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Two Canadian scientists passed secrets to China, investigation finds

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Two scientists who worked at Canada’s largest microbiology lab passed secret scientific information to China, and one of them posed a “realistic and credible threat to Canada’s economic security,” according to documents from the national intelligence agency and a security investigation.

The hundreds of pages of reports on the two researchers, Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng, married and born in China, were made public in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening after a national security review by a special parliamentary committee and a panel of three retirees. superior judges.

Canadian officials, who have warned that the country’s academic and research institutions are targets of Chinese intelligence campaigns, have tightened rules around collaboration with foreign universities. Canadian universities can now be disqualified from federal funding if they enter into partnerships with one of the 100 establishments in China, Russia and Iran.

The disclosure of the documents was the subject of a lengthy debate in Parliament that began before the last federal election, in September 2021. Opposition parties asked to see the documents at least four times and judged the Liberal government guilty of contempt of Parliament in 2021. The government launched legal action to try to keep the files secret, but dropped it when the vote was called.

The release comes as the country conducts a special judge-led investigation to examine allegations that China and other foreign countries interfered in Canadian elections and political parties. Some political opponents of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have accused his government of failing to respond adequately to Chinese interference in Canadian affairs.

But Mark Holland, Canada’s federal health minister, told reporters Wednesday evening that “at no time did national secrets or information threatening the security of Canada leave the laboratory.”

The couple were escorted from their laboratories at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, during the summer of 2019 and then stripped of their security clearance. They were fired in January 2021.

The same year, the government released heavily redacted documents about their dismissals, sparking a battle with opposition parties who demanded more details about the security breach.

The vast cache of newly released documents, which feature far fewer redactions, offers more details about scientists’ unauthorized cooperation and information exchanges with Chinese institutions. The documents also revealed that Dr. Qiu failed to disclose formal agreements with Chinese agencies in which a Chinese institution agreed to pay substantial sums for research. He also agreed to pay her an annual salary of 210,000 Canadian dollars (about $155,000).

The couple could not be located and did not appear to have any obvious local representatives. Some Canadian media reported, based on undisclosed sources, that they moved to China after being laid off. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police opened a criminal investigation in 2021, but its status is unclear and no charges have been laid.

The documents released Wednesday contain no general response from the couple. But they show that during questioning by investigators, Dr. Qiu repeatedly said she was unaware she had violated safety rules, criticized the health agency for not fully explaining the procedures and frequently attempted to mislead investigators until confronted with conflicting evidence.

In a letter to Dr. Qiu, the public health agency said it “expressed no remorse or regret.” You have not accepted responsibility for your actions and placed the blame on PHAC. He added that she showed “no signs of corrective behavior, rehabilitation or desire to resolve the situation.”

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also found that Dr. Qiu had repeatedly misrepresented her ties to researchers and organizations in China, which it described as “close and clandestine.”

In a secret report, the intelligence agency said that when questioned about its interactions with scientists and organizations in China, it “continued to broadly deny, feign ignorance, or outright lie.”

An internal investigation report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which includes the laboratory, shows the couple came under suspicion in 2018, when Dr. Qiu was named inventor on a patent granted in China that appeared to use research developed by the agency. for a vaccine against Ebola.

This revelation in turn suggests that the couple engaged in several violations of safety rules at the lab, parts of which are designed to work on the world’s deadliest microbes, including those that could be used for biological warfare .

These violations included attempts by Dr. Qiu’s graduate students at the University of Manitoba, all Chinese nationals, to remove equipment from the laboratory and be allowed to walk around the facility unescorted.

In one episode, X-rays revealed that a package delivered to the lab for Dr. Cheng – and labeled “kitchen utensils” – contained vials of mouse proteins. The finding highlighted that Dr. Cheng violated protocols, according to the documents.

An intelligence investigation revealed that Dr Qiu had a formal agreement with Hebei Medical University to work on a “talent program”, something she described as a project “aimed at strengthening the China’s national technological capabilities.

A report documenting the investigation added that it “could pose a serious threat to research institutions, including government research facilities, by encouraging economic espionage.” This agreement promised approximately 1.2 million Canadian dollars (approximately $884,000) in research funding. The agency said the couple failed to disclose, as required, that they had a bank account in China.

Dr. Qiu, according to intelligence, also had a resume that she used only in China that showed she was a visiting professor at three Chinese health research institutes and a visiting researcher at a fourth.

Exactly what information Dr. Qiu may have provided to China and how China may have used it are not clear from either the internal investigation or intelligence agency reports.

The intelligence agency said many of the institutions it worked with were researching “potentially lethal military applications.” Asked as part of an internal investigation into potential military uses of her work, Dr. Qiu said the idea had not occurred to her, according to the documents.

The internal investigation found that a trip Dr. Qiu took to Beijing in 2018 was funded by a Chinese biotechnology company.

Mr. Holland said the lab’s leadership had demonstrated an “insufficient understanding of the threat of foreign interference.”

He added: “I believe a serious effort was made to adhere to these policies, but not with the rigor required. »

In a statement, Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative leader, said the Chinese government and its agencies, “including the People’s Liberation Army, were allowed to infiltrate Canada’s highest-level laboratory.” The statement added, using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China: “They were able to transfer sensitive intellectual property and dangerous pathogens to the PRC.” »

Vjosa Isai contributed reporting from Toronto.

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