’s campaign gained currency with the U15, however, the main thrust of government policy transitioned away from legal prosecutions (risking CSIS sources). Instead, universities themselves have become the main conduit for research screening, incorporating CSIS/CSE’s program. Thus, we saw the formation of the Government of Canada-Universities Working Group in 2021, and the publication by ISE of the Nationals Security Guidelines that summer. The incorporation of CSIS’s geopolitical biases into research funding protocols highlights how Canada’s path to research surveillance and racial profiling differs from the US “China Initiative”.

Instead, Canada’s guidelines parallel a process of censorship, akin in many ways to a campaign of intimidation undertaken by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). A report published in Science reveals how the NIH resorted to secret, in-house pressures against targeted academics, “upending hundreds of lives and destroying scores of academic careers.” The imminent arrival of the new CSIS/U15 research guidelines, to be applied across all funding agencies, risks reproducing a frightening research screening process taking place behind the closed doors of research security offices, with little opportunity for appeal or public scrutiny. Even now, rumors are circulating that CSIS operatives or former operatives are being hired for these offices.

Unease among researchers in Canada has been steadily increasing. As reported in the summer of 2021, a letter to university administrators from the Canadian Academy of Chinese Professors and the Canadian Association of Chinese Professors asserted their opposition to the new risk assessment process and their fears of becoming victims of racial profiling.

After a series of webinars with concerned researchers, CAUT has recently taken up the case. In an editorial in the CAUT Bulletin, executive director David Robinson warned that academic freedoms can be vulnerable at times of heightened national security, pointing to the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s and 1960s. “There may be legitimate national security risks arising from academic research, but we as a community have to guard against overreach,” he writes. “We must ensure that academics are not targeted because of their ethnicity, and that rules are not so broad as to restrict legitimate research and scholarship. Nor should a foreign influence law be misused to target academics critical of Canada’s military or foreign policy.”

A petition of 77 researchers at the University of Waterloo in April 2023 (see p. 16) added to ongoing concerns. CAUT has since created a National Security Reference Group to monitor developments, and a recent feature article in the CAUT Bulletin highlighted one research security office that had posted a list of Chinese universities to be avoided. After protests from faculty, the list was pulled, but it highlighted the risks of overreach and the real fears among some faculty members. A recent survey undertaken by York University professor Qiang Zha has shown that among researchers familiar with the CSIS guidelines for research, forty percent felt “considerable fear and/or anxiety that they were being surveilled by the Canadian government.” This and related findings from this survey strongly suggest that racial profiling is already occurring in Canada as it did in the US, though the program and means may differ.

In the short term, the situation can only worsen: according to Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry (ISI), François-Philippe Champagne, the government is set to announce a list of ‘high-risk’ research organizations related to strategic research areas.

A recent federal court decision to deny a Chinese PhD student a visa because he might be a “Non-Traditional Collector” (NTC) of intelligence has further shaken the research community. As described earlier, the NTC definition is right out of the FBI playbook, imported by CSIS, and has now found its way into the judiciary. This, despite the publicly acknowledged failure of the US China Initiative that was predicated on the NTC concept. Even more worrisome is that CSIS is increasing its public profile and openly lobbying for increased powers through “Public Safety Canada.” 

The Present

CSIS director David Vigneault recently asserted that CSIS efforts with the “principals of the largest Canadian research universities” have been so successful that it has come “to the point now where they are asking us, you know, how can we work together?” Vigneault’s remarks came in a public roundtable at the US Hoover Institute in October with his counterparts from the Five Eyes. “We won’t tell the universities who to hire,” stated Vigneault at the session, but does that mean CSIS won’t say who not to hire or what projects not to approve?

Universities are indeed pushing ahead to implement the CSIS agenda. They are receiving millions in funds to create structures of research surveillance. These funds are part of Research Support Funds from the Canadian government and are being distributed by rankings; for example, UVic received $356,166, McGill and UBC received over $2 million each, and U of T received over $4 million. Full listings are available here. One university that received such funds began to publish new research restrictions with Chinese universities but quickly withdrew their list after being challenged by the faculty association.

This June, the U15 (the main consortium of research universities) published “Safeguarding Research in Canada,” promising to promote policies to:

  • Complement federal government guidelines
  • Develop “open and frequent” communication with ISED and Public Safety Canada
  • Incorporate DEI principles to “mitigate the effects of racial and ethnic profiling on the academic community”
  • Ensure compliance with John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act Section 889(a)(b), public law 115-232 that bars any funding for universities that use prohibited equipment, i.e., Huawei.

