Issue: 2020: Vol. 19, No. 3

Scholars or Spies? U.S.-China Tension in Academic Collaboration

Article Author(s)

John Krige

Avatar photo
John Krige is a Regents Professor Emeritus at Georgia Tech who has researched and written extensively on the regulations imposed by the U.S. national security state on the global circulation of science and technology. 
Newsletter Signup
Subscription Form

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In January 2020, Charles Lieber, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, was led into a federal court in Boston in a yellow jumpsuit and handcuffs.  Lieber, whose lab was lavishly funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was criminally charged with making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” about his links to the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP). In June 2020, he was indicted by a grand jury on one count of lying to an investigator from the DoD and one count of lying to Harvard University about his three-year “Employment Contract of ‘One Thousand Talent’ High Level Foreign Expert” with Wuhan University of Technology. If convicted, Lieber faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

In May 2019, Emory University in Atlanta summarily terminated Li Xiaojiang and his wife Li Shihua, U.S. citizens of Chinese origin who had been employed by Emory for 23 years.  They were internationally recognized for their work on using genetically engineered mice and pigs to study Huntington’s disease.  The Emory administration closed down the laboratory and gave four Chinese postdocs working there 30 days to leave the country.  The charges? The couple “who were named as key personnel on NIH grant awards to Emory University, had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China.” They are just two of a dozen or more biomedical researchers of Chinese origin who have recently been charged with failing to report conflicts of financial interest or conflicts of professional commitment on NIH grant applications.  In May 2020, Li Xiaojiang was convicted for filing tax returns that omitted the income he received from his work abroad. He had to repay more than $35,000 to the IRS.

The Trump administration does not disparage international scientific collaboration. It is well aware that innovation and creativity flourish in an open, free-wheeling intellectual environment.  Time and again, Bill Priestap, the Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division until 2018, has emphasized the enormous intellectual, financial, and cultural contribution that 1.4 million international students bring to the U.S. each year.  He notes that in 2017 they contributed $36.9 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 450,000 jobs. By paying full tuition, they also help an underfunded higher education system balance its books. In fact, Priestap insists that the “vast majority” of foreign nationals poses no threat to their home institutions, fellow classmates, or to their research fields.

Why, then, has the current administration taken a particularly aggressive approach to potential abuses of international academic collaboration with China? Is this just another aspect of the general deterioration of relations between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, fueled by technological and economic rivalry between the two countries?  Or are there also deeper, structural changes at work that are reconfiguring relationships between two countries? I will argue that the access that thousands of Chinese students and researchers have to advanced academic research in science and engineering, which is tightly coupled to American economic and military power, lies at the heart of the emerging confrontation between them.    Whether or not one agrees with President Trump’s responses to the challenge from Beijing (and a majority of people, be they Republicans or Democrats, do see China as a major threat), the fact of the matter is that any U.S. administration — and the U.S. research system — will have to deal with a China that has every intention of becoming a leading scientific, technological, and economic power by the mid-21st century, in competition with the United States. The traditional values enshrined in the U.S. research system are engaged in that competition and will not emerge unscathed.

The paper has three main sections. First, I briefly place international academic collaboration between the U.S. and China in historical perspective.  By comparing the responses to a similar challenge to the U.S. research system in the Reagan era, I can highlight the specific features of the current conflict that set it apart from the situation that faced the government 30 years ago.   That conflict, I argue, arises because America’s economic security, which is fostered by an increasingly commercialized academia, is being threatened by scholars who do cutting-edge research in the U.S., and who are being attracted (back) to China by Beijing’s talent recruitment programs, where they help strengthen the Chinese innovation system. After briefly analyzing the historical roots of this situation, I will conclude by drawing attention to the policies that have been adopted, or that are being considered, to regulate U.S.–China academic exchanges, and their implications. 

