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REVEALED: American Big Tech Firms Help China SURPASS U.S. in STEM Research Through Talent Poaching and Acquisition


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Key Points

  • For nearly 20 years, China has made the recruitment of leading scientists and researchers a top priority in their goal of overtaking the U.S. in the STEM fields
  • The Chinese have launched “Recruitment Programs” to poach overseas talent and gain a back door entry into U.S. labs and research centers, allowing them to gather sensitive equipment and intelligence used to bolster their infrastructure and military.
  • While the U.S. Justice Department has poured time, money and resources into combating Chinese talent poaching, Big Tech Corporations have actively helped China attract both foreign and domestic STEM talent by establishing training centers in China and outsourcing STEM jobs in the U.S. to Chinese workers through the H-1B visa program.

By Price Sukhia

For decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has viewed advanced technology as a way to “leap frog” American leadership in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and eventually overtake the U.S. as the world’s foremost super power. Increasingly, American universities and Big Tech corporations are helping the Chinese acquire top-tier talent in scientific and technological research.

This development has come into focus after a recent report from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology found that a stunning 10 percent of the collective Artificial Intelligence (AI) labs of Big Tech firms – IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook – are operated in China. According to the report, U.S. tech corporations carry out research in foreign countries like China primarily to access local talent and save on costs.

But by housing research facilities in China and recruiting Chinese STEM researchers, companies like IBM and Google are directly helping Xi Jinping achieve his goal of technological dominance by strengthening and advancing China’s local talent pool. This trend seems to be the latest example of how Silicon Valley’s near-term financial interests are undermining the long-term economic vitality and national security of the United States.

Over the past 20 years, the Chinese have placed an emphasis on securing top-level talent in the fields of scientific research, with President Xi describing talent as the primary means for China to gain the high ground in scientific research and innovation. In May of 2015, the CCP announced new initiatives to recruit overseas experts in strategic sectors as part of a larger effort to wean China’s research capabilities off its dependence on American innovation. In order to achieve that goal however, Beijing must first bridge the technological divide that exists between China and America. Although the U.S. still maintains its lead in advanced technology, the Chinese have significantly narrowed the gap by acquiring technology from U.S. corporations and educational institutions seeking to grow their top lines in the Chinese market.

But formal tech transfers from American organizations are just the tip of the iceberg. So called “recruitment programs” give the CCP a back door entry into U.S. research labs allowing agents to gather sensitive equipment and the “know-how” used to advance Chinese infrastructure and bolster the capabilities of China’s military. By taking advantage of open-source data, encouraging academic exchanges, and recruiting top talent in high-tech fields, China has been able to effectively leverage America’s experience, facilities, and resources in key technological industries.

Programs like the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) have become a crucial aspect of China’s move to surpass the U.S. in manufacturing and technological development by 2025. The TTP is a People’s Republic of China (PRC) initiative to poach leading foreign experts in the STEM fields. According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, the underlying mission of the program is “to facilitate the illegal and illicit transfer of US technology, IP and know-how to China.” From the time the program was launched in 2008 to the summer of 2014, the TTP had successfully recruited more than 4,000 scientists and researchers to China. Another PRC recruitment program called Project 111 was able to entice thirty-nine Nobel Prize winners and nearly 600 university scholars to high-ranking positions in various labs, companies and research centers in China. While these programs are advertised as benevolent initiatives designed to bring countries together through friendly collaboration in the name of science and human progress, it’s become clear that they actually serve as a front for Chinese intelligence operations.

In 2018, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division launched an initiative to identify and prosecute individuals engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage. Since then, the DOJ has tried more than eighty cases of Chinese intelligence operations within university and corporate research centers. Last year, several prominent American researchers receiving grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were indicted by the DOJ for hiding financial ties with China’s TTP. Among them were Dr. Charles Lieber of Harvard University, Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li of Emory University, Dr. Qing Wang of the Cleveland Clinic and Professor Song Guo Zheng of Ohio State University. More recently, a senior NASA scientist named Meyya Meyyappan pleaded guilty to making false statements regarding her involvement with the TTP, and a former professor from the University of Florida was indicted for fraudulently obtaining $1.75 million in federal grant money from the NIH after having concealed support funding from the TTP.

