The Chinese government calls paying U.S. researchers ‘talent recruitment' but is it intellectual espionage?
Several researchers in Florida have handed over work funded by American taxpayers.
In December 2018, at a Philips HealthWorks program for startup businesses in the field of artificial intelligence, Lin Yang introduced himself as the CEO of Deep Informatics, a Chinese company “focused on applying AI to pathology.” He explained how China’s shortage of pathologists — the country has roughly one pathologist for every 714,000 patients — contributes to “much lower” cancer survival rates compared to the United States. Yang spoke about how his company aimed to help solve the problem with an automated, image-reading tool called D-Path AI.
Yang said his “intelligent” platform could analyze a biopsy slide and diagnose a range of cancers (including cervical cancer, bladder cancer and prostate cancer) within five to 10 seconds with 98% accuracy, and he noted the market for such technology was “big” — anticipated to reach $31 billion by 2036. “This is one of the reasons Deep Informatics is really focused on applying AI to solve this big challenge because there is no way that, in a short period of time, we’re going to increase the number of pathologists,” Yang said.
Yang appears not to have mentioned his day job as a biomedical engineering professor and researcher at the University of Florida during the five-minute presentation, which Philips Ventures posted on YouTube. UF officials have said they were unaware of the professor’s extracurricular activities until January 2019, when they received a letter from the National Institutes of Health alerting them to the possibility that Yang and another UF researcher might be involved in a ‘foreign talent program’ in China.
The programs, which have come under U.S. government scrutiny over the past several years, typically provide salaries, research funding and other incentives to lure foreign-trained scientists into academic and research partnerships with Chinese institutions. The federal government says the programs are part of the Chinese government’s economic espionage activities — essentially, that China is targeting and bribing academics to get access to technology and taxpayer-funded research.
Although few researchers have been prosecuted for actual spying, a growing number are being charged with engaging in fraud by concealing their affiliations with the programs on applications for federal grants and on university conflict-of-interest forms, and by lying to federal investigators about their activities. Several have been charged for failing to disclose income from talent programs to the Internal Revenue Service.
A grand jury indictment of UF’s Yang that was unsealed in February made similar allegations — that Yang had fraudulently obtained a $1.75-million NIH grant by concealing his ties to Deep Informatics and his involvement in a Thousand Talents program connected with Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China. “The taxpayer dollars that funded Yang’s research were intended to benefit the health and wellbeing of U.S. citizens. But our indictment alleges that Yang engaged in acts of deliberate deception so that he could also further the research of the Chinese Communist government and advance his own business interests,” U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe for the Northern District of Florida said when the charges against Yang were made public in February.
Yang, who left the country and appears to be working in China, isn’t the only Florida researcher who’s been swept up in the crackdown on scientists with secret ties to China. Three other faculty members at the University of Florida lost their jobs after allegedly failing to disclose their participation in Chinese talent programs, and four faculty members at the University of Central Florida left the school (one was fired and three resigned) under similar circumstances, according to testimony by school officials to the Legislature.
Meanwhile, in December 2019, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa asked its president and CEO, Alan List, and five other researchers to resign after an internal investigation concluded they’d violated conflict-of-interest policies as they participated in China’s Thousand Talents program.
While China is believed to have operated more than 200 talent recruitment plans, the Thousand Talents program it launched in 2008 was its most ambitious, according to a 2019 report by the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The plan aimed to recruit 2,000 “high-quality” scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and finance experts within five to 10 years and help reverse a brain drain of talent going overseas. It surpassed those goals. By 2017, the program had drafted more than 7,000 participants, including several Nobel laureates, according to a report in the China Daily newspaper.
According to Senate investigators, the Chinese Communist Party is able to exert leverage over talent plan participants through legally binding contracts that transfer foreign research and technology to China. In exchange for salaries, titles and other inducements, participants have been required to set up “shadow labs in China,” to author publications based on their work in China and, in some cases, to hire or sponsor Chinese students from specific programs to work in their U.S.-based labs on federally funded research. In at least one instance, Senate investigators said, the technique “allowed a professor to pass dualuse research, and potentially export controlled research, to China via the visiting students and scholars without having to physically leave the United States.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was slow to act. While the FBI’s strategic partnership unit, which fosters relationships with the business and academic community, issued an unclassified briefing memo in 2015 warning that Chinese talent programs “pose a serious threat to U.S. businesses and universities through economic espionage and theft of IP,” it was another two years before the FBI began notifying federal grantmaking agencies about suspected participants in talent plans in any coordinated sort of way.