A Quick Look Back to The Soviet Challenge in the 1980s

There is an uncanny resemblance between the wave of anxiety that swept through the Reagan administration in the 1980s and the fears aroused by China’s legal and illegal efforts to acquire advanced scientific and technological knowledge today.  The scale of Moscow’s effort at the time emerged in the so-called Farewell Dossier, a collection of 4,000 KGB documents handed over by a defector to French authorities in 1981.   They revealed that the Soviets had built a vast technology acquisition system that was “well-organized, centrally directed, and growing….”  Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Brady remarked in March 1982 that, “Operating out of embassies, consulates, and so-called ‘business delegations,’ KGB operatives have blanketed the developed capitalist countries with a network that operates like a gigantic vacuum cleaner sucking up formulas, patents, blueprints, and know-how with frightening precision.”  He complained bitterly that the Soviets were able “to exploit the ‘soft underbelly’” of American openness, including “the desire of academia to jealously preserve its prerogatives as a community of scholars unencumbered by government regulation.”

These charges against academia were laid to rest by a Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security established by the National Academies complex in consultation with the Department of Defense. Its report, published in October 1982, made two major contributions. First, it exonerated universities from any significant responsibility for sensitive knowledge leaking to the Soviet Union.  Second, it stipulated that “to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research should remain unrestricted.” Fundamental research was defined as “basic and applied research in science and engineering, the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly in the research community….”             Nationality was not a criterion for active participation in fundamental research as long as it was not classified or of proprietary interest. It remains the formal definition of academic freedom in the practice of research on American campuses, even though it has been challenged repeatedly over the last decade or more. As a matter of fact, it is being challenged today. The rest of this paper will explain why.

The Trump Administration’s Assault on Sino-American Scientific Collaboration

As of 2018, there has been a sharp uptick in Congressional hearings, reports by Congressional committees and by Washington think tanks, as well as news articles, discussing the challenges posed by U.S. scientific and technological collaboration with China.  The tenor of the debate was set in a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in April 2018. Its title, Scholars or Spies? Foreign Plots Targeting America’s Research and Development, implied that scholars were indeed agents of foreign governments acquiring America’s R&D.   This charge had been made by Christopher Wray, the Director of the FBI at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2018. Asked by Senator Marco Rubio to comment on “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics,” Wray replied that in his view, “The China threat is not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.” Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in April 2019, he asserted that everyone was in on it, including the thousands of Chinese students and researchers who work and study in the U.S. every year. “Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense.” Wray also deplored “the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this…. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it,” targeting “our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology.”  To make matters worse, when fundamental research was funded by federal agencies liked the NSF or the NIH, American taxpayers were unwittingly funding technological advancements and innovative breakthroughs that helped foreign nations to gain a competitive advantage over the U.S.

Wray’s charges resonate strongly with the Reagan administration’s narrative in the 1980s as regards academia. In fact, many commentators speak of a new “Cold War” in the making. The similarities should not be exaggerated. The Soviet leadership did not prioritize economic modernization in the 1980s. It enhanced its military footprint with the deployment of SS-20 missiles targeting Europe and the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. By contrast, the Chinese leadership explicitly seeks to acquire a dominant place in global markets by 2049. Trade relationships between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were tightly controlled in the 1980s (while America had a trade deficit of $345 billion with China in 2019).  And there was relatively little intellectual exchange between the superpowers either (while there were some 365,000 Chinese students in American institutions of higher education in 2019). This is not (yet) a clash between two military systems.  It is a competition for economic power that is underpinned by ceaseless innovation in which university training and research in science and engineering play a crucial role. In what follows, I will highlight a few important developments in both the U.S. and in China that have brought matters to a head today.

The U.S.: Economic Security and the National Security Innovation Base

Economic security is national security, and it lies at the heart of American prosperity.   This is the view of President Trump himself in the Executive’s National Security Strategy statement released in December 2017. The importance of “economic security” can be traced back to the growing conviction in the late cold war that military power based on ceaseless technological innovation would not ensure America’s capacity to maintain a global Pax Americana. It needed to be combined with economic strength to protect key strategic industries from ruthless competitors — including allies — in global markets. As two leading members of the Washington establishment put it in 1990, “International competition has eroded the once commanding U.S. advantage in technology…when it comes to advanced technology national security can no longer be viewed in exclusively military terms: economic security and industrial competitiveness are also vital considerations.”

