‘More scrutiny needed’ on Chinese talent recruitment

Australian thinktank tracks sharp increase in overseas recruitment stations and warns of links to covert activities

August 21, 2020

Universities around the world must step up their scrutiny of Chinese academic recruitment activities, an Australian thinktank says, claiming that schemes such as the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) are offering cover for “intellectual property theft” from the West.

report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says that the TTP is merely the best known of more than 200 talent recruitment programmes overseen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“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,” the report says.

“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.”

The report lists more than 190 Chinese government talent recruitment programmes linked with more than 600 “overseas talent-recruitment stations” in dozens of technologically advanced countries. It says China’s pace of creating new stations has risen sharply, from around 20 a year between 2010 and 2015 to 115 by 2018.

It lists almost 150 of these stations in the US, nearly 60 each in Germany and Australia and around 50 each in the UK, Canada, Japan and France. A further 21 are in Singapore and 13 in New Zealand. Many are run by overseas organisations “linked to the CCP’s united front system and overlapping with its political influence efforts”.

The report says that China’s talent recruitment activities range from internationally acceptable behaviour – such as open research collaboration, joint labs, job recruitment and purchase of intellectual property – to illegal exports, theft, intelligence recruitment and cyber espionage, as well as “greyzone” activities such as undisclosed moonlighting and commercialisation.

The report also lists 26 cases and alleged cases of intellectual property theft, espionage, fraud and other misconduct involving scientists linked or reportedly linked to talent recruitment programmes, mostly the TTP. Seven of these scientists have been convicted, with one jailed for 32 years. Almost a dozen more are awaiting court proceedings with some facing lengthy sentences.

The report offers six recommendations for research institutions and 19 for governments, including tasking and equipping law enforcement agencies to monitor China’s talent recruitment activities. Governments should “explicitly prohibit” their employees from joining foreign talent recruitment programmes, it says.

Governments should also develop recommendations for universities and other research institutions to “tackle” talent-recruitment activities, borrowing from Australia’s recently developed guidelines to counter foreign interference in universities.

The director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, James Laurenceson, said that he welcomed research on the risks associated with research collaboration with Chinese partners. “The more data the better,” he said.

But Professor Laurenceson said that it was important to distinguish claims from fact. He said that allegations referred to in the report – that a TTP-linked scientist working for the national science agency CSIRO had undermined Australia’s national security by collaborating on research that could be used by China to detect foreign submarines – had since been “debunked”.

Australia’s defence department had testified that it had no concerns about the research and CSIRO had insisted that the scientist had no links with the TTP.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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