On December 21, Charles Lieber, a Harvard professor and former chair of the university’s Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was convicted by a jury in Boston federal court of tax offenses and making false statements, after he was found guilty of concealing his contract with China’s Thousand Talents Program and the Wuhan University of Technology.
Prosecutors had said his Harvard laboratory had received more than $15 million in research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health between 2008-19 – funding that requires the reporting of any activities connected to a foreign government or agency that may involve a conflict of interest.
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Lieber did not report his contract with the Thousand Talents Program during part of this same period, when he was paid up to $50,000 a month, annual living expenses of $158,000 and a $1.5 million grant to establish a research lab at the university in Wuhan, for training Chinese students.
Thousand Talents is perhaps the most famous of the 600 programs China operates around the world aimed at recruiting international experts in scientific research, entrepreneurship and innovation. According to Chinese government data, 60,000 foreign experts were recruited this way in 2008-16. The projects include collaborations with labs and research institutes, the operation of joint training programs for Chinese and foreign researchers, and the organization of international conferences on technology and innovation.
According to a 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the activity of talent recruitment programs by China includes legal and acceptable channels as well as covert and illegal ones. These programs approach foreign researchers on an individual basis, offering them a host of benefits in exchange for research collaboration and the transfer of advanced knowledge they possess to China. Such approaches are mostly done surreptitiously, and the recruited scientists are asked to refrain from disclosing their involvement.
In September 2018, China’s government removed from the internet any reference to Thousand Talents and instructed recruiters in all areas to approach potential recruits only by phone or fax, not email. Chinese talent recruitment programs have been operating for decades in a variety of countries that have or that are developing advanced technologies. Their main focus is the United States, but they are known to be active in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Singapore as well.
The recruitment of global talent is an important component in China’s efforts to obtain technologies from other countries. Hiring foreign experts is a vital platform for transferring advanced technologies that were developed at the expense of other states and institutions, with a frequent conflict of interest between such experts and the institutions in which they worked. Material and professional perks serve as bait for collaboration, and a veil of secrecy makes it difficult for the parent institutions and countries of origin to discern this phenomenon and monitor it.
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The recruitment of talent takes place among experts in civilian areas and in areas associated with defense and military aspects. In the case of Lieber, many of the charges are based on false declarations and the concealment of information, in contravention of what researchers who receive government funding are obliged to do.
China’s interest in Israel’s technology is no secret, as is evident in their Innovative Comprehensive Partnership agreement, signed in early 2017. As with other leading countries in the research and development of defense-related technology, it’s likely that China is employing similar tools and methods in Israel – legal and overt along with illegal ones. A report by cybersecurity company FireEye from August exposed the operation of a comprehensive espionage program in manufacturing, technology and cyber-related areas, attributed to China and directed, among others, at Israel.
Two Chinese recruitment arms have been set up in Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva. The office of the attaché for economic-commercial affairs in China’s southwest at Israel’s consulate in Chengdu recently issued a call for candidates in a competition for the Chengdu Talent Cup, a call that was quickly removed from the internet.
Israel aspires to continue fostering fertile and secure ties with China in the future, including informed and consensual collaboration on specific technologies. The operation of China’s talent recruitment programs is apparent in Israel too, but its nature is unclear. Apparently, Israel’s academic institutions do not require their members to declare their participation in such ventures.
When academic researchers and experts take part in projects that are funded by the defense establishment, it is the one bearing the responsibility for security matters, and it must ensure appropriate oversight. Preventing the leakage of knowledge and technology is a national interest that goes beyond the interests of the defense establishment, impacting the future of the economics of innovation in Israel. It requires an appropriate approach, in academia and by the government.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, director of the Israel-China program at Tel Aviv University’s National Institute of Strategic Studies, is a former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Planning Directorate.
Dana Shem-Ur is a research assistant at the INSS China Program.