Chinese Academic Espionage Highlighted in Debate Over NIH Letter

By Annie Wu, Epoch Times
September 13, 2018 Updated: September 13, 2018

When the director of the National Institutes of Health sent out a letter to research institutes around the country, warning of the potential for foreign influence to undermine U.S. research and intellectual property, he didn’t identify any specific adversaries.

The letter sent on Aug. 20 by Dr. Francis Collins only noted that “some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers,” such as through obtaining intellectual property (IP) and confidential information in grant applications, or by offering financial support to researchers.

But a Chinese academic may have inadvertently steered attention to China when he took offense to Collins’s letter and published a public response, in English and Chinese, insisting that the letter unfairly points to China and Chinese researchers.

The letter “is obviously targeting scientists of Chinese origin, making Chinese as [sic] the new scapegoat of anti-intellectual irrationality in the US,” wrote Rao Yi, a neurobiologist at Peking University in Beijing, in his comments published on Zhishifenzi.com, a science-focused website that he created.

Talk of science and tech-related IP theft certainly brings to mind China, given that U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials have recently emphasized the severity of threats from the country and the need to counter espionage conducted in service of Beijing’s economic goals, including within U.S. academia.

“The Chinese government and Communist Party use both overt and covert means to target the political and economic elite, the media and public opinion, civil society and academia, and members of the Chinese diaspora,” according to draft legislation introduced in June that would require U.S. intelligence agencies to provide a detailed report on Beijing’s influence operations in America.

In his response, Rao makes arguments in defense of China’s research efforts.

“China has not tried to influence NIH researchers or peer reviewers. The ‘Thousand Talent Program’ is to recruit more scientists, not to influence any other country,” he wrote, mentioning a Beijing-funded recruitment program aimed at enticing Chinese science and tech professionals working in the West to return to China by providing them with a financial package and guaranteed employment.

In a report by BioCentury, a biotech news website, Collins explained that his letter wasn’t targeting China.

“I’ve tried in every way I can to try to emphasize that this in no way is intended to be a targeting of individuals who are not born in the U.S.,” Collins told BioCentury. “We have so much to gain by working together across international boundaries; we just have to be sure everybody’s playing fair.”

At the time of writing, Collins didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

An Aug. 23 statement published on the NIH website also acknowledged the honest contributions of both U.S. and foreign researchers.

“Our [the U.S. biomedical field] leadership position is made possible because the overwhelming majority of researchers participating on NIH grants, whether U.S. or foreign-born, are honest, hard-working contributors to the advancement of knowledge that benefits us all,” the statement read.

Citing Collins, Science magazine reported that NIH is investigating several U.S. institutions for not disclosing foreign ties in some projects.

Documented Cases of Beijing’s Influence

But there have indeed been cases of Chinese nationals conducting espionage beneficial to Beijing, raising real concerns about the potential threat to U.S. research.

The most prominent example is Liu Ruopeng, who came to the United States to study for a doctoral degree at Duke University. He stole key technology and data from his professor’s “invisibility cloak” lab, then established his own company in China using the information. Chinese governmental entities invested millions in his startup.

Other cases involved theft of trade secrets from important U.S. firms, such as a Chinese scientist who stole rice seeds from his employer Ventria Bioscience Inc., to bring to a Chinese crop institute. He was sentenced to federal prison in April.

In addition, many Chinese and some non-Chinese researchers working in fields that Beijing has targeted for aggressive development—such as high-tech sectors outlined in the “Made in China 2025” industrial plan—have been hired away through the Thousand Talent program to work for Chinese state-run and private firms. These include scientists at the state-run China National Nuclear Corporation; a solar engineer who founded Suzhou Juzhen Photoelectric; and a senior executive at one of China’s largest OLED (a type of screen display technology) manufacturers, among others.

Rao’s response to the NIH was the focus of several reports carried on Chinese state-run media, perhaps confirming that Beijing has a stake in public representations of Chinese espionage.

In addition, the “Made in China 2025” plan includes “pharmaceuticals and advanced medical devices” among a list of 10 sectors for targeted development. To combat such IP theft, the White House is shortening the lengths of some visas issued to Chinese citizens studying in certain science and tech fields.

And most recently, FBI officials convened a group of over 100 academic officials in Texas—including from the Texas Medical Center—to explain how to prevent IP theft, according to an Aug. 8 report in the Houston Chronicle.