China Isn't Just Taking U.S. Intellectual Property, It's Taking Talent

For years, a quiet, yet surprisingly effective scheme, to undermine America’s intellectual property has been underway within the Chinese government.

PRC has long focused on stealing scientific innovations of the West as a key part of its national strategy. A recent report by the federal Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property pointed to China as the primary factor in a $600 billion hit to the American economy resulting from intellectual property theft and copyright infringement over the past several years.  

But PRC’s efforts to steal American tech is not limited hacking government databases or reverse engineering US products. Government operations referred to as “talent programs” are a less aggressive but highly effective way of swiping America’s brain power. According to a declassified FBI counterintelligence report from nearly three years ago, these programs “pose a serious threat” to US businesses and universities in the long term.     

In a fascinating exposé piece, Bloomberg recently laid out a detailed report on China’s most elaborate scheme to achieve technological supremacy over the West.

The program, dubbed the Thousand Talents Plan, is nothing less than a strategy to snatch as many human assets as possible in specific fields of study from the US and other Western countries and transplant them in Chinese institutions.

Perusing the web pages of Thousand Talents, one can see why US intelligence organizations such as the National Intelligence Council (NIC) have branded the strategy a long-term threat to national security.

There are several points of the program worth highlighting from a national security perspective.

First off, this program is not all that new. It first got traction among Chinese policymakers in 2008 under the name of the “Recruitment Program of Global Experts.” The goal of the program was to bolster the ranks of “state-owned commercial and financial institutions” with capable personnel from the West. This means that Thousand Talents has had quite a bit of time to promote itself and gather recruits. The program’s site claims that by 2014, more than 4180 overseas high-level talents were accepted.

Thousand Talents promises some great benefits to applicants willing to come and work in China. Upon acceptance, they are immediately given a one time stipend of up to one million yuan (about $153,000) in addition to research subsidies as high as five million yuan. To take care of their long-term needs in China, participants are entitled to “medical care, social insurance including pensions, medical insurance, and work-related injury insurance.” Additionally, each participant is granted Chinese residency along with their spouse and children. He or she is given a “residential apartment” for personal use.

The people at Thousand Talents have quite a diverse range of slots they’re trying to fill. The program has a total of six categories ranging from hard science experts to business management professionals.

One section seeks candidates with a Ph.D. in technical subjects from “prestigious overseas universities.”

The program for “entrepreneurship” is for recruiting those with “experience in starting a business overseas or serving as middle or senior-level manager in renowned international enterprises.”

The Innovative Talents Recruitment Program looks to fill positions in public infrastructure and other areas of “industrial development.”

Another facet of Thousand Talents doesn’t deal with technical fields at all, but rather in filling the void of “urgently needed professionals” in “liberal arts” and “social sciences” including political science and psychology. The program is also on the prowl for legal experts who specialized in “intellectual property,” “environment and resources protection,” and “international law.”

The most ambiguous but also the most telling section of Thousand Talents is its “Program for Topnotch Talents and Teams.” This category is geared toward “winners of important international awards, such as the Nobel Prize, the A.M. Turing Award” and prominent academics from “developed countries such as the United States, and the UK.”

It’s against this backdrop that one can derive the full meaning of FBI Director Chris Wray’s recent warning about China’s science-targeting espionage. “There's no country that's even close" when it comes to compromising vital assets, said Wray. China is not only stealing data, it is stealing brains as well.

This may seem rather bizarre to consider, but America will have to turn to corporate style head-hunting competition if it wants to stay ahead of this threat. Offering alternatives to Chinese talent programs in the US will likely be a necessity to keep operations like Thousand Talents from undermining America’s developmental edge.   

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