By 2018, against the backdrop of an escalating trade war with China, the crackdown on Chinese talent programs went into high gear.
FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in February 2018 and delivered a stark assessment of the threat of China targeting professors, scientists and students as “non-traditional collectors” of information. “We see it in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country … across basically every discipline,” Wray said.
NIH officials who looked into the issue were aghast. In one case, an NIH peer reviewer e-mailed confidential unfunded research proposals to associates in China. Staff also found numerous instances of NIH-funded researchers listed in publications as professors at universities in China when the NIH had no records of such affiliations. “We’ve even seen outright duplication, where essentially we were funding the same grant as a foreign country, as well as overcommitment,” Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, explained during an NIH advisory committee meeting last summer. “If somebody has two full-time jobs at the same time, they’re in a situation that just won’t work. In many cases, the American institutions are completely unaware of what’s going on, or largely unaware.”
In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins sent a missive to 10,000 U.S. research institutions, warning that “foreign entities have mounted systematic programs” to take advantage of NIH-funded research activities — and in October 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of the China Initiative to combat economic espionage and “new and evolving threats” against non-traditional targets, including research labs and universities.
Since then, a series of high-profile investigations and arrests have rocked the U.S. research community.
Among them was the arrest of Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department and a notable pioneer in nanoscience, who has been charged with concealing his participation in the Thousand Talents program and failing to report income he made through the program to the Internal Revenue Service. In court documents, federal prosecutors allege that Lieber — the recipient of $15 million in grant funding from the NIH and the Department of Defense — was paid $50,000 a month and received $158,000 a year in living expenses under the terms of a Thousand Talents contract with Wuhan University of Technology that obligated him to cultivate young researchers, apply for patents and publish academic studies for Wuhan University. Lieber maintains his innocence and has sued Harvard over its refusal to pay for his legal defense.
Former professors and researchers at the University of Arkansas, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Ohio State University, Emory University, Texas A&M University and other institutions have also been charged with crimes related to their participation in Chinese talent recruitment programs. And in late 2019, the non-profit Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed to a $5.5-million settlement with the federal government to resolve allegations it violated the False Claims Act by failing to disclose on NIH grant applications and progress reports that two of its researchers had grants from several Chinese sources, including China’s Thousand Talents program.
The situation at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center caught the attention of state Rep. Christopher Sprowls, a former state prosecutor and current Speaker of the Florida House, at the end of 2019. “Their CEO, their vice president of research and a number of their other researchers were found to have had inappropriate and undisclosed relationships with the Chinese government and Chinese research institutions,” says Sprowls, who spearheaded a legislative investigation into the matter. “They’d been over to China. They had secret Chinese bank accounts that they did not disclose or tell anyone about, and when I first heard there was an undisclosed relationship, I started asking a lot of questions. And the more I dug into it, the worse that it got.”
In 2008, Moffitt had launched a partnership with Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital to work on joint research projects and provide training and consultation regarding cancer care. The Tianjin institute paid Moffitt $500,000 annually for services, “including participation in tumor boards and other activities,” according to a nine-page “investigation abstract” that Moffitt submitted to the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions.
The report says Moffitt only learned later through an internal investigation that several employees, including then-CEO List, may have received undisclosed payments for their participation in a Chinese talent program. A talent program application signed by List referenced $71,000 in “personal compensation” and other benefits. List acknowledged having opened a personal bank account in Tianjin in 2018 but told Moffitt he had not withdrawn any of the money deposited in it. The report paints Dr. Sheng Wei, a former senior member of Moffitt’s immunology department and a “key interface” in the partnership between Moffitt and the Tianjin institute, as the one who recruited List and at least three other Moffitt employees to join the talent program — though some insist that they never participated in the program.
