This month a United States Justice Department official revealed that more than a thousand visiting researchers from China working in US universities had left the country since the summer, amid a stepped-up investigation by the department of alleged espionage by scientists ‘secretly’ affiliated with the Chinese government or military.
John Demers, chief of the Department of Justice’s national security division, pointed to the arrests this year of at least five researchers from China who had US visas but had not disclosed their affiliations to the Chinese military or Communist Party in their visa applications.
These arrests were just the “tip of the iceberg”, Demers said at a webinar on 2 December organised by the US think tank the Aspen Institute, adding that the department had not realised the size of the iceberg when it started its ‘China Initiative’ in February this year.
But the majority were not arrested as the goal of the US authorities was merely to “disrupt spying activities”, he said.
Bill Evanina, director of the US government’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said that of the 1,000-plus Chinese researchers who had left the US, he was “most concerned about the graduate-level students”.
These researchers all came to the US “at the behest of the Chinese government and intelligence services”, he claimed, and they went to particular universities to study specific fields that are expected to benefit China.
Many were identified as being linked to China’s Thousand Talents programme to attract top talent from overseas.
China’s Thousand Talents programme “has been a key component of the China Initiative, launched by the Justice Department in February, which argues that the Chinese are stealing technology in 10 different ways, including through Chinese students,” explained David Zweig, emeritus professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, an expert on Chinese scientists and researchers returning from overseas.
“It has added a lot of tension to US-China academic exchanges and worried Chinese students, whose planned attendance at US universities has declined,” Zweig told University World News.
Experts noted it is part of the US administration’s efforts to ‘decouple’ US and Chinese research collaboration, which has built up strong links over several decades. Research has shown that Chinese authors are the most numerous collaborators for US scholars on scientific papers, and US authors are the most numerous collaborators for Chinese researchers.
In addition to the thousand researchers with military links who left the US in recent months, at least a thousand more graduate and postgraduate students from China had their US visas revoked by the US State Department in September, under a proclamation by US President Donald Trump denying entry to students and researchers deemed a security risk.
In the past two years many more Chinese scientists have been denied visas for long term or short term visits to the US for conferences, research or visits to collaborating institutions. Experts note the true effects of this on collaborative science have been masked by the COVID pandemic which restricted global travel this year.
Focus on Thousand Talents
In November 2019 the US Senate’s homeland security committee said in a report on how China’s Thousand Talents programme threatens the US research enterprise that its effect on US-based talent and intellectual property continues to “endanger our national security”.
Many US academics disagree with this characterisation. Zweig sees it as an attack on “organised reverse brain drain incentives”, which other countries, including Canada, also have.
It is also unclear to what extent intellectual property or technology has been transferred to China under such schemes over the years.
The programme was originally designed by China to reverse a brain drain of top Chinese scientists going overseas, but was also aimed at individuals with expertise important to China’s strategic science and technology goals.
“China originally wanted to bring back people full time, but that did not work,” said Zweig during a recent webinar organised by the National Committee on US-China Relations think tank.
His own research had shown that the very best of Chinese academics in the US – those with high impact citations – were not returning to China. The aim of the programme then became to provide incentives to share advanced, state-of-the-art scientific information with China.
A number of eminent foreign academics have been lured to set up their own labs in China over the past decade, or have participated in the programme alongside their academic posts in the US.
Zweig pointed to the case which emerged a year ago of six cancer researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida who hid their ties to a Chinese medical university and failed to disclose their participation in the Thousand Talents programme.
Five of them were non-Chinese, among them the centre’s CEO Alan List and the head of its research centre Thomas Sellers, who appeared to be motivated by substantial payments, according to a Moffitt report to Florida state legislators earlier this year, which also found “no evidence to date that intellectual property had been stolen”.
In January this year Harvard University nano-scientist Charles Leiber was arrested on charges of making false statements to US law enforcement officials and federal funding agencies about his collaboration with China’s Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).
Under the terms of his three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT allegedly paid Lieber a salary of up to US$50,000 per month, living expenses of up to CNY1 million (approximately US$158,000 at the time) and awarded him more than US$1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT, according to the indictment notice released by the Justice Department in June.
The case shocked academia in the US and acted as a wake-up call to universities to better monitor and organise research collaboration with China, particularly against the backdrop of increasingly tense US-China trade relations.
With the stepped-up administration focus on researchers, Zweig said: “I am sure that it has dramatically slowed the flow of US technology from US universities and research labs to China.
