Beijing Leverages Global Network to Lure Top Scientists, Gain Technology, Report Says

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 26, 2020

The Chinese regime has built a worldwide network of 600 outposts to recruit foreign experts and scientists in a bid to acquire advanced technology, according to a new report.

U.S. officials have increasingly warned that Beijing uses state-backed recruitment plans to facilitate the transfer of American technology and know-how to China. Under these plans, foreign experts are paid to work in China, including opening labs and conducting research at Chinese institutions.

The report by the think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) details for the first time the extensive global system used by Beijing to scout and lure scientists from Western research institutions and companies.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leverages at least 600 “talent recruitment workstations” around the world to support its talent programs, the report found. The United States has the most stations with 146, with other technologically-advanced countries including Germany, Australia, UK, Canada, Japan, and France, also hosting dozens of outposts each.

“The stations work on behalf of the Chinese Government to spot and pursue talent abroad,” the report stated.

First established in 2006, the regime has drastically dialed up its rollout in the past few years, the report stated. More than 115 of the 600 sites identified were set up in 2018 alone, it added.

Between 2008 and 2016, the CCP’s talent plans recruited almost 60,000 overseas professionals, the report stated, citing official statistics. The regime runs more than 200 talent recruitment programs, with the most well-known being the Thousand Talents Plan.

These stations are typically run by local groups—such as community, professional, student, or business associations—who are contracted by Chinese authorities to recruit individuals, according to the report. They can be paid as much as $29,000 for each person they recruit, and up to $21,000 a year for operating expenses, it stated.

Overseas offices of Chinese companies also host recruitment stations, and one was also set up in the Confucius Institute at University College Dublin, the report added. Confucius Institutes are Beijing-funded language centers that have drawn backlash over its role in spreading propaganda and silencing dissent in American classrooms.

The findings come as the United States intensifies scrutiny over the regime’s efforts to obtain technology by attracting American talent. U.S. officials cited the Houston Chinese consulate’s ongoing work targeting local scientists for recruitment to China as a reason for ordering the consulate’s closure in July. The U.S. Justice Department in the past year has brought a spate of prosecutions against Chinese and American researchers who allegedly hid their ties to and funding from China, sometimes while simultaneously receiving federal grant money.

Earlier this year, the former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department, Charles Lieber, was indicted on charges related to making false statements about his participation in the Thousand Talents Plan and receiving $2.25 million in Chinese funding over three years—a case described by prosecutors as “one of the most egregious charges of misconduct related to a talent-recruitment program.” Officials said that Lieber had received more than $15 million of federal funding since 2008.

Lieber has pleaded not guilty.

While participation in Chinese talent programs isn’t in itself illegal, researchers are required to disclose foreign funding when applying for federal grants. U.S. officials have asked universities to tighten vetting for conflicts of interest and foreign sources of funding.

The report stated that many of the units were established by agencies under the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD coordinates thousands of groups to carry out foreign political influence operations, suppress dissident movements, gather intelligence, and facilitate the transfer of technology to China. A range of other Chinese bodies is also involved in setting up overseas recruitment facilities, including universities, state-backed scientific associations, and foreign expert affairs bureaus, it stated.

The Chinese military also uses the same network for talent recruitment, according to the report. Top Chinese research institutions affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese state-owned defense companies both actively recruit overseas experts, it said. For instance, the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, which runs the PLA’s nuclear weapons program, recruited 57 scientists through the Thousand Talents Plan as of 2014, the report stated.

The report highlighted how the talent recruitment efforts are linked to economic espionage cases. In May 2019, Tesla sued former employee Cao Guangzhi for allegedly stealing the company’s source code autopilot features before joining a rival startup, the Guangzhou-based Xiaopeng Motors. Cao later conceded to uploading the files to his iCloud but denies that his actions caused any harm to Tesla. The case has yet to go to trial.

A decade before the suit, Cao co-founded the Association of Wenzhou PhDs USA, which has worked closely with Wenzhou authorities since its inception, the report found. Wenzhou, a city south of Shanghai, is a center for Chinese commerce and manufacturing.

The association, which was was contracted to run a talent-recruiting station in 2010, grew to more than 100 members in a few years, and included engineers from top tech firms such as Google, Apple, and Amazon, academics from Harvard and Yale, and U.S. government employees, the report stated.

The association also helped Wenzhou University recruit a materials scientist from the U.S. government’s Argonne National Laboratory, according to the report.

Follow Cathy on Twitter: @CathyHe_ET