Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called China the “most sophisticated” actor of foreign countries subverting our biomedical research in last week’s Senate hearing on the topic. This follows the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community earlier this month. That assessment, cited by Sen. Burr, noted that “China will remain the top threat to US technological competitiveness as the CCP targets key technology sectors and proprietary commercial and military technology from US and allied companies and research institutions associated with defense, energy, finance, and other sectors.”
In the Senate hearing, panelists disclosed several disturbing cases of research theft by the CCP and its agents. Dr. Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified that Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, fired its CEO and five other senior people for connections to the Thousand Talents Program. Gary Cantrell, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations at the Office of Investigations of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services, provided in written testimony examples of two researchers who had been compromised with China ties as found by OIG fraud investigations.
Cantrell’s first example was a professor of internal medicine who led a team conducting autoimmune research at The Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University. This professor pled guilty in late 2020 to making false statements to federal authorities to get $4.1 million in NIH grants and failing to disclose “his participation in a Chinese Talent Plan and his affiliation and collaboration with a Chinese university controlled by the Chinese government.”
President Biden and Congress need to build on the recent Senate hearing and DNI threat assessment and make combating the CCP’s influence on research and our higher institutions a top priority.
Cantrell’s second example was the allegation that one researcher from the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) failed to disclose receipt of grants and research support from a variety of Chinese sources, including the People’s Republic of China’s Thousand Talents Program. VARI has agreed to pay $5.5 million to resolve this and another allegation.
But these testimonies only show a tip of the iceberg of recent discoveries about CCP infiltration into the higher education and research apparatus of the United States. A 2019 Senate report estimated that China had recruited approximately 7,000 researchers and scientists as part of its Thousand Talents Program (TTP) by 2017. The TTP targets U.S.-based researchers and scientists that focus on or have access to cutting-edge research and technology. These operate without transparency, and in response to U.S. government scrutiny China has attempted to delete online references to its talent recruitment plans and reportedly instructed Chinese institutions on how to avoid additional U.S. attention. Recently, several TTP researchers have been found illegally taking money from the CCP or sending research back to Mainland China. The National Association of Scholars found 46 cases of such instances in American higher education and government research since 2010.
CCP research theft continues in Thousand Talents Program and beyond
There have been several Department of Justice cases of prosecution of CCP research theft since I last reported on China’s infiltration of research and higher education in The American Spectator back in January. Three major developments in these cases occurred last week alone.
Last week, a chemist, who is a U.S. citizen, was convicted of conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, conspiracy to commit economic espionage, possession of stolen trade secrets, economic espionage, and wire fraud. While working as an employee of the Coca-Cola Company and later at Eastman Chemical Company, the chemist stole nearly $120 million in trade secrets from Akzo-Nobel, BASF, Dow Chemical, Eastman Chemical Company, PPG, Sherwin Williams, and Toyochem. These trade secrets related to formulations for bisphenol-A-free (BPA-free) coatings for the inside of beverage cans. The chemist worked with a Chinese corporate partner, Weihai Jinhong Group, to use these trade secrets to establish a BPA-free coating company in China. The chemist and Weihai Jinhong Group received millions of dollars in grant money from the Chinese government, including a Thousand Talents reward. Trial documents showed that the chemist had intended to benefit the Chinese government, the CCP, Shandong province, the city of Weihai, and the Weihai Jinhong Group. The chemist is currently scheduled to be sentenced in November.
Also last week, a mathematics professor at the Southern Illinois University was indicted with two counts of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement. He allegedly fraudulently concealed that he received money from the Chinese government and a Chinese university, and this allegedly allowed him to receive over $150,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Specifically, the mathematics professor allegedly applied for and received NSF grant funds for a 2019 to 2022 project while not disclosing overlapping grant funds he had received from the Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province, China, and also not disclosing that he was being paid by Shenzhen University in Guangdong Province to teach and conduct research from 2018 to 2023. If convicted, the mathematics professor faces up to 20 years in prison on each count of wire fraud and up to five years in prison for making a false statement, in addition to up to $250,000 in fines for all charges combined.
And in a third case last week, a former employee of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio was sentenced to 33 months in prison for stealing “exosome-related trade secrets concerning the research, identification and treatment of a range of pediatric medical conditions.” He had pled guilty in December 2020, and his wife was sentenced to 30 months in prison in February for her role in the theft. The pair collectively pled guilty for conspiring to steal at least five trade secrets related to the hospital. The couple had conspired to steal and then monetize one of these trade secrets by setting up a company in China to create and sell exosome “isolation kits.” The couple had received benefits from the Chinese government, including the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, as well as through a Chinese talents program reward. In addition to prison time, the couple will forfeit approximately $1.45 million, 500,000 shares of common stock of Avalon GloboCare Corp., and 400 shares of common stock of GenExosome Technologies Inc. They were also ordered to pay $2.6 million in restitution.
