DoJ Continues to Target China’s Thousand Talents Program in U.S.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) continues to use every arrow in its prosecutorial quiver to go after those participants who are exposing and sharing U.S. research and technologies to China via the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Thousand Talents Program.

The Thousand Talents Program, also referred to as the Thousand Talents Plan, was created to identify and recruit leading experts around the globe to bring their knowledge back to China. While the program primarily targets ethnic Chinese, it has also recruited a small number of non-Chinese individuals.

The U.S. Senate in its November 2019 report, “Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans,” characterized the Chinese program as part of the country’s “strategic plan to acquire knowledge and intellectual property from researchers, scientists, and the U.S. private sector.”

In recent weeks, two separate prosecutions by the DoJ have percolated to the forefront of the effort to neutralize the program in the United States:

  • Simon Saw-Teong Ang, director of the High Density Electronics Center at the University of Arkansas, who was working with NASA on proprietary research.
  • Qing Wang (aka Kenneth Wang), the principal investigator for two NIH-funded research projects at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Both individuals were arrested after they were found to be conducting parallel research in China to what they were conducting in the United States. This funding from the government of China came to the individuals via the Thousand Talents Program, which according to the PRC brought the knowledge and acumen to China.

Ang received over $5 million in funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. Contemporaneously, he was the CTO of Binzhou Maotong Dianzi Keji Company. He was characterized in China as the “Taishan Scholar Specially Recruited Overseas Expert” as well as “National Thousand Talents Plan Expert.” He also assisted in the formation of the College of Aeronautical Engineering at the Binzhou University.

Wang was active with Cleveland Clinic through the $3.6 million in funding received from the NIH, but he also was quietly the dean of the College of Life Sciences and Technology at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He had received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China for the same research that he had initiated at the Cleveland Clinic.

Ang and Wang join the growing list of researchers in the United States who have been found to be Thousand Talent Program participants and engaged in illegal activity. Among those are:

  • Xiao-Jian Li and his wife, Shihua Li, who worked in the Department of Human Genetics within Emory University’s school of medicine under NIH-funded grants. They also were associated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Earlier this month, Xiao-Jian pleaded guilty to omitting the $500,000 he had received from China on his tax returns.
  • Charles Lieber of Harvard University, whose work was funded by NIH and who was found to also be contracted with the Wuhan University of Technology, which paid him $1.5 million, plus $50,000 per month and living expenses to establish a laboratory at the Chinese institute.
  • Xiaoqing Zheng and Zhaoxi Zhang of General Electric, who took their employer’s intellectual property and pushed it to China, specifically to Tianya Aviation Technology and Nanjing Tianyi Avi Tech. Their actions resulted in indictments for economic espionage.

How many more DoJ prosecutions remain is anyone’s guess.

What is clear is that the 2019 Senate report highlighting the Thousand Talents Program as an illicit means for China to acquire international know-how has provided the necessary incentive to the DoJ to neutralize the program.

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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