One Moffitt employee, Dr. Thomas Sellers, has since filed a libel/slander suit against Moffitt and Wei. Sellers, who says he was forced to resign his position as Moffitt’s director of cancer research, contends he was not a participant in the Thousand Talents program and alleges that Wei forged his signature on a contract that was written solely in Chinese. “Sheng Wei was apparently compensated for each person he recruited into the program, so his motive was clear,” the lawsuit says. Wei’s attorney, Alex Yu, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sprowls’ investigation revealed similar issues at the state’s two largest universities. “Candidly, what we found was just absolutely appalling. We learned at the University of Florida, our most prestigious university in the state, there were at least four researchers who were found to have undisclosed relationships with the Chinese government,” Sprowls said. He noted that while the university was looking into the individuals, their computers came under cyber-attack.
UF officials have since confirmed that one of those researchers — described as “faculty member 2” in a packet of information UF provided to the Legislature — was Yang. The identities of other faculty members were uncloaked in media reports. They include Weihong Tan, who worked as a UF chemistry professor for 24 years. He left the school in 2019 after UF officials began investigating his affiliation with two Chinese universities and his alleged participation in Chinese talent programs. According to a 2020 report in ProPublica, Tan returned to China and now works at Hunan University, leading a research team that recently developed a COVID-19 test that can provide results in under an hour.
Rhonda Bishop, the University of Central Florida’s vice president for compliance and risk, disclosed four separate instances of foreign interference to state lawmakers.
Juin Liou, who worked as an electrical engineering professor at UCF for more than three decades, was terminated in February 2017 after the school learned from a tip through its anonymous “integrity line” that Liou was simultaneously employed by the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, China. The university asked him to sever all ties to the institution and not to travel to China for five years, but he continued to travel and recruited graduate students from China to work in his lab. The school later learned he had shipped computer devices known as “probe needles,” which make computers work faster and have potential military applications, to China without the proper licenses.
UCF began looking at another engineering professor, Xinzhang Wu, in 2018 after getting a tip from his department chair that he appeared to be employed by a Chinese university and was participating in a talent program. When confronted, Wu, who conducted research on robots and a silent submarine motor that uses magnets, resigned and fled the country. Bishop noted in her testimony that Wu had employed a research assistant in his lab who was arrested in 2016 for smuggling submarine parts to China. Amin “Amy” Yu was sentenced to 21 months in prison and forfeited two homes she owned in Orlando.
Pushback and counter-efforts
As more cases related to the China Initiative wind through the court system, critics are blasting the investigations and prosecutions as an overreaction to economic and political tensions with China. Some say it also smacks of racism and is promoting bigotry of Asian-American scientists and the Asian-American community in general.
In a January letter, the groups Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice and APA Justice asked President Joe Biden to end the China Initiative — arguing that many of the cases “are not based upon evidence of economic espionage” but instead “target individuals with any ‘nexus to China,’ ” which often leads to racial and ethnic profiling.
“When the government fails to find evidence of economic espionage, it then opts to charge people for lesser offenses such as making false statements during the course of the investigation,” the letter stated. “Federal prosecutors are also charging many Asian-American and Asian immigrants with federal crimes based on administrative errors or minor offenses, such as failing to fully disclose conflict-of-interest information to their universities or research institutions and other activities that are not normally treated as crimes except under the pretext of combating economic espionage.”
Critics of the criminal initiative point to prosecutions of scientists that have fallen apart. Among them was the case involving Xiaoxing Xi, a prominent physics professor at Temple University who was arrested in 2015 at gunpoint in his home and charged with a “wire fraud scheme” for an alleged “effort to assist Chinese entities in becoming world leaders in the superconductivity field.” The charges centered on the notion that Xi had shared a private company’s blueprints of a device known as a “pocket heater” with associates in China. In fact, the blueprints in question weren’t of a pocket heater at all — they were schematics of a device known as a tube heater. Armed with affidavits from expert witnesses, Xi’s lawyers gave a 48-slide presentation to the government explaining the difference between pocket heaters and tube heaters. The Justice Department dismissed the charges, and Xi returned to his lab at Temple University, where his staff welcomed him with a bouquet of flowers.
