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Hunting the Phoenix

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The Chinese Communist Party’s global search for technology and talent

NOTE: 

In Policy Brief Report No. 35 ‘Hunting the Phoenix’ by Alex Joske and published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, reference was made to Professor Wenlong Cheng, Professor and Director of Research, Chemical Engineering at Monash University. The author and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute accept Professor Cheng’s indication that he did not accept nor derive any benefit from the Thousand Talents Plan, or been involved in or contributed to China's defence development. Further, the author and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute did not intend to imply that Professor Cheng had engaged in any discreditable conduct and if any reader understood the publication in that way, any such suggestion is withdrawn. The author and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute apologise to Professor Cheng for any hurt caused to him.

What’s the problem?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses talent-recruitment programs to gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means. According to official statistics, China’s talent-recruitment programs drew in almost 60,000 overseas professionals between 2008 and 2016. These efforts lack transparency; are widely associated with misconduct, intellectual property theft or espionage; contribute to the People’s Liberation Army’s modernisation; and facilitate human rights abuses.

They form a core part of the CCP’s efforts to build its own power by leveraging foreign technology and expertise. Over the long term, China’s recruitment of overseas talent could shift the balance of power between it and countries such as the US. Talent recruitment isn’t inherently problematic, but the scale, organisation and level of misconduct associated with CCP talent-recruitment programs sets them apart from efforts by other countries. These concerns underline the need for governments to do more to recognise and respond to CCP talent-recruitment activities.

The mechanisms of CCP talent recruitment are poorly understood. They’re much broader than the Thousand Talents Plan—the best known among more than 200 CCP talent-recruitment programs. Domestically, they involve creating favourable conditions for overseas scientists, regardless of ethnicity, to work in China.1 Those efforts are sometimes described by official sources as ‘building nests to attract phoenixes’.2

This report focuses on overseas talent-recruitment operations—how the CCP goes abroad to hunt or lure phoenixes. It studies, for the first time, 600 ‘overseas talent-recruitment stations’ that recruit and gather information on scientists. Overseas organisations, often linked to the CCP’s united front system and overlapping with its political influence efforts, are paid to run most of the stations.3
 

What’s the solution?

Responses to CCP talent-recruitment programs should increase awareness and the transparency of the programs.

Governments should coordinate with like-minded partners, study CCP talent-recruitment activity, increase transparency on external funding in universities and establish research integrity offices that monitor such activities. They should introduce greater funding to support the retention of talent and technology.

Security agencies should investigate illegal behaviour tied to foreign talent-recruitment activity.

Funding agencies should require grant recipients to fully disclose any participation in foreign talent-recruitment programs, investigate potential grant fraud and ensure compliance with funding agreements.

Research institutions should audit the extent of staff participation in foreign talent-recruitment programs. They should act on cases of misconduct, including undeclared external commitments, grant fraud and violations of intellectual property policies. They should examine and update policies as necessary. University staff should be briefed on foreign talent-recruitment programs and disclosure requirements.
 

Introduction

The party and the state respect the choices of those studying abroad. If you choose to return to China to work, we will open our arms to warmly welcome you. If you stay abroad, we will support you serving the country through various means.

—Xi Jinping, 2013 speech at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Western Returned Scholars Association, which is run by the United Front Work Department.4

The CCP views technological development as fundamental to its ambitions. Its goal isn’t to achieve parity with other countries, but dominance and primacy. In 2018, General Secretary Xi Jinping urged the country’s scientists and engineers to ‘actively seize the commanding heights of technological competition and future development’.5 The Made in China 2025 industrial plan drew attention to the party’s long-held aspiration for self-sufficiency and indigenous innovation in core industries, in contrast to the more open and collaborative approach to science practised by democratic nations.6

The CCP treats talent recruitment as a form of technology transfer.7 Its efforts to influence and attract professionals are active globally and cover all developed nations. The Chinese Government claims that its talent-recruitment programs recruited as many as 60,000 overseas scientists and entrepreneurs between 2008 and 2016.8 The Chinese Government runs more than 200 talent-recruitment programs, of which the Thousand Talents Plan is only one (see Appendix 1).

The US is the main country targeted by these efforts and has been described by Chinese state media as ‘the largest “treasure trove” of technological talent’.9 In addition to the US, it’s likely that more than a thousand individuals have been recruited from each of the UK, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, France and Australia since 2008.10

Future ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre research will detail Chinese Government talent- recruitment efforts in Australia. Past reports have identified a handful of Australian participants in China’s talent-recruitment programs, including senior and well-funded scientists, and around a dozen CCP-linked organisations promoting talent-recruitment work and technology transfer to China.11 However, the scale of those activities is far greater than has been appreciated in Australia.

China’s prodigious recruitment of overseas scientists will be key to its ambition to dominate future technologies and modernise its military. Participants in talent-recruitment programs also appear to be disproportionately represented among overseas scientists collaborating with the Chinese military. Many recruits work on dual-use technologies at Chinese institutions that are closely linked to the People’s Liberation Army.

These activities often exploit the high-trust and open scientific communities of developed countries. In 2015, Xi Jinping told a gathering of overseas Chinese scholars that the party would ‘support you serving the country through various means’.12 As detailed in Bill Hannas, James Mulvenon and Anna Puglisi’s 2013 book Chinese industrial espionage, those ‘various means’ have often included theft, espionage, fraud and dishonesty.13 The CCP hasn’t attempted to limit those behaviours. In fact, cases of misconduct associated with talent programs have ballooned in recent years. The secrecy of the programs has only been increasing.

The CCPs’ talent-recruitment efforts cover a spectrum of activity, from legal and overt activity to illegal and covert work (Figure 1). Like other countries, China often recruits scientists through fair means and standard recruitment practices. It gains technology and expertise from abroad through accepted channels such as research collaboration, joint laboratories and overseas training. However, overt forms of exchange may disguise misconduct and illegal activity. Collaboration and joint laboratories can be used to hide undeclared conflicts of commitment, and recruitment programs can encourage misconduct. Participants in talent-recruitment programs may also be obliged to influence engagement between their home institution and China. The Chinese Government appears to have rewarded some scientists caught stealing technology through talent-recruitment programs. In some cases, Chinese intelligence officers may have been involved in talent recruitment. Illustrating the covert side of talent recruitment, this report discusses cases of espionage or misconduct associated with talent recruitment and how the Chinese military benefits from it (Appendix 2).

