Massey University’s agreement with a controversial Chinese company is over – but not because of its involvement in surveilling Uighur Muslims, and Kiwi academics say universities must be more careful in the deals they sign with foreign entities.

New Zealand academics have urged the country’s universities to give greater scrutiny to their funding partnerships, following Massey University’s controversial collaboration with a Chinese company blacklisted for its involvement in the persecution of Uighur Muslims.

The comments, along with pointed remarks from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, come as the university has confirmed its relationship with iFLYTEK has been terminated – but not due to its role in surveilling minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

Last week, Newsroom revealed that Massey had continued to work with the Chinese AI firm despite MBIE notifying the university of iFLYTEK’s addition to a United States blacklist.

iFLYTEK was among eight Chinese companies added to a United States trade blacklist last month, with the US Commerce Department citing their implication in “human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups”.

Massey told Newsroom last week the agreement was still in place, but the university said on Tuesday it had in fact been terminated in mid-November. 

While that was after MBIE had informed the university of iFLYTEK’s blacklisting in relation to Xinjiang, a spokesman said that was not the reason for the decision.

The termination had in fact been made at the company’s request, not the university’s, and was due to “research interests…taking a different direction”.

‘The pursuit of profit over principle’

A number of New Zealand academics, who spoke to Newsroom before the termination of the iFLYTEK contract came to light, said the deal showed the risks of universities signing deals without a proper understanding of the underlying issues.

Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University, said universities should be more transparent about deals like the iFLYTEK arrangement which were often not widely known about within the institution itself.

Powles said universities also needed to “seriously question the pursuit of profit over principle” and develop more robust strategies to manage partnerships with Chinese universities and corporations.

Stephen Noakes, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, said a problematic agreement like the Massey-iFLYTEK deal could occur at any university as a result of naivety.

“It’s much more likely that instead of being callous in some way, the decisions were made about this not fully aware of the ramifications.”

Noakes said such problems would be less likely to happen if universities had a broader China knowledge base or were more connected to the China specialists within their institutions.

Academics had a duty to speak up and bring these sorts of issues to public attention, he said.

“We need to fulfil our obligations and responsibilities too – the legislation says ‘critic and conscience’. That covers things like this, and I’m as guilty as the next person way too often: we just don’t say anything either because we’re busy or because we’re trying not to offend.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said universities had the ability to make independent decisions on funding arrangements but should consider foreign policy positions taken by New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

However, universities also needed to reflect on previous “lightning rods” like apartheid and make sure they were not on the wrong side of a similar issue taking place at present.

University of Canterbury professor and Royal Society fellow Anne-Marie Brady, who has written extensively about Chinese foreign interference in New Zealand, said it was “shameful that New Zealand researchers are helping to improve the Chinese Communist Party government’s repressive policing tactics in China”.

“The technology also has military applications. New Zealand taxpayers are subsidising this research, surely the end use of these collaborative projects breaches our universities’ ethical codes.”

David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said: “It should be deeply troubling to all New Zealand academics if our universities are being used to aid a campaign of mass surveillance and repression.”

Asked about the Massey deal on Tuesday afternoon, before its termination became known, Ardern said she had not been briefed in detail but noted New Zealand’s “very clear position” of concern about human rights breaches in Xinjiang.

“Our education institutions, they are independent, they have the ability to make independent decisions, but I would ask them to acknowledge the position that New Zealand more broadly has taken.”

ACT leader David Seymour accused Massey of suffering from “a crisis of leadership”, saying it had blocked free speech on its campus while partnering with “businesses that are providing the software for what are, frankly, concentration camps”.

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Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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