The China Threat
Chinese Talent Plans Encourage Trade Secret Theft, Economic Espionage
Foreign governments sponsor talent recruitment programs, or talent plans, to bring outside knowledge and innovation back to their countries—and sometimes that means stealing trade secrets, breaking export control laws, or violating conflict-of-interest policies to do so.
While various countries use talent plans, the Chinese government is the most prolific sponsor of these programs—and the United States is one of China’s main targets.
The U.S. welcomes international collaboration in academic and scientific research and business development. But American businesses, universities, and laboratories should understand the potential risks and illegal conduct incentivized by Chinese talent plans and take steps to safeguard their trade secrets and intellectual property.
China oversees hundreds of talent plans. All incentivize its members to steal foreign technologies needed to advance China’s national, military, and economic goals.
China recruits science and technology professors, researchers, students, and others—regardless of citizenship or national origin—to apply for talent plans. Individuals with expertise in or access to a technology that China doesn’t have are preferred.
Participants enter into a contract with a Chinese university or company—often affiliated with the Chinese government—that usually requires them to:
- Subject themselves to Chinese laws
- Share new technology developments or breakthroughs only with China (they can’t share this information with their U.S employer or host without special authorization from China)
- Recruit other experts into the program—often their own colleagues
China will let people with existing jobs in the United States participate in talent plans part-time so they can maintain their access to intellectual property, trade secrets, pre-publication data and methods, and U.S. funding for their research.
Talent plan participants are offered multiple financial, personal, and professional benefits in exchange for their efforts.
China’s talent plans have successfully recruited participants around the world to work on key programs like military technologies, nuclear energy, wind tunnel design, and advanced lasers.
Talent plans can sometimes foster legitimate sharing and collaboration as part of an appropriate business arrangement or research exchange, but this is not the norm.
Instead, talent plans usually involve undisclosed and illegal transfers of information, technology, or intellectual property that are one-way and detrimental to U.S. institutions.
Your students and/or employees could be talent plan participants. Many people who participate in these programs work at prominent U.S. laboratories, businesses, and universities, including places where government research is conducted for sensitive military and scientific projects.
Transparency and disclosure regarding an individual’s participation in a talent plan are essential. This is the only way U.S. institutions can assess the risks to their intellectual property, prevent abuse of the open access offered by the U.S. research environment, and ensure grant-funding programs are fair and equitable. Unfortunately, many participants do not disclose their involvement in these programs.
An individual’s undisclosed participation in a talent plan may:
- Pose risks to national security because of the participant’s obligation to the Chinese government
- Result in inappropriate use of taxpayer funds if the participant is awarded a U.S. government grant
- Harm other researchers and scientists by jeopardizing their professional credibility and their ability to obtain future research funding—and denying them the professional and financial benefits of their efforts—if their work is stolen and transferred to China
- Result in the recruiting of colleagues by the participant
- Result in lasting financial damages to your institution due to stolen information or the inability to obtain federal research funding in the future
Even if talent plan participants who steal information are eventually caught and prosecuted, the damage done to your organization by intellectual property theft may be irreversible.
Although participating in talent plans is not inherently illegal, you may violate U.S. law, especially if you don’t properly disclose your affiliation.
You should familiarize yourself with and abide by disclosure and conflict-of-interest rules required by your U.S. employer and the U.S. government. Transparency and full disclosure of talent plan membership and foreign contracts or agreements are essential for institutions to assess risk.
You risk criminal prosecution when you steal intellectual property or misuse grant funds. Talent plan participants have pleaded guilty or been convicted of offenses including:
- Export-control law violations
- Economic espionage and theft of trade secrets
- Grant and tax fraud
To learn more about how the FBI partners with private industry and academia to protect economic and national security, visit the Office of Private Sector website.