China’s Efforts to Recruit Foreign Talent Are Going Underground

By Sunny Chao
Sunny Chao
Sunny Chao
October 8, 2018 Updated: October 11, 2018

As the FBI handles the threat of China’s espionage with ever-growing scrutiny, Beijing is rolling back its “Thousand Talents Plan”—an ambitious initiative to attract foreign experts to China.

The Thousand Talents Plan, a state recruitment program also known as the “Recruitment Program of Global Experts,” is of particular concern for U.S. officials. Established by the Chinese communist regime in December 2008 to bring academics and researchers to China, the program has been described by the U.S. National Intelligence Council as a means of enabling technology transfer to China from the United States.

The Thousand Talents Plan has recruited about 8,000 people since its inception, but recently, the Chinese authorities have mandated the deletion of information pertaining to the program, including the Thousand Talents Plan’s Chinese-language website; however, the English website can still be accessed.

A screenshot from circulating on WeChat shows that China’s Ministry of Education issued an urgent notice requesting that all colleges and universities delete all information about the Thousand Talents Plan and make sure nothing related to the plan remains on their web pages.

Another screenshot, dated Oct. 4, shows a letter signed by the “Thousand Talents Plan Youth Review Team” in reply to a unit on Sept. 29. The correspondence stressed that recruiting units in China should protect the security of overseas talents. For example, when notifying candidates about upcoming interviews, the recruiters shouldn’t use email, but opt for telephone or fax instead.

The new measures seem to be designed to avoid attracting the attention of foreign security services, such as the FBI. Recruiters were told to substitute language about job interviews for more benign topics, such as participation in academic conferences, forums, and the like. The instructions also asked recruiters not to use the term “Thousand Talents Plan.”

Xie Tian, a professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken, told the Chinese language Epoch Times that “the Thousand Talents Plan isn’t a normal way of recruiting talents, such as using high salaries to attract talents back to China. The program’s requirements are very strange, hoping that the people work a few months in China every year while still retaining their jobs in other countries. In fact, it’s transnational work.”

According to Xie, while countries like the United States also have such transnational work arrangements, the details are typically approved by both sides. However, Chinese experts maintain close connections with the Chinese Communist Party and have agendas—that is, to transfer technological data—that are not subject to approval by U.S. institutions.

In April, the U.S. National Intelligence Council produced an analysis that described the Thousand Talents Plan as “China’s flagship talent program and probably the largest in terms of funding.” The council raised concerns over its unadvertised goal “to facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of U.S. technology, intellectual property, and know-how” to China.

In August, the FBI held an unprecedented gathering with top leaders of Texas academic and medical institutions to warn about foreign threats to research and academic institutions.

On Sept. 13, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) introduced the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft (SHEET) Act of 2018 to stop foreign intelligence services from using college exchange programs to steal technology, recruit agents and spread propaganda.

“China uses many methods to steal technology from the United States,” he said.

Rooney said one such example is the Confucius Institutes, which allow “the Chinese Communist Party to infiltrate American universities to exploit the open research and development environment, spread propaganda and recruit agents. This threat to our national security should be taken seriously.”

Rooney said, “The SHEET Act will allow the FBI to designate foreign-intelligence threats to higher education, including professors and students associated with the Thousand Talents Plan. This authority is necessary to stop China from stealing American technology.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center had dismissed or punished researchers for their involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan. MD Anderson did not dismiss or punish any researchers based on their involvement in the plan. The Epoch Times regrets the error. 

Sunny Chao