Leading in research, technology, invention, and innovation is key to achieving economic security. The National Security Strategy document of 2017 sees university research as a central player in securing that leadership. The FRE specifically distinguished between basic and applied research in universities and colleges, and classified research in national laboratories like Los Alamos, as well as proprietary research in industry.  These distinctions are now dissolved. Universities are included in a so-called National Security Innovation Base, “the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people — including academia, National Laboratories and the private sector — that turns ideas into innovations, transform discoveries into successful commercial products and companies, and promotes and enhances the American way of life.”

And here we come to the second key feature of the current conflict: this blurring of the boundary between universities and the private sector that results from the commercialization of academic research.   The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, and subsequent revisions, gave universities patent and intellectual property rights over the results of research funded by the federal government. In doing so, it liberated the entrepreneurial energies of the academic community. As a result, according to an official report in 2012, “Today, American research universities are closer to the marketplace than they have ever been, with a focus on translating and transferring research discoveries to industry.” (Lieber’s CV states that he has no less than 65 awarded and pending patents.) In short, as universities have become key sources of innovation for industry, so the boundary between basic and applied research, protected by the Fundamental Research Exclusion, and the development or commercialization of research results, protected by patents, has become increasingly blurred. For someone like Lawrence Tabak, the principal Deputy Director of the NIH, it has virtually disappeared. “Even something in the fundamental research space, that’s absolutely not classified, has intrinsic value,” he says.  This “pre-patented” material “is the antecedent to creating intellectual property. In essence, what you’re doing is stealing other people’s ideas,” he claims. The implication is that all research covered by the FRE is so pregnant with commercial possibilities that it has to be treated as if it were patentable and protected, or else it will be “stolen.”

The Bayh-Dole Act was signed into law when most foreign nationals on U.S. campuses were from allied countries.  Today the situation is very different.  American universities award about 5,000 PhDs in science and engineering to Chinese students every year. The shift in the focus of university research toward the development-end of the R&D spectrum, and a culture that encourages its commercialization, introduces them to know-how and knowledge that are close to the market. While the greater majority stay in the U.S., an increasing number return to their homeland, where they are joined by experts temporarily recruited by China’s Thousand Talents and similar state-sponsored programs.  Let’s look more closely at these developments that are of immense concern to the FBI and the federal funders of fundamental research.

China’s Talent Recruitment Program and Its Innovation Development Strategy

What is the scale and scope of China’s innovation system today?  The National Science Board’s 2020 report on science and technology indicators provides one with a time-sensitive picture of the stunning rise to prominence of the Chinese innovation system. It notes that while gross domestic expenditures on R&D in the U.S. almost doubled between 2000 and 2017, China has experienced a tenfold increase over the same period to reach about 90 percent of the U.S.’s figure. In 2015 China awarded 32,000 PhDs in natural science and engineering, bypassing the U.S.’s 30,000. China’s S&E publication output has risen tenfold since the year 2000 so that China’s output in terms of absolute quantity now exceeds that of the U.S. This has been accompanied by a growth in quality, as measured by the citation rates of papers published by authors in China. China has also become a desirable partner for the American research community: in 2018, 39 percent of scientific papers published by an author based in the U.S. were co-authored with someone in another country.  More than a quarter of these (about 56,000) were with partners in China, more than with any other nation. This collaboration is facilitated by overseas Chinese living and working in the U.S. who are imbued with what historian of science Zuoyue Wang calls a spirit of “cultural nationalism,” expressed through their “identification with the developmental aspirations of their country of origin.”  The administration often presents U.S.-Chinese scientific cooperation as a one-way transfer of knowledge and technology from this country to China, as happened with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.  The picture that emerges here is of a dumbbell, not a vacuum cleaner, with two equally weighted communities at each end joined by a bridge of mutual respect.