“Everyone is on guard against this programme. In Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been quite active in investigating the programme, particularly the Foreign Thousand Talents Plan, which will make foreigners think about going to China,” Zweig said.
Others believe the focus on Thousand Talents was no more than a useful way to identify scholars with China links and has not actually destroyed the programme itself or halted the vast amount of funding China is willing to put into it and other talent programmes to further its research goals.
US action has simply ensured China has become more secretive about the programme, scrubbing references to the programme on official websites.
Emily Weinstein, research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University, Washington DC, told University World News: “At this point it would be really hard to find people putting [their participation in] Thousand Talents on a résumé in the US. That doesn’t mean that all talent programmes are gone. In some of these contracts, or in application procedures for some of these talent programmes, they will often say that in order to participate you can’t tell anyone; it can’t be a public thing.
“Thousand Talents was merged into a different talent programme with a new name – it is now the High-End Foreign Expert Recruitment Program,” Weinstein said. “The fact that we’ve seen things like Thousand Talents disappear shows China is worried” about US scrutiny, she added.
But there are many other talent programmes run by the Chinese government which continue to make tempting top talent a priority. CSET runs a Chinese Talent Program Tracker “to build a stronger understanding of the depth and breadth of Beijing’s talent recruitment efforts”.
The Justice Department says it is opening new cases every day on scholars linked to China, though so far there have been few convictions. The department’s John Demers, speaking at the 2 December Aspen Institute webinar, said: “We have in the past two or three years been able to disrupt a significant amount of malign Chinese activity.”
But it is still unclear whether this amounts to ‘decoupling’ as part of the US administration’s aim to stall China’s advance as a science and technology power that could compete with the US and its allies.
‘Decoupling’ is normally used in the context of US-China trade relations. But science is seen as more complex than the cross-border movement of goods.
Weinstein sees the trajectory of science collaboration “moving in the direction of decoupling”. But it does not always work, she said, pointing to China’s determination to compensate by upgrading its indigenous science and technology capability.
Weinstein noted that the US and China had already been decoupled in an area like space over the past two decades, including blocking Chinese scientists and astronauts from working with NASA. “It is very much a sector-by-sector thing.”
While it may have prevented technology transfer from the US, China is building its own Tiangong space station and inviting people from other countries to work on it, Weinstein noted.
“Pressures from the United States could stimulate renewed efforts in China to build more independent systems for research and innovation,” noted Richard Suttmeier, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Oregon, in a recent paper, but he questioned whether China had “the capability for sustained, independent development in the face of the kinds of pressures emanating from the US”.
Caroline Wagner, associate professor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and an expert on science and technology policy, is clear: “Right now the US is still the leader in science; if China pulls back, China suffers.”
“China is able to indigenise their own technologies, but they are still missing key pieces. If the US, Europe and Australia start to think about what decoupling could mean, we need to think about what these key lynchpin technologies are that we need to keep the comparative advantage in in order to prevent China from surpassing us,” Weinstein said.
A different system
But others say the global science system needs to be rejigged to be able to function with China in it.
This hinges on whether China “has the understanding or the will to actually join the global science system rather than just benefit from it”, Wagner said. “China has come into a system over which they have almost zero control over the norms,” she said, referring to openness, transparency, reciprocity, exchange and exposure to peer review.
“There is a sense in the US, not totally displaced, that the Chinese are taking advantage of our openness without adopting our norms in return,” she added.
However, “it looks like China is regressing, instead of increasing their willingness to participate. They are seen to be backing off from it [the global science system], closing their great [fire]wall of China so that a lot of their own scholars can’t get access to material [from the West]. They are saying: ‘now we are going to pull back, we are not going to participate like we were’.”
China’s rise to become a science power was helped by sending top scientists abroad over the past decades, similar to other countries, including South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.
“Other countries did it to help their economy and grow their national capability. The difference is that China has tied its science system to the military,” according to Wagner.
With a new president in the White House from January and a possible end to COVID-19 travel restrictions, there is some chance that science collaboration can get back on track and prevent a full decoupling.
“A lot of international groups are organising themselves to ask the question of how we restructure our global science system now that we are dealing with China,” said Wagner, pointing to a large number of initiatives underway to draw up guidelines for research collaboration.
“They are asking how we retain the benefits of this international system, while also being aware that it can be misused for certain kinds of nefarious gains.