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China’s Search for a Thousand Talents

William Tucker
Global Fellow
4 MINS READFeb 9, 2018 | 20:00 GMT
China Photos/Getty Images

As the 2008 financial crisis took hold, China took advantage of the unemployment and dearth of research funding by launching the Recruitment Program of Foreign Experts. Colloquially referred to as the “Thousand Talents” program, the effort aimed to recruit industry-leading experts to work towards “breakthroughs in key technologies or can enhance China’s high-tech industries and emerging disciplines” all according to the 1000plan.org website. Through the program, the “Talents” can receive a relocation stipend in addition to a salary and other benefits. Furthermore, the program also opens up funding for research, paid through the sponsoring institution, to facilitate work within China on the Talent’s area of expertise. China offers several recruitment options under the Talents program that allow for both full or part-time work in the hopes that foreign experts will bring their knowledge to Chinese universities and state owned enterprises.

Though a program of knowledge exchange is not exactly novel, it demonstrates China’s pursuit of outside knowledge that could assist in the nation’s rise. In addition, this recruitment program can lead to exploitation for military gains in areas where China is lagging. China is widely known for their aggressive espionage efforts targeting both foreign military and civilian research efforts, but bringing leaders in academia and private industry directly to China removes several obstacles to traditional intelligence collection efforts. Naturally, China will continue to use conventional methods of intelligence collection as most nations do; however, it is better to recruit a scientist or engineer than to steal a few trade secrets.

Several participants have noted problems with the program. An article in the South China Morning Post recounts the experience of a German theoretical physicist recruited under the program. The physicist hired legal assistance after he failed to receive some of the funding promised by the program and even contacted China’s anti-corruption body to complain. The physicist, Ulf Leonhardt, alleged that his host institution, South China Normal University, had diverted funds provided by the central government. Although many of the contractual documents were available in both Chinese and English, his legal team found that the documents contained different and often misleading text. For instance, the physicist claimed that his name was used by the university for a military research application that included radar-absorbing material for anti-radar stealth. Noted for his work with cloaking, Leonhardt was studying Casimir forces while working under the Talent program, not anti-radar technology. According to Leonhardt, “They seem to have sold me to the Chinese military, like a Greek slave to the Roman legions in a different era.”

Originally slated to run to 2018, the Talent’s program still appears to be active. Recently, the BBC reported that China would issue five or ten year visas to top talent including technology leaders, entrepreneurs, and scientists with specialties in a variety of fields. China claims that 50,000 foreigners will benefit from the program, while the Talent’s program was hoping to recruit around 2,000. Instead of backing off in the face of misgivings related to the Talents program, China is doubling down on recruitment attempts. This poses a rather profound problem for many businesses, governments, and universities that do not wish to lose talent or hard earned research to China through deceptive practices.

Several nations are taking action to counter Chinese recruitment, however. Early in December 2017, Germany had warned local companies that China was using the social networking site LinkedIn as a recruitment forum, while the U.S. is investigating whether China uses market access as a means to collect trade secrets from U.S. companies. In a recent interview with Reuters U.S. President Donald Trump stated in regards to the investigation, “We have a very big intellectual property potential fine going, which is going to come out soon.” Mr. Trump has complained vehemently about China’s trade practices, so this action should not come as a surprise. Regardless of the defensive action taken to protect a nation’s trade secrets, espionage will continue to exploit every avenue available if it suits the national interest.

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