China’s official talent recruitment programs were devised to compensate for the “brain drain” of gifted scholars to foreign countries. As of 2013, no less than 84% of Chinese students who received Ph.D. degrees in science or engineering stayed in the United States for at least five years.1 Talent programs sought to take advantage of the intellectual assets of overseas Chinese, and of foreign scholars, to inject new ideas and expertise into the indigenous innovation system. It is the participation by Charles Lieber at Harvard, by Li Xiaojiang and his wife Li Shihua at Emory, and many other U.S.-based researchers who are funded by the Thousand Talents Program (TTP) that is being targeted by the U.S. administration today.

The TTP was established in 2008. A recent authoritative study estimated that by 2018 the program had recruited about 7,000 well-educated and highly skilled researchers.2 Participants in the program have several options to choose from, including short-term, long-term and entrepreneurial fellowships. The program recruits established scholars, young professionals, and “top-notch talents and teams.” A short-term contract requires a three-year commitment to spend at least two months a year in China. The long-term contract will usually be for people under 55 years of age willing to work in China on a full-time basis. They must have full-time professorships in prestigious foreign universities or R&D institutes or have senior titles from well-known international companies or financial institutions. Salaries and benefits are generous and go along with substantial start-up funds — RMB1million (about US$150,000) for established scholars.

A close reading of the official Thousand Talents Program website shows that it involves far more than what one usually finds in an international exchange program.3 China is not simply interested in people with outstanding intellectual track records. As the program’s “History and Background” statement puts it, when gifted recruits “go (back) to China, they are playing a positive role in the scientific innovation, technological breakthrough, discipline construction, talent training and hi-tech industry development, as an important force in the construction of the innovative country.”

These government-funded talent projects are embedded in an overall agenda that seeks to transform China into a global economic power by the mid-21st century.  The Made in China 2025 plan, launched in 2015, has singled out ten key sectors in which the PRC seeks to secure a dominant share of the global market. Theyare central to the so-called fourth industrial revolution, integrating big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and other emerging technologies into global manufacturing supply chains. Some of their foci — artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality, financial technology, gene editing— will be generic so that many applications or end-use technologies can be built upon them. They are part of a technology-driven innovation strategy that sees investment in innovation as contributing to nation-building.

China regards its talent recruitment programs as a legitimate instrument for economic and military modernization. The FBI insists they are platforms to advance “China’s […] economic dominance over us,” using “economic espionage and theft of intellectual property.” For the U.S., protecting economic security involves defining policies to control transnational flows of knowledge to China from a university research system that is increasingly integrated into the commercialization of new products and processes that enhance American prosperity.

Dealing with the Threat Posed by Fundamental Research to Economic Security

The pressure to protect intellectual property will gradually transform the culture of international collaboration on American campuses, aligning it more closely with what we find in corporate laboratories.  Many international collaborations in fundamental research continue to treat the knowledge produced as a common good, shared by all in the interests of advancing scientific understanding. As the FBI’s Priestap put it to a Senate Judiciary Committee, “Unlike in the corporate world, university researchers are rarely required to sign nondisclosure agreements or terms of collaboration, which many professors view as volatile of the spirit of academic openness.”  This “contractual paucity” that pervades academia, Priestap went on, “makes proving foreign intellectual property theft challenging.” This is because “U.S. economic espionage law requires the victim of the theft to demonstrate that he took reasonable precautions to protect the secret stolen precisely what does not happen in the informal, free-wheeling climate of most university research laboratories.  

It is not illegal to participate in Chinese talent recruitment programs if both parties respect each other’s intellectual property rights. It is the violation of those rights to the U.S.’s disadvantage that is the issue here.  Granted the difficulty of convicting researchers of economic espionage, those rights are being strictly enforced in federal contracts awarding grants.  The NIH has taken the lead in using this instrument to mitigate and prevent the possibility of IP acquisition before it happens, rather than seeking to criminalize it afterward. InNovember 2019, Jodi Black, Director of External Affairs, reported that the NIH had identified “at least 120 scientists at 70 institutions,” not all of them ethnic Chinese, who had committed unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality — this out of 300,000 grantees who receive $31 billion annually in medical research through 50,000 competitive grants.  The numbers are small.  But the integrity of the whole research process that depends on openness, trust, and transparency is being jeopardized. And all the more so when researchers use U.S. taxpayer dollars to finance innovation in a competitor whose political system is orthogonal to their own.

