Mon, Jul 22, 2019 - Page 7 News List

US targeting of Chinese scientists fuels brain drain

A Chinese scientist’s start-up left the US after a federal investigation that included a failed sting, airport stops and an unfounded child porn search

By Peter Waldman  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

It was a big opportunity for a small research university. In 2013, Zhao Xin (趙鑫), a prize-winning doctor from the College of William & Mary, landed venture funding to commercialize some of the school’s patented nanotechnology.

Zhao’s start-up rented space nearby, hired local graduates and agreed to fund US$1 million of new research at the Williamsburg, Virginia, campus.

“It was what everyone wants to see — a success story of a university spinout,” says Jason McDevitt, the school’s director of technology transfer.

Six years later, Yick Xin Technology Development Ltd is up and running, but not in Virginia. The company’s research and development and new patent registrations — the lifeblood of any technology start-up — have moved to China.

The planned William & Mary spinout left the US after federal agents hounded its founder, Zhao, for two years, and prosecutors accused him of trying to smuggle a robotic arm from Florida to a university in China that US officials had linked to the nation’s top nuclear weapons lab.

The charges were dismissed in December 2017 — but Zhao, shaken by the ordeal, gave up his US research operations.

The 44-year-old applied physicist’s struggle to clear his name, extricate himself from a persistent undercover sting and overcome a 2016 arrest shows how the US’ heightening cold war with China presents risks for ethnic Chinese scientists working in the US.

He is among a growing number who are leaving behind their families and taking their skills and business opportunities to — where else — China.

“My dream was defeated,” says Zhao, whose crew-cut and boyish face belie the brash candor with which he tells his story. “I came here for freedom and security. Now fear is pushing us back to China.”

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Homeland Security, which led the investigation, disputed any suggestion that the government was unfair to Zhao, noting that he agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program, which included performing 30 hours of community service.

It is rare for federal prosecutors to offer diversion in felony cases like Zhao’s, but in many respects, his case resembles a paperwork problem that got way out of hand.

Like tens of thousands of China’s best and brightest, Zhao came to the US to earn his doctorate and settled down as a permanent US resident, but his plan to monetize his inventions by combining US entrepreneurship with Chinese capital and manufacturing became a casualty of the intense scrutiny US law enforcement officials are applying to Chinese scientists.

Over the past decade, concern has grown steadily in Washington that China “seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense,” as FBI Director Christopher Wray put it in an April speech.

While the basis for that concern — China’s efforts to purloin US innovation and know-how — is well-documented, the response has been sweeping: Agencies across the federal government have mobilized against potential Chinese industrial spies, warning companies and universities and anyone else with intellectual property to be particularly vigilant when dealing with Chinese business partners and employees who might be what Wray calls “nontraditional” information collectors.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is even cracking down on biomedical researchers with undisclosed ties to China at such organizations as the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

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