Does this mean the U15 accepts racial profiling and now just wants to “mitigate” its effects? What is interesting in this document is that nowhere does it mention CSIS, yet the U15, ISE, Public Safety Canada, and the RCMP work closely together and rely on CSIS for leadership.

Since ‘the war on terror,’ CSIS has become emboldened and has pressed hard to ingratiate themselves with university administrations. The fact that the U15 has bought into the CSIS narrative without any critical evaluation is alarming. It can be explained by the fact that Canadian universities are largely dependent on Canadian and provincial governments for both core and research funding. This has provided an important point of leverage for CSIS. While universities certainly have an obligation to safeguard their sources of research funding, they also have an obligation to support open-access research and knowledge dissemination, not to mention academic freedom. In its association with CSIS, the U15 seems to have abandoned any pretense at critical thinking, a fundamental pillar of academic teaching and inquiry.

Time to Hit Pause?

Canada is not the only country inundated with a discourse on the China threat promoted by security agencies such as CSIS. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) took on an “increasingly public role, issuing warnings from 2017 onwards that foreign interference was occurring at ‘an unprecedented scale’ in Australia,” according to David Brophy, a specialist in Uyghur history at the University of Sydney.29

What is happening in Canada today also has a precedent from the McCarthy era in the United States when “the academy, an institution ostensibly dedicated to intellectual freedom, collaborated in curtailing that freedom,” attests Ellen W. Schrecker, the foremost scholar in the field.30 Universities in Canada need to learn from that tragedy, which marred the lives and careers of thousands of scholars, artists, and activists in both the US and Canada.

In the 1960s, CAUT was able to negotiate an accord with the government to prevent CSIS intrusions on campus, the Pearson-Laskin Accord. However, the government and university administrators are no longer respecting that accord. Left unchecked, there is a very real danger that Canadian universities will, for the first time in history, institutionally embrace CSIS on campus and implement research surveillance policies that could embroil us in further conflicts with China, racially profile Chinese Canadian researchers, constrict academic freedom, and undermine future technological innovation.

To avoid such a calamity, faculty associations and other representative bodies will have to consider their options quickly and carefully. These range from articulating an alternative research security plan, filing grievances on specific issues, taking claims to human rights tribunals, or taking legal action to prevent racial profiling or abusive research surveillance.


John Price is a historian with a focus on Asia and the Pacific, as well as Asian Canadian history. An emeritus professor at the University of Victoria, he is the author of “Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific” and, with Ningping Yu, “A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung.” As an anti-racist educator, he has worked extensively with racialized communities, co-authoring “Challenging Racist British Columbia: 150 Years and Counting” and “1923: Challenging Racisms Past and Present.” John Price has written extensively for publications such as The Tyee, the Victoria Times Colonist, Georgia Straight, the Hill Times, Canadian Dimension, and He is a board member of Canada-China Focus and a member of the National Security Reference Group of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

The National Security Reference Group (CAUT): The Canadian Association of University Teachers established this group in the spring of 2023 in light of growing concerns about racial profiling and restrictions to academic freedom arising from new national security guidelines being imposed by the government on researchers. Composed of representatives from universities across the country, the reference group monitors the impact of such guidelines and advises the Canadian Association of University Teachers on potential measures to counteract the effects of racial profiling and restrictions on academic freedom. Members of the group contributed to this discussion paper through their ongoing efforts and critical analysis, providing specific materials for the paper, and offering feedback on initial drafts.


This discussion paper could not have been written or published without significant contributions from many people. The Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria generously stepped forward and agreed to publish the paper despite the risks associated with the current anti-China atmosphere. Special thanks to Helen Lansdowne (associate director), Victor V. Ramraj (director), and Katie Dey (office manager and communications).

Much appreciation to those who took the time to review and comment on the manuscript, including Paul Evans, Gregory Chin, Midori Ogasawara, and individual members of CAUT’s National Security Reference Group. Senator Yuen Pau Woo has provided support in multiple ways despite trying circumstances. Many thanks to Patricia Kidd for the meticulous copy editing, and to John Endo Greenaway for the stellar design and layout.

Finally, my thanks to the board, staff, and supporters of Canada-China Focus, who have been both inspiring and instrumental in bringing this project to completion. 


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