Technology lies at the heart of China-US competition. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the National Governors Association meeting on 8 February, “The Chinese government has been methodical in the way it’s analysed our system... It’s assessed our vulnerabilities, and it’s decided to exploit our freedoms to gain advantage over us at the federal level, the state level, and the local level.” How is China “gaining advantage” over the US? By the large-scale theft of US technology. According to an official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), everything — from corn seeds to aircraft parts, commercial information, and top technology from US university laboratories — are targets of Chinese spies.
Taking a tougher stance on potentially duplicitous individuals
In November 2019, the US Senate released a report stating that China has been giving incentives such as the provision of salaries, research funding, and laboratories since the late 1990s in exchange for information from US university laboratories and other research organisations, in effect, stealing US intellectual property. The clearest example of this is China’s Thousand Talents Plan (千人计划), a programme that recruits overseas talents, primarily scientists and researchers, to work in China for a number of years. The US is thus urgently implementing a “personnel decoupling” policy towards China and weeding out possibly compromised individuals.
First, three leaders from the US’s intelligence and judicial departments discussed the threat of China stealing US technology. On 6 February, US Attorney General William Barr, FBI director Christopher Wray, and National Counterintelligence and Security Centre director William Evanina gathered at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to talk about Chinese “economic malfeasance” such as espionage and theft of US technological secrets. During the conference, Barr and Wray also gave their keynote addresses related to the topic.
"...They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors, all working on behalf of China.” - FBI Director Christopher Wray
According to Barr, China treats success as a “zero-sum game”. He said that China concentrated its efforts on building a socialism that is superior to capitalism for the eventual demise of capitalism. He added that China does not regard economic success as an end in itself, but as a means to wider political and strategic objectives. The “Made in China 2025” plan is also a “highly-coordinated campaign to replace the United States as the dominant technological superpower”. China’s theft of US technology is a means to accelerate the realisation of China’s strategic objectives.
According to Wray, in his time as FBI director for over two years, the FBI has “a thousand investigations involving China’s attempted theft of US-based technology in all 56 of our field offices and spanning just about every industry and sector”. He added that China’s espionage activities pose a long-term threat to the US, not only threatening its national security, but also affecting the country’s economic vitality and social safety.
Wray pointed out that Chinese espionage activities leave no sector untouched, with the stolen information covering all areas. Those who engage in these activities are not only Chinese citizens but also the Chinese diaspora in the US, and even US citizens. In April 2019, Wray said, “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organisations. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors, all working on behalf of China.”
Clamping down on fraud and espionage
Secondly, the US Department of Justice launched a “China Initiative” to combat economic espionage from China and in January, filed criminal cases against the following three individuals, and announced that another had pleaded guilty to charges brought against him.
The FBI charged Prof Lieber for “making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” regarding his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan. They also suspected that he was secretly helping China.
On 9 December 2019, Zheng Zaosong, a PhD student from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University was arrested at Boston’s Logan International Airport as he was preparing to take a flight back to Beijing. He was charged with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological material that he had hidden in his sock to China. The vials were alleged to contain cancer cell samples stolen from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.
On 28 January, in a move that rocked the academic world, the FBI arrested Professor Charles M. Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. Prof Lieber is a pioneer scholar in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology. According to documents from the US Department of Justice, Prof Lieber became a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and was involved in China’s Thousand Talents Plan between 2012 and 2017, receiving a monthly remuneration of US$50,000, annual living expenses of approximately US$150,000, and US$1.5 million from WUT to establish a research lab at the university. The FBI charged Prof Lieber for “making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” regarding his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan. They also suspected that he was secretly helping China.
On 28 January, the US Department of Justice charged Ye Yanqing, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lieutenant, for hiding her affiliation with the PLA and sending sensitive US military documents and information to China while studying at Boston University. It was alleged that while she was studying there, she was in communication with her colleagues at the National University of Defense Technology (under the direct leadership of China’s Central Military Commission) as she accessed US military websites, researched US military projects and compiled information on two US scientists for the PLA. As she was about to leave the US in April 2019, she was intercepted by federal officers from the US Customs and Border Protection and the FBI at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
On 10 March, the US Department of Justice announced that former West Virginia University professor Dr James Patrick Lewis has pleaded guilty to “Federal Programme Fraud” for deceiving his university about taking up another contract while still in employment. In July 2017, he signed a contract of employment with China’s Thousand Talents Plan which required him to work full-time for three years — not less than nine months per year — in China. By the end of the three years, he would have received a total of approximately US$800,000 in remuneration and subsidies.
...the US government’s actions have resulted in a gradual decline of Chinese students studying in the US.
Lastly, the US imposed a “personnel decoupling” policy towards China. First, the US government launched an investigation into related personnel. The media reported in November 2019 that representatives from a few large-scale federal research organisations had admitted that academics who participated in China’s Thousand Talents Plan were discovered in each of their agencies. A representative from the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) said that over 140 academics are currently being investigated for academic integrity or foreign influence. According to a report by The New York Times on 5 November 2019, the NIH and FBI have discovered that almost all scientists who were involved in the theft of US biomedical research results were Chinese, including naturalised US citizens.
Second, the US government’s clampdown has resulted in the dismissal of Chinese scientists in research organisations. In April 2019, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre made the decision to sack three of its scientists, which the US media reported to be Chinese. In June 2019, the US Department of Energy banned its scientists and the majority of its contractors from participating in talent recruitment programmes funded by China and some other countries.
Third, the US government’s actions have resulted in a gradual decline of Chinese students studying in the US. In December 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that none of its 707 freshmen of the Class of 2023 awarded early admissions came from mainland China. According to a US Institute of International Education report released in January this year, the growth rate of Chinese students studying in the US between 2018 and 2019 fell to 1.7%, the lowest in ten years. In further signs of the trend, in media reports on 4 May, MIT said that none of its 707 students awarded early admissions this year were from mainland China.
US lawmakers intend to tighten visas for Chinese students — on one hand making it more difficult for them to apply for the F1 student visa, while on the other hand making it tougher for Chinese students to stay in the US. On 26 April, US senator Tom Cotton said during an interview with Fox News, “We need to take a very hard look at the visas that we give the Chinese nationals to come to the United States to study, especially at the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.” This move by the US government is but a single aspect of China-US decoupling.
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