Peter Zeidenberg, a D.C.-based attorney with Arent Fox who defended Xi and two dozen other Chinese and Chinese-American scientists under investigation, says he believes the FBI agents investigating academics are coming at it with the wrong mindset — and fail to recognize that most of the scientists they are targeting are working on “basic,” or fundamental, research, not classified or proprietary research that could have industrial or defense applications. “The agents who are investigating these cases are the same agents who investigate theft of trade secrets at high-tech companies — Google or Apple, or something like that, or General Electric — and so they’re thinking with the wrong mindset, (they’re) thinking ‘Oh my god, he’s got all this research on his laptop and he’s taking it to China as if he was working at Apple and had the new iPhone on his computer.’ This is stuff that they were going to publish and that they do publish. They share this information,” Zeidenberg says.
Zeidenberg also contends that many of the cases against academics involve minor infractions related to employment issues that shouldn’t be treated as criminal law issues. The rules surrounding disclosure at universities are “extremely vague and poorly understood,” he says, and the professors essentially get no training on it. “They get these forms from the university like we all do in our jobs, and it’s very easy to cut and paste and put in what you did last year and fill in the forms and until very recently, no one paid a lot of attention to it,” he says. “And then there’s the question of what to disclose, and you’re supposed to disclose foreign positions, well, does giving a lecture count as a foreign position? Does doing a paper with a foreign university count? Does applying for a scholarship that you ultimately turned down when you got it — does that need to be disclosed? If you got the scholarship but you did no research and it’s pretty much an honoraria, does that need to be disclosed? The answers are very poorly understood.”
At the end of the day, it amounts to a “breakdown in communication,” Zeidenberg says, and the aggressive campaign by law enforcement is contributing to a brain drain here on American soil. “Many clients of mine have lost their jobs here and have just picked up and moved back to China. So the very harm that this initiative is meant to prevent, which is China getting our best scientists, is actually encouraging it. It’s having a perverse, sort of counterintuitive result because people are at best unwelcome, and at worst, targeted.”
State lawmakers, however, see something more nefarious at work and are implementing new measures to safeguard institutions and deter foreign influence.
A bill passed by the Legislature will require state agencies and universities to disclose foreign gifts or grants of $50,000 or more from foreign sources to the Florida Department of Financial Services. The legislation also requires research institutions with budgets greater than $10 million to carefully screen foreign applications for research positions, as well as establish an international travel approval and monitoring program for faculty and researchers. A second bill passed by both chambers — the Eliminating Corporate Espionage Act — would increase penalties for corporate espionage, making the theft of trade secrets a second-degree felony and trafficking of trade secrets a first-degree felony. Sprowls says Florida is the first state in the country to “roll out a package to crack down on this behavior and bring some radical transparency” to foreign influence efforts.
Universities in the state are also taking the threat seriously. Some schools — including the University of Miami and Florida International University — have established foreign influence task forces to address the issues, and many have mounted efforts to educate faculty and staff about the problem. Responding to an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott in 2020, then-UCF President Thad Seymour said the school had outlined potential threats on its Export Control Office’s website. “The UCF Facilities Security Officer also has increased efforts to educate our faculty and staff on foreign programs targeting researchers, resulting in a dramatic increase in UCF employees reporting possible attempts to lure faculty to attend conferences and other meetings where technology information could be disclosed,” Seymour wrote.
The University of Florida has developed and implemented a system to help flag potential conflicts of interest and uncover bad actors. Previously, the university relied on a paper process for approving outside activities that basically consisted of a professor or researcher submitting a request for approval to their department chair or dean of their college. Now, they must go through an electronic system called UFOLIO (the UF Online Interest Organizer) that feeds all international activities through an “international risk assessment” process. The process includes vetting and review by chairs, subject matter experts and internal legal compliance/risk experts. “Within the current process, the university does not approve participation in foreign talent programs as an outside activity,” the university said in a statement to Florida Trend.
UF faculty members are required to go into the system at least once a year, even if they have nothing to disclose, though UF officials admit that they’re not sure whether it would have made a difference in situations such as the one involving Yang. “I don’t know whether it would have caught this particular individual,” Amy Hass, UF’s vice president and general counsel told state lawmakers at a February hearing. “But I think it certainly gives me comfort to know that we’ve moved the process into a central office and we perform diligence and we require disclosure even when there is nothing to disclose. We require certification of that.”
Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.
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