Figure 1: The spectrum of the CCP’s technology transfer efforts

Talent-recruitment work has been emphasised by China’s central government since the 1980s and has greatly expanded during the past two decades.14 In 2003, the CCP established central bodies to oversee talent development, including the Central Coordinating Group on Talent Work ( 中 央 人才工作协调小组), which is administered by the Central Committee’s Organisation Department and includes representation from roughly two dozen agencies.15  In 2008, the party established the national Overseas High-level Talent Recruitment Work Group (海外高层次人才引进工作小组) to oversee the Thousand Talents Plan (see box).16 Local governments around China also regularly hold recruitment events at which overseas scientists are signed up to talent-recruitment schemes and funding initiatives.17 This demonstrates how talent-recruitment efforts are a high priority for the CCP, transcending any particular bureaucracy and carried out from the centre down to county governments.

The Overseas High-level Talent Recruitment Work Group

The Overseas High-level Talent Recruitment Work Group was established in 2008 to oversee the implementation of the Thousand Talents Plan. It’s administered by the Central Committee’s Organisation Department, which plays a coordinating role in talent recruitment work carried out by government and party agencies. Its members include the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the People’s Bank of China, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Central Committee of the CCP, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Finance, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (now part of the UFWD), the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the National Natural Science Foundation, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (now part of the Ministry of Science and Technology), the Communist Youth League of China and the China Association for Science and Technology.18

To illustrate the international reach of CCP talent recruitment, the ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC) has created an original database of 600 overseas talent-recruitment stations. The operation of the stations is contracted out to organisations or individuals who are paid to recruit overseas scientists. They might not have a clear physical presence or might be co-located with the organisations contracted to run them (see box). This is a growing part of the CCP’s talent-recruitment infrastructure—providing on-the-ground support to the CCP’s efforts to identify and recruit experts from abroad—but it has never been analysed in detail before.

Features of overseas talent-recruitment stations

  • Overseas organisations or individuals contracted by the CCP to carry out talent-recruitment work
  • Often run by overseas united front groups
  • Tasked to collect information on and recruit overseas scientists
  • Promote scientific collaboration and exchanges with China
  • Organise trips by overseas scientists to China
  • Present across the developed world
  • May receive instructions to target individuals with access to particular technologies
  • Paid up to A$30,000 annually, plus bonus payments for each successful recruitment

The database was compiled using open-source online information from Chinese-language websites. Those sources included Chinese Government websites or media pages announcing the establishment of overseas recruitment stations and websites affiliated with overseas organisations running recruitment stations. We carried out keyword searches using various Chinese terms for talent-recruitment stations to identify their presence across the globe. An interactive version of the map of stations is in the online version of this report (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Overseas recruitment stations and their links back to China

Please click the map for the interactive database. Hover over data points for details on each recruitment station. Please note: stations are geo-located to City level (not street-level). 

Using examples and case studies of stations from around the world, this report also reveals the role of the united front system in talent-recruitment work. The united front system is a network of CCP-backed agencies and organisations working to expand the party’s United Front—a coalition of groups and individuals working towards the party’s goals. Many of those agencies and organisations run overseas recruitment stations. As detailed in the ASPI report The party speaks for you: foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party, the system is widely known for its involvement in political influence work, but its contributions to technology transfer have attracted little attention.

Why China’s talent-recruitment programs raise concerns

China’s talent-recruitment programs are unlike efforts by Western governments to attract scientific talent. As two scholars involved in advising the CCP on talent recruitment wrote in 2013, ‘The Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain.’19 The flow of talent from China is still largely in the direction of the US.20 However, research from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology found that the proportion of Chinese STEM PhD graduates of US universities intending to stay in the US has declined over the past two decades.21 In May 2020, the US Government announced new restrictions on visas for scientists linked to the Chinese military.22

The widespread misconduct associated with CCP talent-recruitment programs sets them apart from efforts by other nations. For example, an investigation by the Texas A&M University system found more than 100 staff linked to China’s talent programs, but only five disclosed it despite employees being required to do so.23 That level of misconduct hasn’t been reported in other countries’ talent-recruitment efforts. The absence of any serious attempt by the Chinese Government or its universities to discourage theft as part of its recruitment programs amounts to a tacit endorsement of the programs’ use to facilitate espionage, misconduct and non-transparent technology transfers.

The extent of misconduct by selectees suggests that this is enabled or encouraged by agencies overseeing the programs. Agencies at the centre of China’s talent recruitment efforts have themselves been directly involved in illegal activity. For example, an official from China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs was involved in stealing US missile technology through the recruitment of a US scientist (see Noshir Gowadia case in Appendix 2).24

Talent recruitment programs have been used to incentivise and reward economic espionage. For example, in 2013, Zhao Huajun (赵华军), was imprisoned in the US after stealing vials of a cancer research compound, which he allegedly used to apply for sponsorship there.25 A month after Zhao was released from prison, he was recruited by the Zhejiang Chinese Medicine University through the Qianjiang Scholars (钱江学者) program.26 In another case, a Coca-Cola scientist allegedly conspired with a Chinese company to secure talent-recruitment program funding on the basis of stolen trade secrets.27

Talent-recruitment programs are also tied to research commercialisation. Applicants to the Thousand Talents Plan have the option to join as ‘entrepreneurs’ rather than as scientists, supporting companies they have established in China.28 The Thousand Talents Plan is supported by the Thousand Talents Plan Venture Capital Center (千人计划创投中心), which runs competitions to pair participants with start-up funding.29

