WASHINGTON—China is targeting top scientific and technological expertise in the U.S. and other advanced nations through an expanding network of 600 talent-recruitment stations world-wide, a new report partly funded by the U.S. State Department has found.
U.S. officials have long warned that China uses recruitment programs to improperly obtain advanced technology. However, the research conducted by an Australian think tank details the little-known but elaborate infrastructure the Chinese Communist Party uses to recruit scientists from organizations such as
and Harvard University through such programs.
Beijing has denied attempting any systematic effort to steal U.S. scientific research, and Chinese state media have said the U.S. is using allegations of intellectual-property theft as a political tool. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The talent programs, such as the Thousand Talents Plan, are supported by 600 recruitment stations in countries around the world. They include Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan, according to the report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank created by the Australian government. The U.S. has the most with at least 146 stations, the report said.
Though China began opening the stations by 2006, it has greatly accelerated the program in recent years, according to the report by analyst Alex Joske. Of the 600 total stations identified, more than 115 were established in 2018 alone, it said.
Chinese officials typically contract out the operation of the stations to local groups like hometown, business, professional and alumni associations; technology and education companies; and Chinese Students and Scholars Associations at university campuses, the report said. They pay the groups the equivalent of as much as $29,000 for each individual they recruit on top of as much as $22,000 a year for general operating costs, it said.
The recruitment stations, which organize trips for scientists to visit China, often operate in concert with China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the United Front Work Department. The unit within China’s ruling Communist Party engages thousands of organizations to collect intelligence, encourage technology transfer, counter dissident movements and generate support for other Beijing objectives.
The Chinese military’s recruitment of scientists is supported by the same network of international recruitment stations and party-linked organizations, the report said.
The research also sheds light on the leading role provincial, municipal and district governments play in China’s talent recruitment efforts. International attention has thus far focused on programs run at the national level, such as the Thousand Talents Plan. However, the report said, more than 80% of talent-recruitment programs are run at the subnational level and may attract as many as seven times as many scientists as the national programs.
Only 20 of the 600 total recruitment stations identified in the report were established by national organizations, such as the United Front Work Department’s Western Returned Scholars Association and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, it said.
While participating in a foreign talent program isn’t illegal, U.S. officials require participants to disclose such ties if they apply for U.S. taxpayer-supported funding. U.S. authorities also say the Chinese programs often provide incentives to steal intellectual property and create conflicts of interest and commitment—especially when the scientists maintain their positions in the U.S. while doing short stints in China or running parallel labs there.
China’s efforts to attract talent and obtain technology have become a lightning rod in the broader conflict between the U.S. and China. The Justice Department has brought a series of cases against talent-program participants and Chinese military researchers for allegedly lying about their work with China or status with the People’s Liberation Army.
Tesla Inc. sued a former engineer, Cao Guangzhi, last year for allegedly taking self-driving technology source code to a U.S. affiliate of Chinese rival Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology Co. His past activities indicate “a pattern of cooperation” for a decade with China’s talent recruitment network, the report said.
Mr. Cao admitted he uploaded Tesla files to a personal iCloud account, but said he tried to delete them before he left and denied any harm to Tesla. The case is scheduled for a January trial.
A spokesman for Xiaopeng said “Xmotors is not aware of Mr. Cao’s out of office activities, nor are we party to the Tesla case.” Representatives for Tesla and Mr. Cao didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
As a graduate student at Purdue University in 2009, Mr. Cao established an Association of Wenzhou Ph.D.s. The group worked closely with Wenzhou officials to identify U.S. doctoral students from the area and signed an agreement with the United Front Work Department in Wenzhou to run a talent-recruitment station, the report said.
The association grew to exceed 100 members, including U.S. government employees and engineers from
and other top technology companies, the report said. The association also helped a university in Wenzhou recruit a scientist from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, according to the report.
A representative for the Energy Department, which oversees national labs including Argonne, said in a statement: “While international collaboration is essential to accelerate research and development, some governments, like the Chinese Communist Party, are aggressively pursuing access to foreign science and technology advancements and intellectual property to the detriment of our economic prosperity and security.” Google and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The report said the Chinese government-run infrastructure underpinning the talent-recruitment programs contradicts a theory espoused by some counterintelligence professionals. The theory holds that China uses a “thousand grains of sand” approach to intelligence gathering and economic espionage, relying on uncoordinated waves of amateur ethnic-Chinese individuals to scoop up technology.
“It isn’t an ethnic program with individual actors at its core—it’s a CCP program leveraging incentives as well as organised recruitment activity,” wrote Mr. Joske. He urged officials to focus more on the mechanisms the Chinese Communist Party uses to recruit talent than on the individuals recruited to the programs.
The report calls the Justice Department case against Harvard Professor Charles Lieber, a nanotechnologist with no Chinese heritage, “one of the most egregious” examples of alleged misconduct related to a talent-recruitment program.
Mr. Lieber was arrested earlier this year on charges of misleading U.S. agencies about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, while they were spending more than $15 million to fund his research group here. He has pleaded not guilty.
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