The Thousand Talents Plan is a Chinese government program to attract scientists and engineers from overseas. Since the plan began in 2008, it has recruited thousands of researchers from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, France and Australia.
While many countries try to lure top international research talent, the US, Canada and others have raised concerns that the Thousand Talents Plan may facilitate espionage and theft of intellectual property.
Why are we hearing about it now?
China has long been suspected of engaging in hacking and intellectual property theft. In the early 2000s, Chinese hackers were involved in the downfall of the Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel, which some have linked to the rise of Huawei.
These efforts have attracted greater scrutiny as Western powers grow concerned about China’s increasing global influence and foreign policy projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Last year, a US Senate committee declared the plan a threat to American interests. Earlier this year, Harvard nanotechnology expert Charles Lieber was arrested for lying about his links to the program.
In Australia, foreign policy think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently published a detailed report on Australian involvement in the plan. After media coverage of the plan, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security is set to launch an inquiry into foreign interference in universities.
What is the Thousand Talents Plan?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) developed the Thousand Talents Plan to lure top scientific talent, with the goal of making China the world’s leader in science and technology by 2050. The CCP uses the plan to obtain technologies and expertise, and arguably, Intellectual Properties from overseas by illegal or non-transparent means to build their power by leveraging those technologies with minimal costs.
China’s technology development and intellectual property portfolio has skyrocketed since the launch of the plan in 2008. Last year China overtook the US for the first time in filing the most international patents.
What are the issues?
The plan offers scientists funding and support to commercialise their research, and in return the Chinese government gains access to their technologies.
In 2019, a US Senate committee declared the plan a threat to American interests. It claimed one participating researcher stole information about US military jet engines, and more broadly that China uses American research and expertise for its own economic and military gain.
Read more: China's quest for techno-military supremacy
Dozens of Australian and US employees of universities and government are believed to have participated in the plan without having declared their involvement. In May, ASIO issued all Australian universities a warning about Chinese government recruitment activities.
On top of intellectual property issues, there are serious human rights concerns. Technologies transferred to China under the program have been used in the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and in society-wide facial recognition and other forms of surveillance.
A global network
The Chinese government has established more than 600 recruitment stations globally. This includes 146 in the US, 57 each in Germany and Australia, and more than 40 each in the UK, Canada, Japan and France.
Recruitment agencies contracted by the CCP are paid A$30,000 annually plus incentives for each successful recruitment.
They deal with individual researchers rather than institutions as it is easier to monitor them. Participants do not have to leave their current jobs to be involved in the plan.
This can raise conflicts of interest. In the US alone, 54 scientists have lost their jobs for failing to disclose this external funding, and more than 20 have been charged on espionage and fraud allegations.
In Australia, our education sector relies significantly on the export of education to Chinese students. Chinese nationals may be employed in various sectors including research institutions.
These nationals are targets for Thousand Talents Plan recruitment agents. Our government may not know what’s going on unless participants disclose information about their external employment or grants funded by the plan.
The case of Koala AI
Heng Tao Shen was recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan in 2014 while a professor at the University of Queensland. He became head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and founded a company called Koala AI.
Members of Koala AI’s research team reportedly now include Thousand Talents Plan scholars at the University of NSW, University of Melbourne and the National University of Singapore. The plan allows participants to stay at their overseas base as long as they work in China for a few months of the year.
The company’s surveillance technology was used by authorities in Xinjiang, raising human rights issues. Shen, who relocated to China in 2017 but was as an honorary professor at the University of Queensland until September 2019, reportedly failed to disclose this information to his Australian university, going against university policy.
What should be done?
Most participants in the plan are not illegally engaged and have not breached the rules of their governments or institutions. With greater transparency and stricter adherence to the rules of foreign states and institutions, the plan could benefit both China and other nations.
Governments, universities and research institutions, and security agencies all have a role to play here.
The government can build partnership with other parties to monitor the CCP’s talent recruitment activities and increase transparency on funding in universities. Investigations of illegal behaviour related to the talent recruitment activity can be conducted by security agencies. Research institutes can tighten the integrity of grant recipients by disclosing any participation in the talent recruitment plans.
More resources should be invested towards compliance and enforcement in foreign funding processes, so that researchers understand involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan may carry national security risks.
Following US government scrutiny in 2018, Chinese government websites deleted online references to the plan and some Chinese universities stopped promoting it. The plan’s website also removed the names of participating scientists.
This shows a joint effort can influence the CCP and their recruitment stations to be more cautious in approaching candidates, and reduce the impact of this plan on local and domestic affairs.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Heng Tao Shen ceased to be an honorary professor at University of Queensland in September 2019.