Commercial activity by talent-recruitment program participants isn’t always disclosed, which often breaches university policies on intellectual property and commercialisation. One recruit from an Australian university set up a laboratory and an artificial intelligence (AI) company in China that later received funding linked to the Thousand Talents Plan Venture Capital Center, but reportedly didn’t disclose that to his Australian university, against existing university policies. The company later supplied surveillance technology to authorities in Xinjiang.30

US investigations of participants in talent-recruitment programs have led to an increase in the programs’ secrecy, rather than reforms to make them more transparent and accountable. In September 2018, the Chinese Government began removing references to the Thousand Talents Plan from the internet and ordering organisations to use more covert methods of recruitment.31 A leaked directive told those carrying out recruitment work for the plan to not use email when inviting potential recruits to China for interviews, and instead make contact by phone or fax under the guise of inviting them to a conference (Figure 3). ‘Written notices should not contain the words “Thousand Talents Plan”’, the document states. In 2018, the official website of the Thousand Talents Plan removed all news articles about the program, before going offline in 2020.32

Figure 3: A leaked notice from September 2018 ordering organisations to use more covert methods of recruiting Thousand Talents Plan participants

Highlighted text: ‘In order to further improve work guaranteeing the safety of overseas talent, work units should not use emails, and instead use phone or fax, when carrying out the interview process. [Candidates] should be notified under the name of inviting them to return to China to participate in an academic conference or forum. Written notices should not include the words “Thousand Talents Plan”.’

Source: ‘被美國盯上 傳中國引進人才不再提千人計畫’ [Targeted by the US, it’s rumoured that China will no longer mention the 1,000 Talent Plan], CNA.com, 5 October 2018, online.

CCP technology-transfer efforts are often flexible and encourage individuals to find ways to serve from overseas. Participants in the Thousand Talents Plan, for example, have the option to enter a ‘short-term’ version of the program that requires them to spend only two months in China each year.33 Some selectees establish joint laboratories between their home institutions and their Chinese employers, which could be a way to disguise conflicts of commitment where they have agreed to spend time working for both institutions.34 ‘This enables them to maintain multiple appointments at once, which may not be fully disclosed. This may mean that they’re effectively using time, resources and facilities paid for by their home institutions to benefit Chinese institutions.

Without residing in China, scientists can support collaboration with Chinese institutions, receive visiting Chinese scholars and students and align their research with China’s priorities. Steven X Ding (丁先春), a professor at the University of Duisburg in Germany who has also been affiliated with Tianjin University, was quoted describing this mentality when he worked as vice president of the University of Applied Science Lausitz:35

I manage scientific research at the university, which has more than 100 projects supervised by me—this is a ‘group advantage’. I can serve as a bridge between China and Germany for technological exchange … and I can make greater contributions than if I returned to China on my own. Foreign countries aren’t just advanced in their technologies, but also their management is more outstanding. Being in Germany I can introduce advanced technologies to China, assist communication, exchange and cooperation, and play a role as a window and a bridge [between China and Germany].36

The CCP’s talent-recruitment activities are also notable for their strategic implications. The deepening of ‘military–civil fusion’ (a CCP policy of leveraging the civilian sector to maximise military power) means that China’s research institutes and universities are increasingly involved in classified defence research, including the development of nuclear weapons.37 Chinese companies and universities are also working directly with public security agencies to support the oppression and surveillance of minorities through their development and production of surveillance technologies.38  Participants in talent-recruitment programs also appear to be disproportionately represented among overseas scientists collaborating with the Chinese military.39 Recruitment work by the People’s Liberation Army and state-owned defence conglomerates is described later in this report.

These structures behind talent-recruitment activity and their links to national initiatives show how it’s backed by the party’s leaders and high-level agencies and has clear objectives. This contradicts the theory that China employs a ‘thousand grains of sand’ approach to intelligence gathering or economic espionage, relying on uncoordinated waves of amateur ethnic-Chinese collectors to hoover up technology.40 Indeed, what may be one of the most egregious charges of misconduct related to a talent-recruitment program involves Harvard Professor Charles Lieber, a nanotechnologist with no Chinese heritage, who was arrested in 2020 for allegedly failing to disclose a US$50,000 monthly salary he received from a Chinese university as part of the Thousand Talents Plan.41 As shown by the case of Zheng Xiaoqing, who allegedly stole jet turbine technology from GE Aviation while joining the Thousand Talents Plan as part of a Jiangsu State Security Department operation, talent recruitment can at times involve professional intelligence officers (see Appendix 2).

In 2012, Peter Mattis, an expert on CCP intelligence activity, wrote that ‘The “grains of sand” concept focuses analytic attention on the [counter-intelligence] risk individuals pose rather than on government intelligence services.’42 In the case of talent-recruitment programs, interpreting them through the lens of a ‘grains of sand’ model would place greater emphasis on individuals involved in the programs while neglecting the mechanisms of talent recruitment activity used by the CCP. Talent-recruitment efforts are carried out with heavy involvement from the united front system and dedicated agencies such as the Ministry of Science and Technology’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.43

It isn’t an ethnic program with individual actors at its core—it’s a CCP program leveraging incentives as well as organised recruitment activity—yet it’s often framed by the party as serving the country’s ethno-nationalist rejuvenation.44

Recognising these features of CCP technology-transfer activity—such as its central and strategic guidance, implementation across various levels of the Chinese Government, high-rate of misconduct and reliance on overseas recruitment mechanisms—should be fundamental to any responses to the activity.45 Poorly executed, and sometimes misguided, attempts at investigating and prosecuting suspected cases of industrial espionage have helped build an image of both the problem and enforcement actions as being driven by racial factors rather than state direction.46

Talent-recruitment stations

Chinese Government and Party agencies from the national to the district level have established hundreds of ‘overseas talent recruitment workstations’ in countries with high-quality talent, cutting-edge industries and advanced technology.47 The stations are established in alignment with central guidance on talent-recruitment work and also adapt to the needs of the various Chinese Government organs establishing them. They’re run by overseas organisations, such as community associations, and are a key part of the CCP’s little-understood talent-recruitment infrastructure.

