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SIS investigates Chinese student in Auckland

The Security Intelligence Service has investigated a Chinese national studying for a PhD in electronic engineering at an Auckland university over concerns his work could be used for sensitive military purposes.

The man, Hu Bin, was granted a student visa to attend Auckland University of Technology before national security checks were completed.

Newsroom understands the immigration service has now reviewed the legal status of his visa and presence in the country after the SIS finished its security check.

Hu, born in 1989, is understood to have come to New Zealand in September 2016. Before starting his four-year doctoral course at AUT last August, he took an English course in Auckland to meet language requirements.

He recently returned to China, telling colleagues he would return at the end of this month once his next one-year visa was approved. 

Investigations into his visa status, background and study have been underway for months.

The matter is being regarded as secret within the government apparatus. It is not clear if he has been interviewed or made aware of the concerns.

Hu’s study at AUT is listed under the Centre for Signals & Systems Research in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering department. His PhD project is labelled an “active project” on “Wideband direction of arrival estimation based on cyclic stability”.

His supervisors are Professor Peter Chong and Dr Jack Xuejun Li.

National MP Jian Yang acknowledged having trained spies for the People's Liberation Army institute. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Newsroom understands government officials are concerned the uses for the research he is involved in could breach New Zealand’s international responsibilities in preventing the proliferation of certain military technologies.

According to academic sources, Hu’s field of study focuses on enhancing the efficiency of mobiles on the 5G network.

Rather than emitting a broad transmission signal between a mobile and base station during communication, Hu’s work focuses on targeted transmission between the base station and a particular device. For consumers, once perfected, the technique is expected to reduce the amount of battery power needed for mobile phone communication.

However, it could theoretically also be used to pinpoint the exact location of specific mobile devices, indicating a potential security threat.

Other details uncovered about Hu show he finished a Master's degree in China in 2014, and worked for a year as an assistant engineer before applying to study overseas.

Hu’s case comes at a sensitive time for China-New Zealand relations, as concerns grow about China’s perceived meddling abroad.

The Government has come under pressure to explain what it is doing to tackle alleged foreign interference from Beijing, with one report claiming New Zealand was a “soft underbelly” for Chinese infiltration.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons research paper, published last year, outlined what she said were efforts to gain influence in New Zealand through migrants, ethnic media and local politicians.

Brady told Newsroom there was growing concern around the world about Chinese students’ involvement in military-related research at the instigation of their government.

It was significant that New Zealand intelligence agencies were looking into Hu, as it showed the Government was “acting along the lines of the other Five Eyes partners who are very concerned about these kinds of matters”.

“I think things might be changing because that's what's happening in the US and Australia, I think there’ll be more attention paid to student visas from China looking into this very issue, the concerns about whether there are military applications to the research being done.”

Brady’s report came after a Newsroom investigation revealed National MP Dr Jian Yang’s study at an elite Chinese spy school and links to the country’s military intelligence network. Yang acknowledged having trained spies for the People's Liberation Army institute he attended and then taught at.

Acting Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said he had not been briefed about Hu, but would expect to hear from the NZSIS or GCSB about “legitimate concern” regarding any Chinese students in New Zealand.

Asked whether he would be concerned if a Chinese student was granted a visa before national security checks were completed, Peters responded: “Well, I mean those things are meant to be done, but it’s quite possible with a young person you don't quite know who you’re dealing with and what you're dealing with, and when they go from being a genuine student to something else.”

Regarding the US decision to tighten its visa rules for Chinese students, Peters said the country “writes its laws and being a sovereign nation, we write ours”.

Peters would not comment on whether he would seek a briefing from intelligence officials about Hu, saying: “I want proof and evidence before I start answering these questions.”

In Australia, where the debate has been more heated, concerns have been raised about universities illegally sharing military technology with China through joint research projects.

Last month, the United States announced new restrictions on visas granted to Chinese students studying “sensitive” subjects such as aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Peters have repeatedly refused to single China out, although Peters acknowledged in a recent foreign policy speech that “Great Power competition is back”.

AUT said it dealt with international students like all other tertiary institutions.

“Like everyone else, AUT relies on the country’s visa process to decide who is able to study in New Zealand. If this is in order, Hu Bin can continue his PhD with AUT,” a spokesperson said.

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