China hides identities of top scientific recruits amidst growing US scrutiny

Scholars fear that affiliation with the high-status Thousand Talents scheme could make them targets of FBI investigations.

22 October 2018

Smriti Mallapaty

Scott J. Ferrell / Contributor / Getty

United States congressman, Lamar Smith, accused China of planting sleeper agents in US universities to steal scientific breakthroughs at an April 2018 hearing.

China’s flagship science talent recruitment programme, the Thousand Talents Plan, has gone underground amidst intensifying scrutiny by United States government agencies for China's suspected role in the theft of US technologies and intellectual property.

A climate of fear has engulfed Chinese scientists in both countries worried that association with the previously prestigious programme will make them targets of US investigations, including by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Lists of scholars affiliated with the Thousand Talents Plan — a Chinese government scheme to attract Chinese scientists and entrepreneurs back to their homeland — have been removed from government and institutional websites in China.

A memo by a prominent official grant-funding agency, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, circulating on social media instructs interviewers of potential applicants to avoid e-mail correspondence, and not to mention the Thousand Talents Plan when inviting candidates back to the country. Another widely circulated message on social media, claiming to be from the human resources department of an institution that was not named, urges representatives of fellow HR departments to delete information on their websites related to the Thousand Talents Plan, as “required by the Ministry of Education”. The message asserts that the FBI is investigating researchers involved with the plan.

The Thousand Talents Plan secretariat and the MoE did not respond to the Nature Index’s inquiries.

“Every scientist should be concerned — not just scientists of Chinese origin,” says Xi Xiaoxing, a physicist at Temple University. He argues the US government’s rhetoric threatens not just academic freedom but the US’s place in science and technology globally.

Xi was arrested by the FBI in 2015 and charged with sharing sensitive technology with China, but the case was abruptly dropped four months later.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing trade war, the threat to China–US scientific co-operation could also setback the global scientific enterprise. The two countries are the top collaborating pair in the production of high-quality scientific research worldwide, based on their joint authorship contributions to articles in the 82 journals tracked by the Nature Index.

The developments have had a “chilling effect on young people,” says Wang Xiao-Fan, a cell and molecular biologist at Duke University School of Medicine.

Deterring Chinese students would cost US institutions dearly, says Wang. About a third of all US science and engineering master’s and doctorate degrees in 2015 were awarded to international students. Of the doctorate recipients on temporary visas between 1995 and 2015, some 29%, or 63,576, were from China.

Scholars or spies

The Chinese threat to US innovation and industry has been a longstanding concern, but recent developments have put China’s talent programmes in the spotlight.

China's drives to recruit scholars and technology experts are a primary channel for harvesting US technologies and intellectual property, stated a June 2018 White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy document.

At an April 2018 hearing titled “Scholars or Spies”, organized by two subcommittees of the US House of Representatives, the commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Michael Wessel, advised Congress to cut federal grants, loans or other assistance to participants of the Thousand Talents Plan. China has put “sleeper agents at our research universities to steal our scientific breakthroughs,” said Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, at the hearing.

Foreign entities were mounting “systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers” warned Francis Collins, director of the largest public funder of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in a letter sent to thousands of research institutes on 20 August 2018. Collins, who did not directly refer to China, encouraged institutions to get in touch with FBI field offices to organise briefings on the subject.

The Thousand Talents Plan, launched in 2008 and expanded in 2011 to include younger and foreign researchers, is under particular scrutiny. It has attracted more than 7,000 individuals back to China with lucrative and prominent positions and substantial research grants. The majority of returnees have come from the US, with some top-level candidates maintaining dual US–Chinese institutional affiliations.

Warning of threats

In an episode that has severely rattled Chinese researchers, also in August, the FBI Houston Division held a briefing to warn medical and research representatives of threats posed by foreign adversaries, including theft of proprietary information and research funds.

Accounts spread within the Chinese researcher community that several faculty at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with ties to the Thousand Talents Plan were questioned following the briefing. In one case confirmed by Nature Index, an individual who had been offered a position through the plan, but had not accepted it, was questioned.

Connor Hagan, a public affairs officer for FBI Houston cites usual FBI policy in declining to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. MD Anderson states that it has “not dismissed any staff or visiting scientists as a result of their participation in the Thousand Talents program”.

In a separate development, Joseph Heppert, vice-president for research at Texas Tech University, disclosed in a letter addressed to staff that a faculty of the university had been advised to suspend his application to the Thousand Talents Plan after consulting with the FBI.

Widespread alarm

Lin Xin, an immunologist and cancer biologist at Tsinghua University is offended at the suggestion that scholars are engaged in espionage activities.

Lin returned to China with support from the Thousand Talents Plan after several years at MD Anderson, formally resigning from his US position at the end of 2016. “It is just a recruitment plan,” he says. “We want the research community to be able to freely talk about their work.”

Some researchers who were considering applying for the Thousand Talents Plan are having second thoughts for fear they could become a target of the US administration.

The removal of information from websites in China has been unsettling, says a Chinese bioinformatics and computational biologist based in the US, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Now that everything is not transparent, we are not sure whether the selection criteria will be fair.”

Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the 60-strong Association of American Universities, says that institutions are working to understand the government’s concerns. Researchers might have unwittingly shared sensitive information with foreign actors, he suggests. “But at this point it is still a bit unclear what the threat from the programmes actually is,” he says.

Futao Huang, a higher-education policy analyst at Hiroshima University in Japan, argues that the shroud of scepticism hanging over Chinese talent programmes will interfere with China’s goals of advancing in fields such as artificial intelligence, where the US is the current leader. “The best researchers will stay in the US,” he says.

This article was updated on 23 October 2018 to reflect attempts to contact the Thousand Talents Plan secretariat and the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Correction 26 October 2018: The FBI Houston briefing did not take place at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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