Now’s the Time to Get Clarity on China

By: - May 19, 2020

Two years ago I published an article here on OpsLens detailing a Chinese government initiative dubbed the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP).

As laid out in an expose by Bloomberg, one of the first mainstream media articles to discuss the program, TTP is a massive state funded program to recruit human capital from Western countries.

In my 2018 piece, I discussed the immense perks this program offers participants. They include tens of thousands of dollars in stipends, high-end living accomodations, and prestigious positions at Chinese institutions requip with project facilities and program funding.

At that point, the Plan was far from new. Thousand Talents had officially begun ten years prior in 2008. What prompted the exposé was a declassified report from the National Intelligence Council detailing the threat to national security posed by the program. It was one thing for Beijing to try and convince Westerners to work at Chinese universities and firms. It was another to have American based professionals on the payroll of the Chinese government. Recruiting these professionals turned out to be a central facet of the TTP initiative. As part of Thousand Talents, US scientists and researchers are offered ‘consulting’ opportunities with various Chinese agencies. Part of this work involves advising and directing authorities in their areas of expertise and updating them on progress in their fields. The reality of individuals with access to breakthrough, often highly sensitive technological information, being contracted by the Chinese state, presents, to put it lightly, a serious liability.

Interestingly, less than a month after the article appeared on OpsLens, one of the first confirmations of this danger came to light when the Department of Justice charged a General Electric engineer with the stealing of trade secrets related to turbine technology. The accused, 56 year-old Xiaoqing Zheng was a longtime TTP member.

A Thousand Cuts

Toward the end of 2019 the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations published a report detailing what they saw as potential dangers to the United States inherent in the recruitment program. The Senate’s report was extremely thorough. It covered threats ranging from the misallocation of US government research funds for the benefit of the Chinese, to outright technological theft. Still, Thousand Talents remained a relatively obscure issue on the national scene.

But the most damning discoveries regarding TTP were yet to come. In January of this year, federal prosecutors charged Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, with lying about participating in China’s Thousand Talents Plan. according to the FBI, Lieber had received millions of dollars from the Chinese government and lied about it to federal investigators, the Defense Department, as well as officials at Harvard. Days before I began writing this article, the Justice Department announced similar charges on University of Arkansas professor and NASA Simon Saw-Teong Ang. According to DoJ, Ang hid his connection to TTP from both the government and the university. The Department’s announcement on Ang came less than seventy two hours after another TTP member Dr. Xiao-Jiang, formerly of Emory University, pleaded guilty to charges that he failed to report his earnings connected to the program.

It’s important to fully take in the implications of these stories. In the world of intelligence, the first reaction to uncovering a plot of espionage, is not joy over derailing enemy operations but rather fear for what has yet to be discovered. In other words these incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. Illustrating this point is yet another report on Chinese malfeasance from earlier this year. In February, Attorney General Bill Barr announced the indictment of four officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for executing the Equifax data breach of 2017. The Equifax incident exposed the personal details of nearly 150 million people and was–and indeed still remains–one of the single largest breaches of personal data in history. Almost three years after the fact, we are learning that this too was an orchestration of Beijing.

Of course anyone with even a cursory knowledge of recent intelligence history knows that this type of Chinese mischief is nothing new. From the Hollywood-like saga of Katrina Leung, aka the Parlor Maid to the FBI investigation code-named Tiger Trap, China has been attempting to penetrate American institutions for decades. The common denominator of nearly all these operations whether they be intellectual property theft or academic espionage, is the grand strategy of capitalizing on America’s innovative assets. It is not surprising that over 60 percent of all copyright infringement cases investigated by the FBI have in some way been linked to the Chinese government.

A Bit of Clarity

The slow-burn shadow conflict between the U.S. and China has been an open secret for quite a while now. Even the idea of a new Sino-American Cold War has become a bit of cliche.

Awareness on the Chinese issue is out there. What remains to be done is shifting on actual policies. Among the profound impacts the current global crisis has had was to give the world pause on the question of Chinese credibility. This has really allowed the international community to hone in on the challenge it faces with China. If indeed PRC is the new Cold War antagonist, it is not (in most ways) like the old one. The threat emanating from Beijing is not that of global nuclear war similar to the danger felt from Soviet Moscow. Additionally, never was the USSR such a vital element and positive contributor to the global economy in the way China has become (this 2019 report from McKinsey delves into this fact very well).

No, the threat from China is not like that of the 19th century Cold War, it is more subtle. To put it as clearly as possible, the Chinese state today is one thoroughly committed to exploiting and cheating its global competitors. It has few if any inhibitions as to how far it will go in this effort. News of China’s infiltration into American institutions of higher learning are only the latest, but perhaps the most egregious, development in this year’s long story.

Dealing with this challenge cannot and should not be approached through the paradigm of conflict. The United States is not trying to vanquish an enemy. As noted, China is largely an asset as far as American economic flourishing is concerned. For the United States, taking on China has always been an aggressive business deal, namely, ensuring our side is benefiting and not being simultaneously screwed over. Does this schism have the potential to escalate to a more aggressive conflict? Of course. Events in the South China Sea and persistent flash points surrounding Taiwan in recent years have shown this to be a lurking possibility. But for now, and to our great benefit, this is not where we are holding.

Unfortunately, even firm negotiating means standing your ground. It also requires you to see reality for what it is. When American academics are turning a blind eye to Chinese totalitarianism and universities are welcoming state-backed ‘cultural centers’ on their campuses, it is difficult to see how American society as a whole has the principled stance necessary to protect their own interests.

With any luck, traversing the current gauntlet will give American some room for somber, non-agenda driven reflection. The China issue is a good place to start.