Dozens of academics and experts on China have hit out at a New Zealand university for its investigation of Anne-Marie Brady, a university professor who publicized links between the country's universities and Chinese state interests.
The University of Canterbury has said it is investigating complaints against Brady from universities and individuals linked to a report she submitted to the New Zealand parliament in July.
Brady, who is also a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, has been called before an internal disciplinary body after complaints were made about the research paper.
"We are concerned she may lose her job," her lawyer Stephen Franks told the Australian Financial Review. "This matter says it is now apparently OK to seek disciplinary action against a fellow academic whose research you don't agree with."
The report, titled "Holding a Pen in One Hand, Gripping a Gun in the Other," was submitted to the Justice Select Committee of the New Zealand parliament in July.
Co-authored by Jichang Lulu and Sam Pheloung, it details links between New Zealand universities and tech companies, and the Chinese state, including the paramilitary bingtuan in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
In an open letter addressed to University of Canterbury vice chancellor Cheryl de la Rey and deputy vice chancellor Ian Wright, more than 150 international scholars and experts on China hit out at Wright's comments to the media after the complaints were made.
"We are shocked to read that your Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Wright, gave a statement to the press confirming that the University was entertaining the complaints, and giving them currency by explaining that they allege that the paper contains 'manifest errors of fact and misleading inferences'," the letter said.
"We, who know this area, can see no manifest errors or misleading inferences based on the evidenced material provided in the report," the letter said, adding that some of the scholars had reexamined the paper after the complaints were reported and found nothing wrong with it.
The letter said Brady had conducted ground-breaking research on the Chinese Communist Party's United Front influence program overseas.
"[Her work] has had a profound impact internationally based as it is on meticulous research and her analytical insights over 20 years of scholarship in this area," it said, calling for further explanation or clarification of the university's position.
Brady has stopped making public comments pending the investigation, the New Zealand news site Stuff.co.nz quoted her lawyer Stephen Franks as saying.
"[Professor Brady] has been the target of a harassment campaign and threatening menace because of the serious implications of her important research," the letter said, calling for an immediate apology from the university.
It said the normal method of recording a disagreement with an academic paper was to publish a critical response, not to subject the writer to an investigation.
"We know of no valid basis for any 'review' of Professor Brady’s work other than by her peers and other researchers and commentators, as is normal for academic research and publication," the letter said.
Anders Corr, who publishes the Journal of Political Risk and Principal at Corr Analytics, said Wright, an underwater volcano expert, had no expertise in Chinese politics, and was less qualified to comment on Brady's work than the people who signed the letter.
"Yet Professor Brady, who is an expert, is not allowed to respond to his public charges per a legal gag by the university," Corr said via his Twitter account.
"In effect Ian Wright is a hatchet man smearing Professor Brady's good name while apparently looking for an excuse to fire her for a paper that points out an inconvenient truth: New Zealand's government and universities are in bed with China's military and could very well be violating domestic and international law."
Franks told Stuff.co.nz: "We are still trying to work out exactly what she must answer. We want to know how the review is a legitimate exercise of the university’s authority."
According to Brady's paper, Auckland University has links to China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an, which is involved in R&D for weapons and military equipment, as well as with Peking University, which specializes in military research.
An Auckland University spokeswoman said there was no evidence that its staff members, students or visiting academics had unlawfully transferred University of Auckland research or technology to China.
"In China, as in the U.S. and most Western countries, it is common for universities to receive research funding from agencies connected with defense departments in their countries or elsewhere," she told Stuff.co.nz.
Victoria University, which was named in Brady's report alongside Massey University and Brady's own Canterbury University, said "strict protocols" were in place around "potentially sensitive technology areas."
In comments to Stuff.co.nz, Massey, which has ties to bingtuan-linked Shihezi University in Xinjiang, where the authorities are holding some 1.5 million ethnic minority Uyghurs in detention camps, lauded its own reputation for collaboration with Chinese institutions, saying it complied with government advice and undertook "an enormous amount" of risk assessment.
It said it had no control over what its students did once they left the university.
Edited by Luisetta Mudie.