Espionage comes in many forms, and with many faces. An old school of thought was to only look at foreign nationals of one country carefully, to the literal discounting of others. Lest we fall into this profiling trap today, let’s think this through. As cleared professionals, we want to be alert to any threat, and report it appropriately.
Online espionage by China continues to grab headlines. It is described as widespread, and its nationals all suspect. Perhaps so, but consider: If you were hoping to get intelligence, and your adversary was watching you carefully, would you only rely on fellow countrymen to spy?
As a rule, spy handlers like to recruit those who speak their own language. Language skill continues to be a major barrier, not just for typically poor American linguistic performers, but for other countries as well. Why would China’s espionage service not recruit a Taiwanese, when such a person is less likely to be suspected by American agencies than a Chinese national? In fact, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville recently saw one of their professors arrested and charged. He was a Chinese engineering professor named Anming Hu. Hu hid his previous affiliation with Beijing University. A quick check of his website, his published papers, and other open source information would have precluded his being hired in the first place. Why? Federal law prohibits certain financial contracts be awarded (in this case with NASA) when it might reasonably go to China. So why did the university not check?
Probably because they are like so many other places of science, education, or business. They didn’t spend the time to conduct due diligence and review with whom their personnel are reasonably connected. Often, this is based on a basic trust of professional scientists. This trust holds that science and research are not national, but of worldwide application. Such trust is based on an idea extending back to the Age of Enlightenment; that all scientific experimental practices are reasonably shared with others in common scientific pursuits. The exceptions are in the world of classified research, or in certain legal practices in contracting and communication.
Of course, checking affiliations online would be easy. If I hire a foreign national, should I not check to see with whom he publicly associates? Consider, would we have checked to see about the contacts of someone in this following story? Here is a case where China enmeshed an Americans with a non-Chinese sounding names.
The Harvard Professor Arrested for Chinese Espionage
A Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, was recently arrested by the FBI. They charged him with trading ‘knowledge for money’ with China. How did he come to China’s attention?
Lieber responded to something the Chinese call their ‘Thousand Talents Program‘ plan. This plan “…targets people under 55 years of age who are willing to work in China on a full-time basis, with full professorships or the equivalent in prestigious foreign universities and R&D institutes, or with senior titles from well-known international companies or financial institutions.” Where did this targeting information come from? A purloined classified document snatched from the bowels of some sinister Chinese espionage agency? No. This comes from an official website of the Chinese program itself. In fact, in not too subtle wording it continues, “People who are introduced by this program shall support the Communist Party of China and the socialist system, maintaining compliance with the Constitution, laws, regulations and policies of the People’s Republic of China, with full professorships or the equivalent in prestigious foreign universities, R&D institutes and other institutions of art and culture, enjoying a high global reputation and being influential in their academic fields.”
The appeal goes on to offer special housing arrangements, and a host of other preferment which would appeal to specialists around the world. And they meant just that. It is speculated that the program began in order to entice Chinese scholars to return home to help their native land. However, over time, Western educators, entrepreneurs, and young professionals of every stripe were solicited. Lieber was one of these. It is for this reason that concealing participation in Chinese activities in your Curriculum Vitae is a violation. When you go to work for China, you must make that clear in your subsequent applications for work in the United States.
While much attention is paid to the efforts of China and the influence of Chinese nationals in the United States, it’s worth noting how the Thousand Talents Program will look to attract and retain professionals of any ethnic origin. In the months and years to come, China may find it particularly helpful to retain those with no connection whatsoever with China or its affiliates. And it’s also worth noting – with eyes turned to China, you can count on other adversaries, including Russia, to be working just as hard and hoping American attention is elsewhere.