The stations work on behalf of the Chinese Government to spot and pursue talent abroad. Their importance is reflected in the fact that research for this report has uncovered 600 stations spread across technologically advanced countries (Figure 4).48 The increasingly covert nature of talent recruitment efforts means on-the-ground measures such as talent-recruitment stations should become more important.

The highest number of stations (146) was found in the United States. However, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, France and Singapore also each had many stations. This underscores the global reach of China’s talent-recruitment efforts and the high level of recruitment activity in those countries.

Figure 4: The top 10 countries hosting identified talent-recruitment stations

The stations often don’t have dedicated offices or staff. Instead, they’re contracted to local professional, community, student and business organisations, such as the Federation of Chinese Professionals in Europe.49 Such organisations already have established links inside Chinese communities and receive payments in return for spotting and recruiting talent, promoting research collaboration and hosting official delegations from China. The organisations are often linked to the CCP’s united front system and may be involved in mobilising their members to serve the party’s goals—whether cultural, political or technological. In at least two cases, talent-recruitment stations have been linked to alleged economic espionage.

Talent-recruitment stations have been established since at least 2006, and the number has grown substantially since 2015.50 The recent expansion may be related to policies associated with the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020) that advocated strengthening talent-recruitment work ‘centred on important national needs’.51 Of the 600 stations identified in this report, more than 115 were established in 2018 alone (Figure 5).52

Figure 5: Talent recruitment stations established each year, 2008 to 2018

Note: Only stations with verified establishment dates are included.

Politics and talent recruitment intersecting in Canada

In July 2016, the Fujian Provincial Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, part of the united front system, sent representatives, including its director (pictured first from left in Figure 6), around the world to establish talent-recruitment stations.53 Four were established in Canada. John McCallum, a Canadian politician who resigned as ambassador to China in 2019 after urging the government to release Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, was pictured (second from right) at the opening of a station run by the Min Business Association of Canada (加拿大闽商总会).54 The association’s chairman, Wei Chengyi (魏成义, first from right), is a member of several organisations run by the UFWD in China and has been accused of running a lobbying group for the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.55

Figure 6: The opening ceremony

Source: ‘Fujian Overseas Chinese Affairs Office’s first batch of four overseas talent recruitment sites landed in Canada’, fjsen.com, 21 July 2016, online.

We obtained several talent-recruitment station contracts, contract templates and regulations that shine a light on the stations’ operations (Figure 7). They reveal that organisations hosting stations are paid an operating fee, receive bonuses for every individual they recruit and are often required to recruit a minimum number of people each year. Those organisations are also collecting data on foreign scientists and research projects. They organise talent-recruitment events, host and arrange visiting Chinese Government delegations and prepare trips to China for prospective recruits.56

Figure 7: A talent recruitment contract signed between the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau of Qingrong District in Chengdu and a Sino-German talent-exchange association

Source: ‘About this overseas talent workstation’, German-Chinese Senior Talent Exchange and Economic and Trade Cooperation Promotion Association, 12 July 2017, online.

Organisations running recruitment stations can receive as much as ¥200,000 (A$40,000) for each individual they recruit. In addition, they’re paid as much as ¥150,000 (A$30,000) a year for general operating costs.57

CCP talent-recruitment agencies gather large amounts of data on overseas scientists, and overseas talent-recruitment stations may be involved in this information-gathering work. Domestically, the Thousand Talents Think Tank (千人智库), which is affiliated with the UFWD, claims to hold data on 12 million overseas scientists, including 2.2 million ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers.58 In 2017, a Chinese think tank produced a database of 6.5 million scientists around the world, including 440,000 AI scientists, as a ‘treasure map’ for China’s development of AI technology and a resource for talent recruitment.59 Abroad, recruitment stations set up by Tianjin City are instructed to ‘grasp information on over 100 high-level talents and an equivalent amount of innovation projects’.60 Qingdao City’s overseas stations are required to collect and annually update data on at least 50 individuals at the level of ‘associate professor, researcher or company manager’ or higher.61 The Zhuhai City Association for Science and Technology tasks its overseas stations with ‘collecting information on overseas science and technology talents, technologies and projects through various channels’.62

Information about overseas technologies and scientists is used for targeted recruitment work that reflects the technological needs of Chinese institutions. For example, Shandong University’s overseas recruitment stations recommend experts ‘on the basis of the university’s needs for development, gradually building a talent database and recommending high-level talents or teams to the university in targeted way’.63 The Guangzhou Development Zone ‘fully takes advantage of talent databases held by their overseas talent workstations … attracting talents to the zone for innovation and entrepreneurship through exchange events and talks’.64

However, the 600 stations identified in this report are probably only a portion of the total number of stations established by the CCP. The real number may be several hundred greater. For example, we identified 90 stations established by the Jiangsu Provincial Government or local governments in the province, yet in 2017 the province’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office—only one of many agencies in the province establishing overseas recruitment stations—stated that it had already established 121 stations.65

One hundred and seventy-one identified stations were established by united front agencies such as overseas Chinese affairs offices. For many other stations, it’s unclear which part of the bureaucracy established them, so the real number of stations established by the united front system is probably much greater. Similarly, the Qingdao UFWD describes how the city’s Organisation Department produced regulations on overseas talent-recruitment stations and the UFWD advised on their implementation and encouraged united front system agencies to carry them out.66 Universities, party organisation departments, state human resources and social affairs bureaus, state-backed scientific associations and foreign experts affairs bureaus also establish overseas-recruitment stations. None of them is an intelligence agency, but the networks and collection requirements of stations mean they could benefit China’s intelligence agencies.