Non-state actors have also begun to impose pre-emptive controls on knowledge circulation in grant applications.  In April 2019, MIT announced a new process to assess research proposals involving collaboration with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. They had to be vetted internally before they were even submitted for external support to see if they posed an “elevated risk” related to “intellectual property, export controls, data security and access, economic competitiveness, national security, and political, civil and human rights […]”

New regulations are also in the pipeline to limit foreign access to the academic research system. The Trump administration has reduced the duration of visas for graduate students from China from five years to just one year, renewable, in robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing.  All three are priorities in the Made in China 2025 program. The State Department’s new visa application form requires applicants to disclose all the names that they have used on any of 20 social media platforms for the last five years, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.  U.S. researchers who have participated in foreign talent programs may soon be denied any further federal government support for their research, so striking a particularly serious blow to Chinese-American researchers who have fostered co-ethnic links with colleagues on the mainland. There is talk of “updating” the FRE by specifying areas of sensitive fundamental knowledge to which it does not currently apply.

Looking Forward

Today, more than ever, economic security is national security.   The wave of new restrictions on U.S. academic collaboration with China is a reaction — some insist an overreaction — to the threat posed to U.S. economic security by Beijing’s talent recruitment programs, combined with its stated ambition to be a major economic player in strategic markets by 2049. Trade wars are not only about steel and soya beans.  They are also about controlling the global circulation of emerging technologies, knowledge, and know-how that will define the international distribution of economic and political power by the mid-21st century.

Academic labs are central hubs in that system.  We still do not know how profoundly the administration’s confrontational approach to China will transform academic life.   Many prospective Chinese students are reconsidering their plans to study in the U.S. for fear of being discriminated against ethnically, of being denied access to certain fields of study, and of being obliged to leave the country immediately after they graduate.  The crisis surrounding Covid-19 has increased their anguish.   They resent the President’s labeling of SARS-Cov-2 as the “Chinese virus.” They will be discouraged by new steps being taken to preserve jobs for American nationals to deal with an unprecedented number of local unemployed.  Universities whose business models are based on having large numbers of fee-paying foreign students face serious financial difficulties.  High-tech firms like Google and Apple, which recruit large numbers of talented Chinese graduates in science and engineering, face a shortage of skilled “manpower.”  As for life in the laboratory, it is likely that the free-wheeling, spontaneous sharing of know-how, preliminary research findings, and research materials that fosters the production of cutting-edge knowledge will be circumscribed to protect intellectual property. Academic freedom will be jeopardized by government intervention in university labs that are increasingly administered like corporate R&D facilities. As one official from Washington put it recently at a meeting of university administrators and researchers, “If you behave like a business, we will treat you like a business.”  He was referring to the possible invocation of export controls on knowledge-sharing in academia that would require a license from the government to teach foreign nationals from China in certain topics, or for them to use certain kinds of experimental equipment. There is a high price to pay for the commercialization of academic research in a global world in which the U.S. is not the only major player, and in which highly trained scientists and engineers are sought after by competing universities, corporations, and governments.  But then the stakes are high, too.  As the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council put it, “The important reason for the backwardness and beatings of China in modern times is that it has lost contact with previous scientific and technological revolutions.”  This will not happen again.  “Innovation drive is the destiny of the country,” and through it we will “realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  The Chinese authorities are determined to overcome a historical legacy of foreign oppression from the 19th century onward, dislodging the U.S. from its dominant position in the world order.  The Trump administration is determined to stop that from happening.

  1. David Zweig and Siqin Kang, “America Challenges China’s National Talent Programs,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Occasional Paper Series, No, 4, May 2020, 2.
  2. Zweig and Kang, 5.
  3. In the face of American hostility, the Chinese authorities have taken down the website.