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The Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Centre in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP.

Explosive Four Corners program reveals Australian links to China’s ‘re-education’ camps

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Curtin University are reviewing their research funding and approval procedures over concerns research linked to the universities is being used to help detect and detain ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China.

Human Rights Watch alleges artificial intelligence and surveillance technologies are being used by the Chinese government to identify and detain Uyghurs and other minority Muslim groups in so-called “re-education camps” in the region.

The scale of detainment is so large that it has been compared with the Holocaust.

It was revealed on last night’s ABC TV Four Corners program that UTS began a review into its $10 million partnership with Chinese military tech company CETC in April. The company has developed an app that Chinese security forces are allegedly using to track and detain Muslim minority groups in the region. The university signed the deal with CETC in 2017 to create a research centre, which included work on AI and surveillance technologies.

Director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Person said she welcomed UTS’s internal review.

"I think no Australian university wants to be collaborating with a Chinese company that is basically building these tools of repression in China," she said.

"This is an app that has been designed to gather basic information about Uyghurs and other Muslims. We know that people have been sent to political re-education camps on the basis of information collected through this application."

While UTS is confident there is no link between the CETC app and research conducted at its centre, it is “deeply concerned” by the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang and said its internal review would be available within weeks.

"UTS at this stage has no plans for new work with CETC and will assess the current contractual agreements in light of the review," the university said.

Perth’s Curtin University is also reviewing its research approval procedures after an associate professor's work was revealed in the Four Corners program. Associate Professor Liu Wan-Quan has been conducting Chinese government-backed research into how the faces of Uyghur people could be better detected through facial scanning – what other experts have labelled “racial profiling”.

In a statement Curtin said Associate Professor Liu was solely focused on “technical advice to the Chinese research team” and the university “unequivocally condemns the use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology, for any form of ethnic profiling to negatively impact and/or persecute any person or group”.

Human Rights Watch is calling on all Australian universities to review their research ties with Chinese government institutions in the fields of AI and surveillance.

"It's no secret that China is using facial recognition tools to racially profile Uyghurs and we know what happens as a consequence of that racial profiling," Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson said.

"I think there are real questions about how those projects were allowed to proceed.

"This should cause a rethink for all Australian institutions, companies, organisations, that are collaborating with Chinese state institutions."

Associate Professor James Leibold from La Trobe University is an expert in ethnic minority groups in China and is urging Australian universities to sever any links they have with the Chinese Communist Party.

"Essentially by doing that, we're being complicit in the human rights abuses that are occurring in Xinjiang and in China more widely," he said in the Four Corners program.

"I think UTS and other universities here in Australia that have connections with any party state company, particularly in the military or security sector, needs to end those contracts, and to pull out of those collaborative arrangements," Leibold said.

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  1. Angelique McInnes

    With the Australian Government research funding being decreased for universities it is forcing universities to fund their research from other sources, which may not be in the public’s interest. Increasingly, academic researchers are facing conflicts of interests and losing independence in their research in the name of meeting their funding KPIs by being forced to go to the private market and the international market.

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