Overseas talent-recruitment stations are typically run by local organisations, which are contracted to operate them for a period of several years. The local groups include hometown associations, business associations, professional organisations, alumni associations, technology-transfer and education companies and Chinese students and scholars associations (CSSAs) (see box). Local host organisations have often been established with support from, or built close relationships with, agencies such as China’s State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs and the UFWD.67 Overseas operations of Chinese companies reportedly also host talent-recruitment stations.68 In one case, a station was reportedly established in the University College Dublin Confucius Institute.69

Chinese students and scholars associations involved in running talent recruitment stations

  • US: Greater New York Fujian Students and Scholars Association, University of Washington CSSA, North American Chinese Student Association, UC Davis CSSA
  • Australia: Victoria CSSA, Western Australia CSSA, New South Wales CSSA
  • UK: United Kingdom CSSA
  • Switzerland: Geneva CSSA
  • Italy: Chinese Students and Scholars Union in Italy
  • Czech Republic: Czech CSSA
  • Ireland: CSSA Ireland
  • Hungary: All-Hungary CSSA

Provincial, municipal and district governments are responsible for most talent recruitment, yet their activities are rarely discussed. Qingdao city alone claims that it recruited 1,500 people through its recruitment stations between 2009 and 2014.70 Out of 600 recruitment stations identified in this research, only 20 were established by national organisations, such as the UFWD’s Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA) and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

Similarly, over 80% of talent-recruitment programs are run at the subnational level and may attract as many as seven times as many scientists as the national programs. Between 2008 and 2016, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security determined that roughly 53,900 scholars had been recruited from abroad by local governments. More than 7,000 scholars were recruited through the Thousand Talents Plan and Hundred Talents Plan (another national talent-recruitment program) over the same period.71

Case study: Zhejiang’s recruitment work in the United Kingdom

A 2018 CCP report on Zhejiang Province’s overseas talent-recruitment work mentioned that it had established 31 overseas recruitment stations. According to the report, Brunel University Professor Zhao Hua (赵华) from the UK is one of the scientists recruited through their efforts.72 Zhao is an expert in internal combustion engines who was recruited to Zhejiang Painier Technology (浙江 派尼尔科技公司), which produces ‘military and civilian-use high-powered outboard engines’.73

The partnership between Zhao and Zhejiang Painier Technology was formed with the help of a talent-recruitment station and reportedly attracted Ұ300 million (A$60 million) in investment.74 The Zhejiang UK Association (英国浙江联谊会) runs as many as four talent-recruitment stations and has recruited more than 100 experts for Zhejiang Province or cities in the province.75 They include a station for Jinhua, the city where Zhejiang Painier Technology is based, so it could have been the organisation that recruited Professor Zhao.76

The Zhejiang UK Association’s founding president is Lady Bates (or Li Xuelin, 李雪琳), the wife of Lord Bates, Minister of State for International Development from 2016 until January 2019.77 Accompanied by her husband, Lady Bates represented the association at the establishment of a recruitment station for Zhejiang Province’s Jinhua city in 2013 (Figure 8).78 She was a non-voting delegate to the peak meeting place of the CCP-led United Front—the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—and is a member of the UFWD-run China Overseas Friendship Association.79

Figure 8: Lord (first row, second from right) and Lady Bates (first row, centre)

Source: ‘英国浙江联谊会再次携手浙江——与金华市政府签署设立金华英国工作站协议’ [British Zhejiang Friendship Association joins hands with Zhejiang again—Signed an agreement with Jinhua Municipal Government for the establishment of Jinhua UK Workstation], ZJUKA, no date, online.

Counsellor Li Hui (李辉), a senior united front official from the Chinese Embassy in London, praised the association at the station’s founding.80 In particular, he noted Lady Bates’s use of her personal connections to arrange for the signing ceremony to be held in the Palace of Westminster.81

Talent-recruitment stations help arrange visits by Chinese delegations. For example, the Australian alumni association of Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU) became a recruitment station for the university and Xi’an City, where the university is located, in 2018.82 It arranged meetings between NWPU representatives and leading Australian-Chinese scientists and helped the university sign partnerships with them. Within a month, it claimed to have introduced five professors from universities in Melbourne to NWPU, although it’s unclear how many of them were eventually recruited by the university.83 NWPU specialises in aviation, space and naval technology as one of China’s ‘Seven Sons of National Defence’—the country’s leading defence universities.84 It’s been implicated in an effort to illegally export equipment for antisubmarine warfare from the US.85

Overseas talent-recruitment organisations also run competitions and recruitment events for the Chinese Government. For example, in 2017, the UFWD’s WRSA held competitions around the world, including in Paris, Sydney, London and San Francisco, in which scientists pitched projects in the hope of receiving funding from and appointments in China. The events were held with the help of 29 European, Singaporean, Japanese, Australian and North American united front groups for scientists.86 Organisations including the University of Technology Sydney CSSA and the Federation of Chinese Scholars in Australia (全澳华人专家学者联合会)—a peak body for Chinese-Australian professional associations that was set up under the Chinese Embassy’s guidance—have partnered with the Chinese Government to hold recruitment competitions tied to the Thousand Talents Plan.87 As described below, CSSAs have run recruitment events for Chinese military institutions and state-owned defence companies.

Talent recruitment in Japan

The All-Japan Federation of Overseas Chinese Professionals (中国留日同学会) is the leading united front group for ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers in Japan. It describes itself as having been established in 1998 under the direction of the UFWD and the UFWD’s WRSA, which is a dedicated body used by the department to interact with and influence scholars with overseas connections.88

Every president of the federation has also served as a council member of the WRSA or the China Overseas Friendship Association, which is another UFWD-run body.89 It runs at least eight talent-recruitment stations—organising talent-recruitment events in Japan and bringing scientists to talent-recruitment expos in China—and reportedly recruited 30 scientists for Fujian Province alone.90 Despite its involvement in the CCP’s technology-transfer efforts, it has partnered with the Japan Science and Technology Agency to run events.91 Former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio (鸠山由纪夫) attended the opening of a WRSA overseas liaison workstation run by the group—the first established by the WRSA (Figure 9).92

Figure 9: Former Japanese prime minister Hatoyama Yukio at the opening of a WRSA workstation

While raw numbers of recruited scientists are occasionally published, specific examples of scientists recruited by individual stations are difficult to find. In 2018, Weihai, a city in Shandong Province, released the names of 25 scientists recruited through stations in Japan and Eastern Europe.93 Among the recruits were medical researchers and AI specialists, including a Ukrainian scientist specialising in unmanned aerial vehicles who was recruited by Harbin Institute of Technology—one of China’s leading defence research universities.94

Case study: The Changzhou UFWD’s overseas network

The UFWD of Changzhou, a city between Shanghai and Nanjing, has established talent-recruitment stations around the world. The UFWD set up the stations alongside its establishment of hometown associations for ethnic Chinese in foreign countries. This illustrates the united front system’s integration of technology-transfer efforts and political and community influence work.

