If You Want to Keep Talent Out of China, Invest at Home

Retaining the U.S. advantage needs funding, not xenophobia.

Harvard Yard
A view of Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 8. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Many Americans first heard about China’s Thousand Talents Plan when FBI agents led Charles Lieber out of his Harvard office in handcuffs earlier this year. The world’s leading chemist, Lieber mentored hundreds of students and chaired Harvard’s Chemistry Department while allegedly deceiving the university about his connections to the Wuhan Institute of Technology and Thousand Talents.

Lieber’s arrest alerted the U.S. public to China’s long-standing efforts to recruit overseas scientists. By itself, participating in a talent recruitment program does not constitute a crime—but some participants concealed their affiliations with Chinese universities and double-dipped into the purses of American research institutions. Facing heightened scrutiny, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued a gag order on any references to the Thousand Talents Plan, its largest and most infamous talent recruitment initiative, before rebranding it entirely in 2018. But China’s recruitment efforts have only expanded and grown more sophisticated since the reinvention of Thousand Talents.

Today, applicants for any of the hundreds of national and local Chinese award programs may register, apply, and be matched directly with prospective employers through a single online recruitment portal. Overseas Chinese experts who return to the country may be exempt from its draconian hukou system, which normally governs where people may live and work. Some are paid signing bonuses on the order of $145,000, with the promise of national distinction, work visas for their family members, and tenure track positions at world-class universities in China. The bottom line is that the CCP’s efforts to poach science and technology professionals are becoming more appealing and accessible, at the same time that Chinese experts are feeling undervalued and unwelcome overseas.

If U.S. policymakers want to retain this country’s best and brightest scientists, they must face an uncomfortable truth: Formal talent recruitment programs are just one part of China’s strategy to exploit the cracks in America’s immigration and education systems. Formulating an effective response requires understanding three facts neglected in much of the coverage of the Lieber investigation.

First, China’s talent recruitment is more about economic competitiveness than military superiority, though the two are related. To be sure, some awardees are recruited for positions that could threaten U.S. national security. In a recent report for the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), for example, my colleague Jacob Feldgoise and I found that 36 of the nearly 3,600 people the CCP selected to receive awards under the “youth” branch of Thousand Talents were offered jobs at China’s leading nuclear weapons lab.

On the whole, though, just 8 percent of awardees were offered jobs at institutions affiliated with the Chinese defense industry, and most other talent plans also tend to target professors and entrepreneurs. The CCP is particularly interested in scientists who can help in its broader push to localize supply chains hamstrung by U.S.-China economic decoupling. For example, many of the awardees we identified specialized in ferroics and subfields of materials science that are especially useful for producing semiconductor devices—the focal point of recent U.S. export controls. Focusing on the pool of experts who could lend a hand to the Chinese military ignores the majority of those recruited to do basic research or develop commercial technologies.

Second, the bulk of the problem doesn’t lie with criminals, or even formal talent plans. In many well-publicized cases, China’s talent plan awardees have been charged with crimes that run the gamut from wire or visa fraud to theft of trade secrets. But the outsized focus on academic espionage and IP theft is leading many U.S. observers to miss the forest for the trees: The steady outflow of intellectual capital owned by Chinese scholars and entrepreneurs—many of whom are not even party to formal talent plans—poses a much greater threat to U.S. and allies’ economic well-being than the trickle of trade secrets stolen by recognized talent plan awardees.

Espionage and IP theft are major threats to U.S. and allies’ national security. But news stories about China’s talent plans tend to overemphasize the most sensational DOJ indictments, especially the rare cases—just 3 percent—that involve non-Chinese awardees. A narrow focus on criminal cases, however, overlooks more anodyne but widespread forms of technology transfer facilitated by Chinese professionals working overseas, who often consult for Chinese state-owned enterprises and exchange IP with counterparts in China.

Third, China’s aggressive approach to talent recruitment should be understood as a sign of weakness, not strength. China’s talent plans are extraordinarily expensive investments. If the Communist Party did recruit 7,600 scientists under the Thousand Talents Plan over a 10-year period, it probably paid between $550 million and $1.1 billion USD in signing bonuses, according to the program’s guidelines. Last year alone, the Ministry of Science and Technology set aside $44 million just to pay the salaries of talent plan awardees. The United States runs fellowship programs of comparable size for promising young scientists, but they serve to accelerate the careers of U.S. citizens and permanent residents—not to recruit talent from overseas.

For decades, the promise of the American Dream has been enough to solidify the United States as the world’s top destination for migrants, including highly skilled technology professionals. It is a good thing that the U.S. government does not pay the salary of every foreign professor hired at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, yet these universities continue to attract the world’s most accomplished researchers. Conversely, despite massive talent plan expenditures and eased visa restrictions, Chinese universities primarily recruit from within the country, and very few foreigners apply for permanent residence in China each year, although the number is growing.

The U.S. science and technology ecosystem is sustained by foreign partners. More than 40 percent of science and engineering research articles published in the United States are written with overseas collaborators, and international students alone contribute more than a quarter of public U.S. universities’ tuition revenue. These metrics are the envy of foreign governments, friend and foe, because the United States’ ability to crowdsource research costs pays for its advances in science and technology. Sacrificing the most valuable aspects of the American S&T system in the name of research security plays into the hands of China’s talent scouts—and they know it.

An effective response to Chinese talent recruitment requires recalibration. The U.S. government should continue to investigate cases of academic espionage and work with universities to mitigate risk in the research enterprise. But at the end of the day, the best way to improve America’s resilience to Chinese talent plans is to create more opportunities for experts who might otherwise be attracted to them. That means scaling up federal funding for science and technology, sponsoring and streamlining visas for foreign scientists, and expanding—not canceling—the STEM Optional Training Program for recent PhD graduates.

In addition to creating new opportunities, policymakers must address the push factors that make China an appealing option to begin with. Although the United States is not in danger of losing its immigration advantage outright, it is no wonder some Chinese-American experts are choosing to leave, given the shameful academic job market, hostile work environment, and mercurial legal landscape they must navigate to stay in the U.S.

Dueling for experts is not new for the United States, which has long shaped the trajectory of global science and technology with its own talent recruitment programs. At the end of the Cold War, for example, the U.S. government resourced grantmaking organizations like CRDF Global to act as sponges for ex-Soviet scientists, lest they take up consulting jobs for nuclear programs in the Middle East and North Africa. Conversely, when the United States forced out hundreds of scientists and foreign students suspected of harboring communist sympathies during the second Red Scare, it ejected the man who would become the father of China’s nuclear and rocketry programs. A simple but effective answer to Chinese talent recruitment today would build institutional capacity, drastically expand funding for grants and fellowship positions at the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, and allow foreigners to compete for some of these positions.

As they take steps to reduce risk across the research enterprise, U.S. policymakers should consider which countermeasures may inadvertently accelerate the exodus of Chinese talent from this country. They must invest in systemic remedies to sharpen America’s edge in science and technology. Otherwise, the Justice Department should expect to continue playing a very long and expensive game of whack-a-mole, when the United States could just as easily lead the way in pushing on the endless frontier of science itself.

Ryan Fedasiuk is a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

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