Montreal university says no indication donation by Chinese billionaire was suspect
MONTREAL — The Montreal university that was promised an $800,000 donation as part of an alleged plot by the Chinese government to influence Justin Trudeau said the pledge came at a different time in Canada-China relations.
When the donation was announced in 2016, scientific and economic relations between the two countries were more open than they are now, Université de Montréal spokesman Jeff Heinrich said in an email Wednesday.
"At the time, the Université de Montréal had no indication of a possible link between this donation and political interference by a foreign country," he said.
The Globe and Mail, citing an unnamed national security source, published a report earlier this week alleging that a Chinese diplomat instructed Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin in 2014 to donate $1 million in honour of Pierre Elliott Trudeau as part of a plan by Beijing to influence his son.
In 2016, Zhang and another Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, donated $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and pledged $800,000 the Université de Montréal, where the elder Trudeau studied and taught law before entering politics.
The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation said Wednesday it will return the $200,000 donation.
Asked Thursday whether the university would do the same, Heinrich said the school was reviewing its options "in light of the available information."
The Canadian Press has not been able to reach Niu and Zhang for comment.
The news about the donations came in the context of allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections. The federal Liberal government has faced pressure in recent weeks following media reports that cite unnamed security sources and leaked intelligence alleging China meddled in the last two elections.
National security agencies say they have seen attempted interference by China in the last two ballots, but not enough to affect electoral integrity.
On Wednesday, Heinrich said the university's law faculty received $550,000 to create a scholarship named on behalf of the two Chinese businessmen, adding that a final payment of $250,000 was never received. He said the donors had no influence over the students selected for the scholarships, which were last offered in 2018 and were intended to promote exchanges between Canada and China.
A portion of the donation — $50,000 — was intended to be used for a tribute to the elder Trudeau, which Heinrich said would have been a piece of art.
"The completion of this work of art is not currently planned," he said.
Heinrich said the university revised its policy around accepting donations in 2021. "The Université de Montréal conducts due diligence on the identity and the motivations of people who offer to make a major gift, including international donors," he said.
He said that since 2016, the international context has changed and the university follows all government regulations around international partnerships.
"Some programs that our law faculty put in place with Chinese partners ended in 2019, notably, summer schools in China and the training program for Chinese judges," he said.
Relations between China and Canada have soured since Université de Montréal in 2016 announced the donations. A high-profile spat between the countries occurred in 2018, when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on espionage charges. The two Michaels were detained days after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer at Huawei Technologies and the daughter of the telecom's founder, at the behest of the United States.
Kovrig and Spavor spent nearly three years detained in Chinese prisons and were released in September 2021, after Meng reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors over fraud and conspiracy charges related to American sanctions against Iran.
Daniel Stanton, a former CSIS agent who is now the director of national security at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, said universities have to take a harder look at where they get money from, but that it can be difficult for universities to determine if donations may actually be coming from a foreign government.
He said universities have to think about what they're being asked to use the money for and if any partnerships with universities in countries like China may touch on areas of sensitive research, such as around artificial intelligence or technologies used for encryption.
"If it's something like a law school, something non-technical or non-sensitive, then maybe it's not such a big deal," he said in an interview. "But if part of the donation is that students are going to then go back to China and then maybe do some graduate work in an academy that has links to the (People's Liberation Army) or something else like that, that would call into question whether this is a genuine donation or the genuine exchange."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2023.
— with files from Morgan Lowrie
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press