Spy Fears Prompt China to Censor Its Own Recruitment Drive

(Bloomberg) -- China’s government has forbidden state media from referencing its flagship talent recruitment program after a participant was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last month, according to people familiar with the situation.

The program, known as “Thousand Talents,” began in 2008 as a way for the government to attract the brightest Chinese people abroad to contribute to innovative sectors in China’s economy. Censorship of the term follows other recent orders to ban mentions of “China-U.S. trade war,” the #MeToo movement, a vaccine scandal and a faulty peer-to-peer money-lending program, according to the people, who asked not to be identified.

China’s foreign ministry and State Council Information Office didn’t immediately reply to faxed questions about the censorship.

The order reflects growing concerns in Beijing over China’s image abroad as Western governments in particular become increasingly skeptical of investment from the world’s second-largest economy. Australia in June introduced unprecedented foreign interference laws amid reports of Chinese meddling, while espionage fears threaten to open a new front in the President Donald Trump’s trade war.

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday informed the state-owned Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network that they must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, according to a person familiar with the matter. That requires organizations attempting to influence U.S. policy makers or public opinion on behalf of foreign governments to disclose information about their ownership structure and annual budget.

The Trump administration in May announced plans to restrict the visas of Chinese students studying in America. During an Aug. 8 dinner with CEOs and senior staffers, Trump claimed that almost every student coming to the U.S. from China “is a spy,” according to Politico. A recent White House report was titled “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World.”

Texas Tech University circulated a letter Sept. 9 alerting staff to legislation receiving consideration in Congress that would sanction U.S. faculty associated with Chinese, Iranian and Russian talent programs -- including “Thousand Talents.” The program attracted 7,018 participants between its inception in 2008 and last August, according to China’s state media.

GE Engineer

Beijing’s censorship order for “Thousand Talents” came after the August arrest in New York state of Xiaoqing Zheng, a 56-year-old Chinese-American General Electric Co. engineer. Zheng, who had worked on steam turbine technologies for GE after being hired in 2008, is alleged to have stolen technology secrets from the company. His lawyer has disputed the accusations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Zheng was recruited to the Thousand Talents program in 2012. He traveled often between the U.S. and China, founding two companies in China that also specialize in turbine technology. At least two of the program’s other participants were caught up in U.S. judicial cases this year.

Chinese leaders once saw talent recruitment as crucial to their quest to be a global scientific and technological power by 2049, with President Xi Jinping calling it “the key” to China’s scientific development. But lately China has sought to downplay its significance, purging terms depicting it as a menacing power and toning down language on plans for expansion.

‘Humble Attitude’

No major reports on the “Thousand Talents” program could be found on the official Xinhua News Agency’s database between Aug. 1 and Sept. 19. That compares with regular pieces between January and July.

“Keeping a humble attitude is constructive for China’s international relations, easing the doubts that China is anxious to overtake the U.S.’s position in leading the world,” said Wang Huiyao, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, an independent think tank.

Immigrants from China and other nations have been shown to typically pay higher tuition rates that can help subsidize educations of their native-born peers. As of 2013, 84 percent of Chinese doctorates remained in America five years after graduation, according to the National Science Foundation.

Liu Yuanli, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, told Bloomberg News he was selected to the program in 2013, and now works simultaneously as dean of the School of Public Health at China’s Peking Union Medical College. He is an adviser to China’s State Council on health.

Liu said he thinks he hasn’t been impacted by recent events because he works in health, and not a more sensitive area like technology.

“Monitoring foreign students in special majors has a long history, but under this administration and its ‘America First’ policy, it has definitely gone to another level,” Liu said. “Restricting Chinese researchers plays well for Trump supporters but it will hurt the U.S. in the future.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Peter Martin in Beijing at pmartin138@bloomberg.net;Dandan Li in Beijing at dli395@bloomberg.net

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board