In late February, a Chinese businessman living in Hong Kong was indicted for allegedly attempting to steal trade secrets worth millions of dollars from General Electric (GE) involving the company’s silicon carbide MOSFET technology. “MOSFETs, or silicon carbide metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors, are small electronic semiconductors/switches that regulate the flow of electricity through devices and are used in a variety of products,” reads the DOJ press release. He had allegedly conspired to steal these trade secrets in order to establish a competitor company to produce the technology in China. The Chinese businessman even created a business plan for and sought $30 million from potential investors. His alleged co-conspirator is a GE engineer. If convicted, the businessman faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
In mid-February, a grand jury added charges to an existing indictment of a researcher at Stanford University who also allegedly worked for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The researcher is charged with visa fraud; obstruction of official proceedings; two counts of alteration, destruction, mutilation, or concealment of records; and making false statements to a government agency. In her J-1 visa application, the researcher stated that she was a neurologist “student” who had worked in a Xi Diaoyutai Hospital in China and was coming to the United States to conduct research at Stanford University related to brain disease. In fact, the hospital was cover for her true employer, PLA Air Force General Hospital. The researcher allegedly attempted to delete files relating to her military service and visa fraud. If convicted, the researcher faces a maximum statutory penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for the visa fraud count, up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each of the obstruction and alteration charges, and up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for the false statements charge. The researcher has pled not guilty, is currently out on $250,000 bail, and is expected to go to trial after July.
In early February, a former University of Florida biomedical engineer professor was indicted for allegedly fraudulently obtaining a $1.75 million in NIH grant money for developing an “imaging informatics tool” for muscles known as “MuscleMiner” without disclosing his ties to the Chinese government and a Chinese company he founded. He had applied for and was accepted into China’s Thousand Talents Program. The former professor is charged with six counts of wire fraud and four counts of making false statements to an agency of the United States. He left for China in August 2019 and has not returned to the United States. The DOJ wrote that, “Each count of wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Each count of making false statements to an agency of the United States is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.”
Update on the Confucius schools
President Biden’s CIA director, William Burns, has warned the president that he believes the Confucius Institutes are a threat to our country. According to opening remarks and statements from a February 2019 Senate hearing, Confucius Institutes agree to abide by Chinese law, censor content dealing with Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre, and can have content vetoed by Chinese officials. From 2006 through 2019, China provided nearly $160 million to directly fund Confucius Institutes.
On the surface, it appears that we are winning the war against Confucius Institutes. According to the National Association of Scholars, there are currently 50 Confucius Institutes in the United States, down from 96 in January 2019. But many of the Confucius Schools are merely rebranding, like Cornell’s Confucius Institute is doing, according to the Washington Free Beacon. Some universities are closing the institutes in name only, while reopening China Centers and retaining the same staff. And K-12 Confucius Institutes are rebranding as part of a Chinese Language Partner Network.
But the Biden administration apparently wants to have little to do with the closures of the Confucius Institutes. After House Republicans asked President Biden to finalize Trump’s proposed regulation that would require more transparency on the Confucius Institutes both in higher education and in K-12, President Biden rescinded this proposed rule.
Where to go from here
President Biden and Congress need to build on the recent Senate hearing and DNI threat assessment and make combating the CCP’s influence on research and our higher institutions a top priority. In January, former President Trump had issued a memo detailing the government’s role in protecting research from foreign infiltration, including by the CCP. The Trump White House had also published guidelines for universities on how to protect that research. To the Biden administration’s credit, President Biden’s NIH adopted these guidelines in March for its grant applications. But President Biden and Congress must do more to combat the Thousand Talents Program and other CCP theft of research.
First, Congress should reintroduce, and President Biden should sign, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act (S. 3997), which would increase transparency on foreign ties to federal grant applications and ratchet up punishments for bad actors. Congress should pass, and President Biden should sign, legislation such as the CONFUCIUS Act (S. 590), the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act (S. 822), and the End College CCP Act (H.R. 1263), which would limit the power of the Confucius Institutes and CCP influence generally in our higher education. President Biden should also introduce regulation that is at least as strong as former President Trump’s proposed rule ratcheting up transparency on the Confucius Institutes. The Biden administration, or Congress, should provide universities with incentives to partner with Taiwan and dissidents from Hong Kong and Mainland China to promote Chinese language and cultural exchange. Lastly, the State Department should seek to issue more F-1 student visas to Hong Kong and Chinese dissidents and Taiwanese than to non-dissident Chinese nationals.