Chinese talent recruitment programs, like the TTP and Program 111, have become a key aspect of China’s move to surpass the U.S. in manufacturing and technological development by 2025. But while federal agencies pour time, money and manpower into halting China’s procurement of American scientists and researchers, Big Tech firms of Silicon Valley are helping the CCP foster and retain Chinese talent.

In 2014, IBM donated $100 million to China’s Ministry of Education in support of one hundred Chinese universities to nurture talent in the field of Big Data and Analytics. That same year, the company partnered with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Pactera Technology International in Beijing to build a big data graduate training system targeting mid-to-high-end researchers. In 2015, Microsoft invested $40 million in Tsinghua University’s Global Innovation Exchange program allowing Chinese students to receive a fifteen-month master’s degree in Seattle, Washington. The program’s curriculum focused on the interconnectivity of physical devices or the “Internet of Things.” In 2018, Google partnered with China’s Fudan University in Shanghai to establish a joint lab to research AI, data science, mobile applications, and other advanced technologies. Google helped Fudan create the China-US Youth Maker Exchange Center to “cultivate top-notch innovative talent.”

AI has become an important area of focus for the Chinese government, as they believe it will be a crucial element of China’s future autocracy and military capabilities. Big Tech’s rationale for housing such critical research as AI under the purview of the PRC, was perfectly articulated by the head of Microsoft Research Asia in an interview in which he stated, “We don’t believe all the smart and most passionate people doing research will all come to [the United States].”

The idea that the U.S. lacks talent in the STEM fields has been a notion that Silicon Valley has pushed for many years. In 2008, Bill Gates argued in testimony to the House Committee on Science Technology that the cap on H-1B visas for foreign STEM workers and researchers was too low. Gates complained that companies like Microsoft needed scientists and researchers from foreign countries such as China and India because they could not find enough STEM talent from within the United States. However, experts have found that there is no empirical data to support the claim that the number of graduates in the STEM fields is declining. According to John Miano of the Center for Immigration Studies, not only does the United States produce an ample amount of tech workers, the number of foreign STEM workers imported through H-1B outnumbered the jobs created in the industry. An additional report from Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute found that the data indicated an overflow of American graduates in the STEM fields.

Even so, only about twenty-five percent of students who graduate with a STEM degree in the U.S. end up working in a STEM-related job after college. Most of those jobs are in the production and manufacturing sectors. Some experts believe students are not taking these positions because they view them as low-paying jobs with limited growth potential. One possible solution for the tech companies of Silicon Valley, who may be concerned about a potential decline in American innovation, would be to pay American STEM workers more. But increasing wages would be a tough sell to companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, who have found that Chinese laborers are willing to work for far less than their American counterparts. According to the Boston Consulting Group, corporations who outsource their R&D to foreign researchers can lower costs by 40 to 60 percent.

Despite the data discrepancies of Gate’s House testimony, his narrative seemed to strike a chord with many, including his corporate peers at other Big Tech firms. In April of 2013, Mark Zuckerberg created a lobbying group called FWD.us to advocate for increased H1-B immigration visas. Co-founders included prominent executives from the tech world, including Gates, Jim Breyer (Breyer Capital), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Sean Parker (Brigade), John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers), Ron Conway (SV Angel), and Chamath Palihapitiya (Social Capital LP). FWD.us also received major contributions from Paul Graham (Y Combinator), Irwin Jacobs (Qualcomm), Dick Kramlich (NEA), Keith Rabois (Khosla Ventures), Eric Schmidt (Google), and Gary Vaynerchuk (VaynerMedia) among others. The effort to expand the H-1B program is still underway. Just last year, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Amazon all lobbied for the passage of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2020. That bill eliminated the 7 percent cap for employment-based immigrant visas and removed an offset that would have reduced the number of visas for individuals from China.

Meanwhile, in China, Xi Jinping has doubled down on his ambitious Made in China 2025 Plan, which calls for China to “take advantage of international and domestic resources and markets” by embracing and accelerating the “opening up” strategy through the principles of “Going Out” and “Bringing In.” According to the initiative, China will “Select talented young professionals and students, especially those with a professional and technical background, to go abroad for study and training, while building international training bases in China.”

Fortunately for Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, American Tech firms have helped them do both.