Several prominent professors at U.S. colleges have participated in China’s talent acquisition program, according to leaked documents from a Chinese regional authority. The professors worked with the Thousand Talents Program (TTP), a controversial state-backed recruitment plan criticized by U.S. officials for its role in transferring Western research and technology to China.
Two of the professors work at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and another at the University of California–Berkeley. All three are experts in biomedical research and development. Their names will not be included in this report.
The leaked documents, obtained from multiple municipal government agencies in Xi’an city, Shaanxi Province, further listed names of other recruited experts from abroad, funding details, and objectives for the local TTP.
Chinese talent programs, including the TTP, have recruited thousands of experts from around the world since 2008, when the program was introduced by Beijing. The programs offer up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives for overseas professionals to research and work in China for a period of time each year. Xi’an’s program specifically targets biomedical engineering experts, while other programs have focused on other technological fields, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace engineering, and new materials.
These state-run programs have drawn intensifying scrutiny in recent years amid growing alarm among U.S. officials that the plans could facilitate the flow of U.S. intellectual property and know-how to China. A number of U.S. and Chinese researchers have also been prosecuted in the United States for allegedly hiding their links to such programs while receiving federal grant money.
One of the three TTP participants is a professor and associate department chair at UC Berkeley. That professor is the recipient of numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since 2007, he has received at least $5.9 million in research funding, according to online records.
According to the leaked document, the professor is also the technical director of a biotech firm in Xi’an and an editor at Molecular Plant, a journal run by the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Society of Plant Biology.
A Chinese-media report dated Feb. 13, 2015, mentions a research article co-authored by this professor that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in January 2015. In the article, the academic’s affiliation was listed as both UC Berkeley and Nanjing University in China.
The Chinese report also provides some background information on the professor, in which the keywords related to his connection to the TTP were redacted.
The professor’s bio on UC Berkeley’s website doesn’t list his affiliations with the TTP or Nanjing University. The Nanjing University website also doesn’t include records of the academic.
The leaked documents classified the two CMU professors as “category A” talents, the top-tier of the city’s internal ranking system.
One is a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at CMU, who also holds the top position at a research institution at the university.
The other professor holds a top position in a macromolecular research center, which is funded in part by the NSF. He’s one of the most cited chemists in the world.
A Chinese report dated Sept. 7, 2017, by Xi’an News states that the two professors were awarded honorary professors at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, and that they would lead the efforts to establish the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME).
The report also states that according to the “Policies for ‘One Belt One Road’ Talents Development,” a policy developed by Xi’an authorities, biomedical engineering is the second most desired field of development for the region. However, local expertise and research and development capabilities are both lacking. Therefore, overseas top-tier researchers are crucial in transforming Xi’an into a world-class biomedical center in a short time, according to the report. The regional government would provide exceptional support for the professors and provide them with sufficient research funding and facilities.
The same report quoted one of the CMU professors saying it would take five to 10 years for IBME to become the world’s leading institution in chemistry, biology, and material research. Both professors said they were very impressed with the Xi’an municipal government’s recruiting commitments and believed that “it is possible to create a future” in Xi’an.
Carnegie Mellon declined to comment. The three professors and UC Berkeley didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.
Every year, Chinese regime agencies solicit applications domestically and internationally. For overseas talents, they aren’t required to quit their jobs overseas, but are asked to spend some amount of time in China to perform similar types of work, which brings them financial gains and recognition.
One leaked document (Chinese pdf), “Xi’an talent recruiting status,” states that by 2020, the city of Xi’an alone had attracted 243 national-level, 1,325 provincial-level, and 961 municipal-level TTP talents. In addition, it recruited 515 top-tier professionals in key technological areas and converted 303 scientific research projects into industrial products.
In the set of leaked documents, there are several documents about recruiting policy and incentives. One document, “Policies for ‘One Belt One Road’ Talents Development” (Chinese pdf), states that expertise in high-tech industries, advanced manufacturing, biomedical engineering, aerospace engineering, green energy, and new materials are highly desired.
Another document describes the budgets allocated for the talents who will work in the Gaoxin district in Xi’an. The budgets are for sign-on bonuses, which are deposited into recruits’ personal bank accounts, and range from $155,000 to $700,000, as well as project bonuses, which range from $466,000 to $776,000.
In addition, top-tier talents enjoy a variety of extra perks, including free housing, priority school admissions for their children, employment assistance for their spouses, exclusive access to health care services, and expenses-paid annual vacations.
In addition, local businesses and institutions are rewarded $155,000 for hosting top-tier talent and $77,600 or $31,000 for hosting lower-tier talent.
One document, “2017 Incentives for Entrepreneurs and Awards for Research to Industry Conversion,” states that if a talent starts up a business in Xi’an, the start-up will receive a one-time bonus between $155,000 and $776,000. If a scientific research project is converted to a profitable business, the bonus ranges from $77,600 to $1.24 million.
In recent years, the United States has moved to stem the flow of U.S. research and technology to China and push back against Beijing’s efforts to target academia through recruitment plants.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, in a 2020 speech, described the operation of talent programs.
“China pays scientists at American universities to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China—including valuable, federally funded research,” he said. “To put it bluntly, this means American taxpayers are effectively footing the bill for China’s own technological development.”
A growing number of U.S. academics have been prosecuted for allegedly concealing their ties to Chinese institutions and talent plans while receiving federal funding. In a high-profile case, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, Charles Lieber, was indicted in June 2020 on charges of making false statements relating to funding from China. Prosecutors alleged that Chinese authorities had paid him $50,000 per month, in addition to more than $150,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million to establish a laboratory in China.
In March 2020, a TTP member and tenured professor at West Virginia University pleaded guilty to fraud. In May 2020, the Department of Justice announced that a former Emory University Professor and TTP participant was convicted and sentenced for filing a false tax return.
In June, the U.S. Senate passed the Endless Frontier Act, which includes a provision barring any U.S. scientist who participates in a Chinese-sponsored talent recruitment program from receiving or making use of federal funding.
In response to these crackdowns in the United States, the Chinese regime has been deleting information related to TTP and names of TTP participants from the internet. But the recruitment continues.