The US’ arrests earlier this week of several Chinese-American scientists on suspicion of espionage have raised concerns over the possible implications for Taiwanese participating in Beijing’s “thousand talents” program.
China has included Taiwanese researchers in the program as part of its 31 incentives announced in February, offering them generous salaries and other financial benefits. If these researchers take trade secrets and advanced research to China, it is a huge blow to Taiwan, both economically and militarily.
Chinese espionage in the US also presents a threat to Taiwan, as those secrets could be used to invade Taiwan and hamper the US’ ability to respond in the event of a cross-strait conflict.
There is also the concern that Taiwanese researchers might lose the trust of their peers, and risk being blacklisted by Washington and losing cooperation opportunities in the US.
International cooperation is beneficial to scientific advancement, but nations lose any competitive advantage garnered from research conducted at their institutions when it is lost to a foreign government.
China “depends on industrial espionage, forced technology transfers, and piracy and counterfeiting of foreign technology as part of a system of innovation mercantilism,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a report.
Innovative research is expensive and Chinese companies often seek to avoid this expense, as a lack of protection for intellectual property rights in China makes research costs hard to justify.
In April, it was discovered that China was testing a stealth technology that would hide warplanes from radar systems. The New York Times on April 30 reported that there were suspicions that Beijing obtained the technology through a Chinese researcher who worked on similar technology at Duke University in 2008.
The administration of US President Donald Trump, citing such cases of espionage, has been seeking to ban Chinese researchers from US institutions.
Some politicians, such as US Senator Ted Cruz, have said that urgent action must be taken, as China is infiltrating US universities through its Confucius Institutes, which disguise themselves as centers for language and cultural exchanges, but are used by Beijing for espionage — which one of the institutes has admitted.
It would not be difficult for Chinese intelligence agencies to recruit Chinese students in the US involved in research that is of interest to Beijing, as the students need to regularly return to China to renew their visas.
Taiwanese researchers make even easier targets, as many of them voluntarily go to China to work or study — a situation that Beijing’s incentives might exacerbate.
So how can Taiwan and the US safely allow scientific and academic exchanges, and cooperate with China?
In the case of Chinese scientists in the US, it is imperative to fully understand their motivation for being there, their long-term plans and their ties to Beijing.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese who have had access to sensitive industrial or military technology should not be allowed to have any contact with Chinese officials or travel to China.
In July last year, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Fraser Stoddart criticized Trump’s approach to the issue, saying unfettered access and travel are crucial to scientific advancement.
In an ideal world, he would be correct. Unfortunately, the very freedom of people to meet and share ideas would come under threat if authoritarian governments are allowed to undermine democracies worldwide.
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