Over 1,000 Chinese ‘Researchers’ Leave as U.S. Targets Intellectual Property Theft

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers participates in a virtual news conference at the Department of Justice on October 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. - Five Chinese agents have been arrested in the United States for their role in an operation targeting opponents of the Chinese government, …
SARAH SILBIGER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers, speaking at the Aspen Cyber Summit on Wednesday, confirmed over 1,000 Chinese researchers have left the United States since the Trump administration has escalated its attempts to curb Chinese intellectual property theft.

“More than a thousand PLA [People’s Liberation Army] affiliated Chinese researchers left the country,” Demers confirmed. “So, our prosecutions were just the beginning of that, but they allowed us to message to the Chinese government that, if you’re gonna send individuals here, you’ve got to do so honestly and you can’t do so hiding their affiliations with the PLA and Chinese military universities.”

William Evanina, who heads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, further alleged at the same event that Chinese officials were already targeting those close to former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely incoming commander in chief, as well as his potential cabinet picks and administration officials.

“We’ve also seen an uptick, which was planned and we predicted, that China would now, revector their influence campaigns to the new administration,” Evanina said, noting that Chinese efforts were apparent “not only with the folks who are in the new administration, but those who are around those folks who are in the new administration.”

Evanina did not elaborate on what he meant by “revectoring.”

The Trump administration has repeatedly accused the Chinese Communist Party of widescale intellectual property theft and espionage, in part committed by individuals who hide their ties to the Chinese military, the PLA. FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the prevalence of such Chinese activity in November, noting that his agency opens a China-linked counterintelligence investigation “nearly every ten hours.”

One of the most prominent examples of the results of those investigations occurred in June, when U.S. authorities arrested a PLA official at Los Angeles International Airport before he could leave the country with University of California research which the U.S. government had sponsored.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying addressed both concerns in a press conference on Thursday, dismissing concerns from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as rooted in “strong ideological bias and a strategy to contain China.”

Hua further categorized the U.S. efforts against Chinese intellectual property theft as “political oppressive campaigns” [sic] consisting of  “arbitrary harassment, persecution, and oppression against experts and scholars.”

“China is open to the world. We welcome travels, exchanges, and cooperation by people from the United States and around the world,” Hua added. “We are a confident, open country that is ready for communication. Why is the United States, a self-claimed powerful ‘democracy,’ being so unconfident when it comes to normal exchanges with China? We hope those in the United States can calm down and take it as food for thought.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led a year-long investigation into Chinese recruitment programs and their efforts to acquire U.S. intellectual property. In a Thursday statement, he offered a conflicting sentiment to Hua’s derision of U.S. actions, noting:

The news that more than 1,000 researchers have left the U.S. due to their links to the Chinese military follows multiple guilty pleas and the string of arrests of academics affiliated with American universities for alleged crimes related to concealing their participation in China’s talent recruitment programs while accepting American taxpayer funds.

President Donald Trump campaigned in part on curtailing Chinese intellectual property theft from American companies and leveling the playing field for U.S. firms that do business with China.

Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid-2019 that his agency had over 1,000 active investigations into Chinese intellectual theft, adding “there is no country that poses a more severe counterintelligence threat to this country right now than China.”

In early 2020, Trump successfully negotiated a Phase One trade deal with China, which included provisions to protect American firms from predatory Chinese practices and strong enforcement mechanisms.

Despite the trade deal’s inroads on the issue, Chinese malefaction in the digital sphere remains a point of concern for U.S. tech firms, though many remain uncomfortable addressing the issue, given their expansive operations in the totalitarian communist state.

In a July hearing with the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood alone in asserting the prevalence of Chinese theft to the detriment of American firms.

“I think it’s well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies,” Zuckerberg told Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL).

The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, and Google either denied any instances of theft or demurred. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos conceded only that he “heard many reports of that.”

Apple, Amazon, and Google all have extensive dealings with China.

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