White House Limits on Chinese Visas Highlights Academic Espionage Problem
In late May, the White House announced plans to shorten the lengths of visas issued to some Chinese citizens, as a way to prevent the Chinese regime from getting its hands on intellectual property developed in the United States.
In recent years, U.S. federal authorities have prosecuted several Chinese nationals working in American academia who stole proprietary technology on behalf of entities in China.
Beginning June 11, the U.S. State Department will begin implementing these limits, including restricting Chinese citizens studying in certain fields—such as robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing—to one-year visas.
Those are fields the Chinese regime has said are high-priority goals for its manufacturing sector, outlined in its economic 10-year plan, Made in China 2025. This industrial policy was also the target of the recent Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) investigation into China’s intellectual property theft practices, commissioned by President Donald Trump. It found that China strategically directs private and state-owned firms to acquire foreign tech companies in order to obtain their technological innovations; eventually, China wants to dominate global tech supply chains and displace foreign competitors.
To this end, some Chinese nationals working at U.S. universities have stolen technology beneficial to the Chinese regime.
The Invisibility Cloak Case
The most prominent case is perhaps at Duke University, described in detail in the book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities” by journalist Daniel Golden.
In 2006, Liu Ruopeng came to the United States to study for a PhD at Duke University, working in the lab of professor David Smith, an expert in metamaterials, or substances that exhibit properties not found in nature.
Smith’s lab had created a prototype of an invisibility cloak that could conceal objects from microwaves, giving it potential applications for mobile phones and antennas, according to The Duke Chronicle, the university’s news publication. In fact, Smith’s research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Liu was able to take that technology back to China and establish a research institute and Hong Kong-listed company focused on metamaterials, called KuangChi Science. The firm is currently valued at about $2 billion. Chinese media refers to Liu as the ‘Elon Musk of China,’ while his company was personally visited by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top officials.
In August 2017, the company invested 4 billion yuan ($600 million) to buy a 1.88 percent stake in a state-owned telecoms operator, China United Network Communications.
At first, Liu suggested that Smith’s lab collaborate with one in China, at Southeast University in Nanjing City. The seemingly innocent recommendation eventually led to the Chinese university lab team visiting Duke, taking photos of Smith’s lab, reproducing the equipment, and recreating the lab in China. Liu also passed on data and research ideas developed by his Duke colleagues, and stored information about his experiments on a website hosted by a Chinese server, according to Golden’s book.
“His activities compromised the United States’ edge in an emerging technology that could someday conceal a fighter jet, tank, or drone, affecting the outcome of a war or covert operation. Once Liu returned to China, a grateful government invested millions in his start-up ventures,” Golden wrote.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated Liu’s activities but ultimately did not charge him with a crime.
Golden also discovered that Liu convinced Smith to join the Chinese regime’s Project 111, an initiative to recruit scientists from outside China to work at China’s university campuses. Meanwhile, the Chinese university lab was funded by Project 111 and a Chinese national science foundation.
Smith grew increasingly wary of his student. In April 2009, Smith confiscated Liu’s key to the lab. Nonetheless, Liu received his doctorate.
Golden believes the case is beyond a simple case of economic espionage. “There are connections between him and a foreign government that should raise scrutiny,” he told the Duke Chronicle.
Other cases involve academics who later became employed in the United States and stole technology to take to China, including a 2015 case involving six Chinese nationals who worked at U.S. companies Avago Technologies and Skyworks Solutions. They conspired to set up a joint venture in China to produce and sell equipment using pilfered wireless technology, according to an indictment.