Taiwan, South Korea Face Challenges From China’s Talent-Recruitment Agenda

Taiwan, South Korea Face Challenges From China’s Talent-Recruitment Agenda
Military police stand in front of the Presidential Palace to mark the island's National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, on Oct. 10, 2018. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)
Frank Fang

As China’s overseas talent-recruitment programs come under close scrutiny in the United States, Taiwan is also raising the alarm about the outflow of the island’s nationals to lucrative jobs on the mainland.

Beijing has created several recruitment programs to attract overseas Chinese and foreign experts to work in China, for the goal of driving the growth of its technology sector.

One of the most prominent programs, the Thousand Talents Plan, was established in December 2008. Under the program, successful recruits are awarded lucrative employment packages, often with sizable research funding at their disposal, along with a leadership or professional position at a Chinese university, research institute, or state-owned enterprise.

To date, 33 Taiwanese nationals have been recruited under the Thousand Talents Plan, says Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the agency tasked with handling policies with China, according to an Oct. 14 report in the Taiwanese newspaper the Liberty Times.

While Taiwanese authorities have a long-established rule that academics who hold a position at a college or university in Taiwan need government approval before they are allowed to sign up for the Thousand Talents Plan, none of those 33 nationals currently hold an academic position in Taiwan. Even so, the council plans to be more vigilant in monitoring their status in mainland China, according to the report.

The Taiwanese government is particularly concerned about its citizens working in China, because Beijing is known to target them for espionage or intelligence-gathering purposes. Any leak of valuable intelligence or intellectual property from Taiwan, whether military-, economic-, or infrastructure-related, could be exploited by Beijing, which has never renounced its intention of bringing Taiwan under its rule, with military force if necessary.

Taiwan is now a full-fledged democracy, with its own military and constitution, after the island nation held its first presidential election in 1996.

Chang Kuo-cheng, a professor with Taipei Medical University, told the Liberty Times that Taiwanese academics who join the Thousand Talents Plan would likely see their career development limited by possible restrictions when participating in partnership projects involving the United States.

Recently, the FBI intensified its scrutiny over Chinese nationals working in the United States who could be recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan, after a series of economic espionage cases, involving Chinese nationals stealing technology beneficial to Beijing, were exposed this year.

In June, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the Pentagon was investigating research partnerships between U.S. universities and Chinese companies. The investigation was carried out amid reports of Beijing’s escalated spying and technology theft.

In August, the FBI held an unprecedented gathering for more than 100 academic officials in Texas, about how to better prevent intellectual-property thefts by foreign adversaries, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Peter Su, director of the Center for Advanced Technology at Taiwan’s Tamkang University told the Liberty Times that the Taiwanese government must create measures to prevent sensitive information about the island country from leaking to Beijing, such as barring Taiwanese experts with certain technical backgrounds from joining Beijing’s recruitment programs.

One high-profile case in 2014, when a Taiwanese professor joined the Thousand Talents Plan, exposed how easily Taiwan’s national security could be compromised, according to another Oct. 14 article by the Liberty Times.

The professor, Chen Kun-shan, who was employed at the Center for Space and Remote Sensing Research at Taiwan’s National Central University before leaving for China, had worked on a number of research projects involving Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, an institute operated by the government's Ministry of National Defense.

Taiwan’s intelligence agency discovered that he had taken with him sensitive information about Taiwan’s national security, including analytical satellite images of the island when he left his position.

According to the Liberty Times, Chen then took up a job at China’s Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, an institute under the Chinese regime’s state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences.

South Korea

Much like the United States and Taiwan, South Korea is also facing the problem of Chinese recruitment efforts, which have led to important South Korean technology being leaked to China.

An unidentified South Korean professor in the artificial intelligence (AI) field said that he was approached by Chinese authorities who offered him an annual package, including salary and research funds totaling 300 million won ($265,200) or more, if he were to leave South Korea and work instead for a technology college either in Shanghai or the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, according to a June article by South Korean financial news website Maekyung.

The professor’s case exposed a widely used practice, the “three times rule,” whereby Korean talents in AI, virtual reality, and 3D computer-graphics are approached by Chinese recruiters with the promise of tripling their Korean salary in exchange for working in China.

China’s recruitment efforts in South Korea have undermined the latter’s local virtual reality (VR) market.

In 2014, South Korea’s VR market was worth about 966 billion won (about $854 million), while China’s VR market was worth about 270 billion won (about $239 million), according to data from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET). By 2017, China’s VR market surpassed that of South Korea, with the former reaching 2.3 trillion won (about $2.03 billion), compared to South Korea’s 1.96 trillion won (about $1.7 billion).

VR applications are expected to increase with the rollout of 5G, the next generation of mobile communications, as VR technology provides for better mobile data performance and stability.

China also has aggressively recruited South Korean gaming engineers in the past 10 years, according to Maekyung, but the pace has slowed recently because China’s gaming industry is gaining in competitiveness, due to the inflow in talent.

Lee Chang-hee, a professor who currently heads China’s Liangjiang International College of Chongqing University of Science and Technology, is among the South Koreans have been recruited under the Thousand Talents Plan.

The former chief technology officer at the fiber optics company Novera Optics Korea, who also served as a professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology—a top South Korean public university in the science and tech field—landed a recruitment package that included a one-time payment of 1 million yuan ($144,534), plus 8 million yuan ($1.2 million) in research subsidies, according to an August 2017 article by Chinese news portal Sina.

In addition, Lee gets preferential benefits that include housing, medical care, and insurance.

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.