In October 2014, a delegation led by the Changzhou UFWD head Zhang Yue (张跃) travelled to Birmingham to oversee the founding of the UK Changzhou Association (英国常州联谊会). Zhang and the president of the UK Promotion of China Re-unification Society (全英华人华侨中国统一促进会) were appointed as the association’s honorary presidents.95 A united front official posted to the PRC Embassy in London also attended the event.96

The association immediately became an overseas talent-recruitment station for Changzhou and a branch of the Changzhou Overseas Friendship Association, which is headed by a leader of the Changzhou UFWD.97 According to a CCP media outlet, the association ‘is a window for external propaganda for Changzhou and a platform for talent recruitment’ (Figure 10).98

Figure 10: A plaque awarded by the Changzhou City Talent Work Leading Small Group Office to its ‘UK talent recruitment and knowledge introduction workstation’ in 2014

Three days later, the Changzhou UFWD delegation appeared in Paris for the founding of the France Changzhou Association (法国常州联谊会). Again, the Changzhou UFWD head was made honorary president and the association became a talent-recruitment station and a branch of the Changzhou Overseas Friendship Association. CCP media described it as ‘the second overseas work platform established by Changzhou’ under the leadership of Changzhou’s Overseas Chinese Federation, which is a united front agency.99

As detailed in a report published by the province’s overseas Chinese federation, these activities were part of the Changzhou united front system’s strategy of ‘actively guiding the construction of foreign overseas Chinese associations’.100 By 2018, when the report was published, the city had established associations in Australia, Canada, Singapore, the US and Hong Kong and was in the middle of establishing one in Macau. The founding of the Australian association was attended by a senior Changzhou UFWD official, Victorian Legislative Assembly member Hong Lim and Australian Chinese-language media mogul Tommy Jiang (姜兆庆).101

Economic espionage

The following two case studies demonstrate how talent-recruitment stations and their hosting organisations have been implicated in economic espionage and are often closely linked to the CCP’s united front system.

Case study: Cao Guangzhi

In March 2019, Tesla sued its former employee Cao Guangzhi (曹光植, Figure 11), alleging that he stole source code for its Autopilot features before taking it to a rival start-up, China’s Xiaopeng Motors.102

In July, he admitted to uploading the source code to his iCloud account but denies stealing any information.103 Tesla calls Autopilot the ‘crown jewel’ of its intellectual property portfolio and claims to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over five years to develop it.104 Additional research on the subject of this ongoing legal case shows a pattern of cooperation between Cao and the CCP’s united front system on talent-recruitment work dating back to nearly a decade before the lawsuit.

Figure 11: Cao Guangzhi (far left) with other co-founders of the Association of Wenzhou PhDs USA

Source: ‘全美温州博士协会 “藏龙卧虎”,有古根海姆奖得主、苹果谷歌工程师···’ [The ‘Hidden Dragon and Crouching Tiger’ of the Wenzhou Doctors Association of the US; there are Guggenheim Award winners, Apple Google engineers...], WZRB, 14 April 2017, online.

When Cao submitted his doctoral thesis to Purdue University in 2009, he and three friends established the Association of Wenzhou PhDs USA (全美温州博士协会).105 All four hail from Wenzhou, a city south of Shanghai known for the hundreds of renowned mathematicians who were born there.106 From its inception, the association has worked closely with the PRC Government. A report from Wenzhou’s local newspaper claims that the Wenzhou Science and Technology Bureau, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and Overseas Chinese Federation gave the group a list of US-based PhD students and graduates from the town, whom they then recruited as members.107 The head of the Wenzhou UFWD praised the association during a 2010 trip to America as ‘the first of its kind and highly significant’.108

The Association of Wenzhou PhDs USA carries out talent recruitment on behalf of the CCP. The year after its establishment, it signed an agreement with the UFWD of a county in Wenzhou to run a talent-recruitment station that gathers information on overseas scientists and carries out recruitment work.109 That year, it also arranged for 13 of its members to visit Wenzhou for meetings with talent-recruitment officials from organisations such as the local foreign experts affairs bureau 110 and with representatives of local companies. Several of the members also brought their research with them, presenting technologies such as a multispectral imaging tool.111

Within a few years of its founding, the association had built up a small but elite group of more than 100 members. By 2017, its members reportedly included Lin Jianhai (林建海), the Wenzhou-born secretary of the International Monetary Fund; engineers from Google, Apple, Amazon, Motorola and IBM; scholars at Harvard and Yale; and six US government employees.112 At least one of its members became a Zhejiang Province Thousand Talents Plan scholar through the group’s recommendation.113 It also helped Wenzhou University recruit a materials scientist from the US Government’s Argonne National Laboratory.114

Case study: Yang Chunlai

The case of Yang Chunlai (杨春来) offers a window into the overlap of the united front system and economic espionage. Yang was a computer programmer at CME Group, which manages derivatives and futures exchanges such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Employed at CME Group since 2000, he was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in July 2011.115 In 2015, he pleaded guilty to trade secrets theft for stealing CME Group source code in a scheme to set up a futures exchange company in China. He was sentenced to four years’ probation.116

Before his arrest, Yang played a central role in a united front group that promotes talent recruitment by, and technology transfer to, China: the Association of Chinese-American Scientists and Engineers (ACSE, 旅美中国科学家工程师专业人士协会). From 2005 to 2007 he was the group’s president, and then its chairman to 2009.117

ACSE is one of several hundred groups for ethnic Chinese professionals that are closely linked to the CCP.118 ACSE and its leaders frequently met with PRC officials, particularly those from united front agencies such as the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO),119 the CPPCC and the All-Chinese Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese. At one event, the future director of the OCAO, Xu Yousheng (许又声), told ACSE:

