top of page

Concerns Around “Espionage” Put International Student Mobility in Canada at Risk

The Coat of Arms of the Federal Court of Canada. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On December 22, the Federal Court of Canada denied the appeal of a Chinese student admitted to a PhD program at the University of Waterloo. Amid an atmosphere of deteriorating relations with China, the recent decision with its new and expanded definition of “espionage” could pose serious obstacles to international student mobility and academic freedom.


Yuekang Li was admitted to a PhD in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo in April 2022. Having been denied entry to Canada by a visa officer on the grounds that he might be coerced into espionage by the Chinese government, Li appealed to the Federal Court of Canada. However, in the recent ruling, the court has sided with the visa officer’s decision, setting a precedent for an expanded definition of espionage. According to the reasoning of Chief Justice Paul Crampton, there are also “non-traditional” forms of espionage that consist of handing over information to a foreign entity, even if the information in question is “open source”, if such an action poses a threat to Canada’s interests.[1] While Li has not been convicted of having engaged in espionage, he is being treated as a potential spy. Li holds an undergraduate degree from Beihang University of Beijing which has been identified to have links with the defense industry in China in a 2018 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which was referenced in the visa officer’s decision to deny his application.[2]


The fact that the decision is a preventive one made on questionable grounds, and that it expands the definition of espionage to include sharing any information obtained within Canada with “hostile states” has sparked reaction from some immigration experts. According to Lorne Waldman, an immigration and refugee lawyer, the decision “creates an extremely broad ground of inadmissibility” for graduate students who have studied in countries like China.[3] The concern is that with a very similar reasoning, almost any student from China who wants to study subject areas remotely connected with military technologies can be prevented from doing so. In Li’s case, his proposed field of study was “micro fluids” and their usages in public health. Despite the lab Li would be working with stating that they do not deal with any military applications of micro fluids, the fact that he wanted to work in a field related to nanoscience was accepted as credible ground for his rejection.


This development should be contextualized within the broader effort to control and limit ties with academic and research institutions in countries like China, Russia, and Iran. On January 16, the Canadian government named more than 100 institutions in those countries as “security risks”.[4] Under this new regulation, research that includes partnerships with such institutions in “sensitive technology research areas” will not be eligible for federal funding. However, the impact of the regulation will likely go beyond the designated areas of study as the list of sensitive research areas and the list of named research organizations will be regularly updated. It is possible that Canadian research institutions will roll back collaborations with other institutions from China, Russia and Iran in case other ones are named or other areas of study are included in the sensitive subjects list.


Although the mobility of students from such countries are being targeted directly, other international students will also be impacted. On January 23, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced a 35% decrease in the number of student visas that will be given in the next two years.[5] The government cited increasing housing prices as the primary reason for this decision. Canada currently houses more than 2 million international students, around half of which are resided in Ontario.[6] Lobbying groups for some of the colleges in Ontario have criticized the government’s decision.


The free flow of ideas, information and students across borders is a crucial element of higher education which draws strength from diversity. Endangered Scholars Worldwide calls on the Canadian government to ease restrictions on international student mobility and promote international academic collaboration. International students and academic institutions should not be collectively punished for the actions of governments and instead should be shielded from fluctuations in inter-state relations as much as possible.

Sources and Further Reading:


bottom of page