FBI director Christopher Wray said: “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation”, including graduate students and researchers who go to the US yearly. In 2018, President Donald Trump told leading American CEOs and White House staff at a dinner that “almost every student that comes over to this country [from China] is a spy”.
The FBI, convinced that many Chinese scientists are spies, targets them more frequently than it does white Americans and, not surprisingly, finds heightened levels of unethical behaviour. A survey of 136 Economic Espionage Act prosecutions from 1997-2015 found that the percentage of those wrongfully charged was 21 per cent among Chinese, compared to just 11 per cent among those with Western names.
While a US Senate report last November claimed that excessive “co-authorship” with scholars in China may signal technological theft, the scientific world lauds scientific collaboration. According to America’s National Science Foundation, in the decade preceding 2018, the percentage of US publications from international collaboration rose from 25.2 per cent to 37 per cent.
In another study, in the five years before 2019, US research publications would have declined without co-authors from China, while Chinese publications would have risen even without the US.
The US and China need to act if the world is to continue to benefit from their collaborative research. The contracts under which Thousand Talents Plan participants agree to transfer their laboratories in the US back to China must end. The Chinese government must publish the names, affiliations and projects of Thousand Talents Plan participants.
Secret payments to Foreign Thousand Talents Plan participants must be suspended. Thousand Talents Plan participants must report their affiliations in China and any Chinese funding they are receiving when filling out grant applications in the US.
Finally, moving the Thousand Talents Plan underground, as the government has done, will not ameliorate mistrust, especially as the name of its replacement is available online and there are reports that recruitment to the programme is continuing.
On the US side, it makes sense for the Department of Energy, which is responsible for America’s nuclear programme, to forbid staff with high-level clearance from taking money from the Communist Party. But controls must come through “surgical strikes”, not by invoking, as FBI’s Wray has, a “whole of society response” to the false narrative that the US faces a “whole of society threat” from China.
Such a strategy will decimate Sino-US collaboration. US intelligence must also differentiate between intellectual property theft and “double dipping”, and not go after the latter through mechanisms such as accusations of wire fraud. Their goal should be to limit the spread of anxiety among Chinese scientists in the US or the scaring away of Chinese students from the US.
Appropriately, the NIH has removed 77 mainland-born Chinese in the US from its reviewers’ list. The NIH may also consider a moratorium on grant applications by non-US citizens from mainland China until the country becomes transparent on who participates in the new version of the Thousand Talents Plan.
But, most importantly, the two sides must re-establish communication among the NIH, the National Science Foundation and other US government agencies with China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the Communist Party’s Organisation Department, which runs the Thousand Talents Plan, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, to find mechanisms through which collaborative research can be maintained. Otherwise, the loss to both sides will be considerable.
David Zweig is Professor Emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and director of Transnational China Consulting Limited. Kang Siqin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. This commentary is an abbreviated version of a report written by the authors for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. in May 2020
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