There are many ways to serve the nation; you don’t have to return to China and start an enterprise. You can also return to China to teach or introduce advanced foreign technology and experience—this is a very good way to serve China.120

Yang was appointed to the OCAO’s expert advisory committee in 2008.121 In 2010, he also spoke about ACSE’s close relationship with the UFWD-run WRSA.122

Further illustrating these linkages, Yang visited Beijing for a ‘young overseas Chinese leaders’ training course run by the OCAO in May 2006. Speaking to the People’s Daily during the course, Yang said, ‘It’s not that those who stay abroad don’t love China; it’s the opposite. The longer one stays in foreign lands, the greater one’s understanding of the depth of homesickness.’123 Yang also spoke of the sensitivity of source code used by companies, work on which doesn’t get outsourced. However, he hinted at his eventual theft of code by saying: ‘Of course, even with things the way they are, everyone is still looking for suitable entrepreneurial opportunities to return to China’.124

In 2009, an ‘entrepreneurial opportunity’ may have presented itself when ACSE hosted a talent-recruitment event by a delegation from the city of Zhangjiagang (张家港).125 At the event, which Yang attended (Figure 12), ACSE signed a cooperation agreement with Zhangjiagang to ‘jointly build a Sino-US exchange platform and contribute to the development of the homeland’—potentially indicating the establishment of a talent-recruitment station or a similar arrangement.126

Figure 12: Yang Chunlai (rear, second from right) at the signing ceremony for ACSE’s partnership with Zhangjiagang

Yang later wrote a letter to the OCAO proposing the establishment of an electronic trading company led by him in Zhangjiagang and asking for the office’s support.127 In mid-2010, he emailed CME Group trade secrets to officials in Zhangjiagang and started setting up a company in China. By December, he began surreptitiously downloading source code from CME Group onto a removable hard drive.128 

Yang’s relationship with the OCAO probably facilitated and encouraged his attempt to steal trade secrets in order to establish a Chinese company that, according to his plea deal, would have become ‘a transfer station to China for advanced technologies companies around the world’.129

Yang’s activities appeared to go beyond promoting technology transfer; there are indications that he was also involved in political influence work. This reflects the united front system’s involvement in both technology transfer and political interference. At a 2007 OCAO-organised conference in Beijing, Yang said that he had been encouraged by CPPCC Vice Chairman and Zhi Gong Party Chairman Luo Haocai to actively participate in politics, which he described as ‘a whip telling overseas Chinese to integrate into mainstream society’. He added, ‘I estimate that [ACSE] can influence 500 votes’ in the 2008 US presidential election.130 Yang also befriended politicians, including one senator, who wrote a letter to the judge testifying to Yang’s good character.131 In his OCAO conference speech, he highlighted the appointment of Elaine Chao as US Secretary of Labor and her attendance at ACSE events.132

Talent recruitment and the Chinese military

Talent recruitment is also being directly carried out by the Chinese military. For example, the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT, the People’s Liberation Army’s premier science and technology university) has recruited at least four professors from abroad, including one University of New South Wales supercomputer expert, using the Thousand Talents Plan.133

Outside of formal talent-recruitment programs, NUDT has given guest professorships to numerous overseas scientists, For instance, Gao Wei (高唯), an expert in materials science at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, was awarded a distinguished guest professorship at NUDT in May 2014.134

Gao is closely involved in CCP talent-recruitment efforts. In 2016, he joined Chengdu University as a selectee of the Sichuan Provincial Thousand Talents Plan.135 Just a month before joining NUDT, he signed a partnership with the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs as president of the New Zealand Chinese Scientists Association (新西兰华人科学家协会).136 In 2018, the association agreed to run a talent-recruitment station for an industrial park in Shenzhen.137 He has reportedly served as a member of the overseas expert advisory committee to the united front system’s OCAO.138 In 2017, at one of the OCAO’s events, Gao expressed his desire to commercialise his research in China and said that ‘even though our bodies are overseas, we really wish to make our own contributions to [China’s] development’.139

The military’s recruitment of scientists is supported by the same network of overseas recruitment stations and CCP-linked organisations that are active in talent-recruitment work more generally.

Chinese military recruitment delegations have travelled around the world and worked with local united front groups to hold recruitment sessions. In 2014, the New South Wales Chinese Students and Scholars Association (NSW-CSSA, 新南威尔士州中国学生学者联谊会) held an overseas talent-recruitment event for NUDT and several military-linked civilian universities.140 The NSW-CSSA is a peak body for CSSAs and holds its annual general meetings in the Chinese Consulate in the presence of Chinese diplomats.141 In 2013, NUDT held a recruitment session in Zürich organised by the Chinese Association of Science and Technology in Switzerland (瑞士中国学人科技协会).142 A similar event was held in Madrid in 2016.143

The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), which runs the military’s nuclear weapons program, is particularly active in recruiting overseas experts. By 2014, CAEP had recruited 57 scientists through the Thousand Talents Plan.144 It runs the Center for High Pressure Science and Technology Advanced Research in Beijing in part as a platform for recruiting overseas talent. The institute doesn’t mention its affiliation with CAEP on its English-language website, yet it’s run by a Taiwanese-American scientist who joined CAEP through the Thousand Talents Plan.145 So many scientists from the US’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (a nuclear weapons research facility) have been recruited to Chinese institutions that they’re reportedly known as the ‘Los Alamos club’.146

CAEP also holds overseas recruitment events. At a 2018 event in the UK, a CAEP representative noted the organisation’s intention to gain technology through talent recruitment, saying ‘our academy hopes that overseas students will bring some advanced technologies back, and join us to carry out research projects.’147

Chinese state-owned defence conglomerates are engaged in the same activities. China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), which specialises in developing military electronics, has been building its presence in Austria, where it opened the company’s European headquarters in 2016 and runs a joint laboratory with Graz University of Technology.148 As part of its expansion, it held a meeting of the European Overseas High-level Talent Association (欧洲海外高层次人才联谊会) in 2017 that was attended by dozens of scientists from across Europe. Later that year, CETC reportedly held similar meetings and recruitment sessions in Silicon Valley and Boston.149 In 2013, the head of CETC’s 38th Research Institute, which specialises in military-use electronics such as radar systems, visited Australia and met with a local united front group for scientists.150 Several members of the group from the University of Technology Sydney attended the meeting, and two years later the university signed a controversial $10 million partnership with CETC on technologies such as AI and big data.151

