Death by a Thousand Talents: How China's brain gain is harming western firms

Are Chinese-government-sponsored 'talent recruitment' programs a threat to other Western nations' research data?

The media narrative around Chinese state-backed espionage is often focused on cyberspace. Shadowy "APT" operatives of PLA units and the Ministry of State Security (MSS) are routinely called out by security vendors for their efforts to remotely exfiltrate data from target organisations. However, there's another threat that Western governments are fast waking up to - that of Beijing's extensive "talent recruitment" programmes. Among these, the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) is the most prominent.

By incentivising foreign experts in various fields to share their knowledge with the Chinese state, the Communist Party has been able to unfairly accelerate homegrown development in strategic industries and blunt the competitive edge of Western firms, it is argued. The scale of these efforts could be vast, placing increasing pressure on private firms, universities and research institutions to improve insider threat detection.


Waking up

Just as it was with the threat to domestic national security and economic competitiveness from cyber-spies, it's taken the US years to wake-up to the risks posed by Chinese talent recruitment. The TTP was actually launched in 2008. Over a decade later, a Senate Committee report detailed the threat:

"Thousand Talent Plan members sign legally binding contracts with Chinese institutions, like universities and research institutions. The contracts can incentivize members to lie on grant applications to US grant-making agencies, set up ‘shadow labs' in China working on research identical to their US research, and, in some cases, transfer US scientists' hard-earned intellectual capital. Some of the contracts also contain nondisclosure provisions and require the Chinese government's permission to terminate the agreement, giving the Chinese government significant leverage over talent recruitment plan members. These provisions are in stark contrast to the US research community's basic norms, values, and principles."

It's a highly sophisticated scheme. Last year, a Chinese government employee was arrested for visa fraud after allegedly conspiring to obtain research visas for colleagues whose intent was not research but recruitment of future TTP participants. It's also been hugely successful. According to the Senate report, the TTP was originally set up to recruit around 2,000 scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and finance experts. However, by 2017 it had purportedly managed around three-and-a-half times that number.

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