The Chinese Government’s primary manufacturer of ballistic missiles and satellites, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, has held recruitment sessions in the US and UK through the help of local CSSAs.152

In addition to traditional defence institutions (military institutes and defence companies), China’s civilian universities are increasingly involved in defence research and have also recruited large numbers of overseas scientists. ASPI ICPC’s China Defence Universities Tracker has catalogued and analysed the implementation of military–civil fusion in the university sector.153 The policy of military–civil fusion has led to the establishment of more than 160 defence laboratories in Chinese universities, and such defence links are particularly common among leading Chinese universities that attract the greatest share of talent-recruitment program participants.154 Many recruits end up working in defence laboratories or on defence projects.155

Recommendations

The CCP’s use of talent-recruitment activity as a conduit for non-transparent technology transfer presents a substantial challenge to governments and research institutions. Many of those activities fly under the radar of traditional counterintelligence work, yet they can develop into espionage, interference and illegal or unethical behaviour.

While this phenomenon may still be poorly understood by many governments and universities, it can often be addressed by better enforcement of existing regulations. Much of the misconduct associated with talent-recruitment programs breaches existing laws, contracts and institutional policies. The fact that it nonetheless occurs at high levels points to a failure of compliance and enforcement mechanisms across research institutions and relevant government agencies. Governments and research institutions should therefore emphasise the need to build an understanding of CCP talent-recruitment work. They must also ensure that they enforce existing policies, while updating them as necessary. This report recommends the introduction of new policies to promote transparency and accountability and help manage conflicts of interest.

For governments

We recommend that governments around the world pursue the following measures:

  1. Task appropriate agencies to carry out a study of the extent and mechanisms of CCP talent-recruitment work, including any related misconduct, in their country.
  2. Ensure that law enforcement and security agencies are resourced and encouraged to investigate and act on related cases of theft, fraud and espionage.
  3. Explicitly prohibit government employees from joining foreign talent-recruitment programs.
  4. Introduce clear disclosure requirements for foreign funding and appointments of recipients of government-funded grants and assessors of grant applications.
  5. Ensure that funding agencies have effective mechanisms and resources to investigate compliance with grant agreements.
  6. Ensure that recipients of government research funding are required to disclose relevant staff participation in foreign talent-recruitment programs.
  7. Establish a public online database of all external funding received by public universities and their employees and require universities to submit and update data.
  8. Establish a national research integrity office that oversees publicly funded research institutions, produces reports for the government and public on research integrity issues, manages the public database of external funding in universities, and carries out investigations into research integrity.
  9. Brief universities and other research institutions about CCP talent-recruitment programs and any relevant government policies.
  10. Develop recommendations for universities and other research institutions to tackle talent-recruitment activity. This can draw on the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector developed by a joint government and university sector taskforce on foreign interference.156
  11. Create an annual meeting of education, science and industry ministers from like-minded countries to deepen research collaboration within alliances, beyond existing military and intelligence research partnerships, and coordinate on issues such as technology and research security.
  12. Increase funding for the university sector and priority research areas, such as artificial intelligence, quantum science and energy storage, perhaps as part of the cooperation proposed above.
  13. Develop national strategies to commercialise research and build talent.

For research institutions

We recommend that research institutions such as universities pursue the following measures:

  1. Carry out a comprehensive and independent audit of participation in CCP talent-recruitment programs by staff.
  2. Ensure that there’s sufficient resourcing to implement and ensure compliance with policies on conflicts of interest, commercialisation, integrity and intellectual property.
  3. Fully investigate cases of fraud, misconduct or nondisclosure. These investigations should determine why existing systems failed to prevent misconduct and then discuss the findings with relevant government agencies.
  4. In conjunction with the government, brief staff on relevant policies on and precautions against CCP talent-recruitment programs.
  5. Strengthen existing staff travel databases to automatically flag conflicts with grant commitments and contracts.
  6. Update policies on intellectual property, commercialisation, research integrity, conflicts of interest and external appointments where necessary.

Participants in CCP talent-recruitment programs should be required to submit their contracts with the foreign institution (both English and Chinese versions) and fully disclose any remuneration.

Appendix

Two appendices accompany this report:

  • Appendix 1: Selected Chinese government talent-recruitment programs
  • Appendix 2: Cases and alleged cases of espionage, fraud and misconduct

Readers are encouraged to download the report to access the appendices.

ADF

Australian Defence Force

ACSC

Australian Cyber Security Centre

IEC

the International Electrotechnical Commission

IEEE

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

IoT

Internet of Things

IoTAA

Internet of Things Alliance Australia

ISO

International Organisation for Standardization

USB

universal serial bus

IIOT

Industrial Internet of Things

ASD

Australian Signals Directorate

CCP

Chinese Communist Party

MERICS

Mercator Institute for China Studies

PRC

Peoples Republic of China

VPN

virtual private network

AI

Artificial Intelligence

SCS

Social Credit System

BRI

One Belt, One Road initiative

CETC

China Electronics Technology Group Corporation

NGO

nongovernment organisation

RFID

radio-frequency identification

CFIUS

Committee on Foreign Investment in the US

SVAIL

Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

UTS

University of Technology Sydney

ATO

Australian Taxation Office

COAG

Council of Australian Governments

DHS

Department of Human Services

DTA

Digital Transformation Agency

FIS

Face Identification Service

FVS

Face Verification Service

TDIF

Trusted Digital Identity Framework

NUDT

National University of Defense Technology

PLAIEU

PLA Information Engineering University

RFEU

Rocket Force Engineering University

STEM

science, technology, engineering and mathematics

UNSW

University of New South Wales

ZISTI

Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute

AFP

Australian Federal Police

ACIC

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission

NATO

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation