Have Chinese Spies Infiltrated American Campuses?

When Trump came to power, he was quick to ring the alarm about China, which he said was “raping our country.” In November, 2018, Sessions held a press conference to announce the China Initiative. Our innovations, he said, “can be stolen by computer hackers or carried out the door by an employee in a matter of minutes.” As a showpiece, Sessions—who would be fired by Trump six days later—unveiled an indictment alleging that spies had targeted an Idaho-based maker of semiconductors. This was the first such program to be dedicated to the actions of a single country. Trump reportedly said at the time, of people from China, “Almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.” Tao was the first academic arrested under the Initiative.

Franklin Tao was born Tao Feng in 1971, in a mountain village on the Yangtze River. The child of subsistence farmers, he often had little more to eat than cornmeal mixed with water. “The older men in my family were tall, but childhood malnutrition stunted my growth,” he told me. While his mother worked in the fields, he stood on a rickety stool to chop vegetables, and his fingertips were soon etched with scars. In middle school, his science teacher told him that one could make anything using chemistry, including medicine, but what particularly captivated his imagination was the idea that food could be created with only yeast.

Tao was the first student at his high school in three years to pass the national college-entrance exam, and he attended college in Chongqing. “I read my textbooks and saw that most things had been discovered by scientists in the Western world,” he told me. “I wanted to study with the people who invented and discovered these things.” In 2002, months after he and Peng married, the couple moved to Princeton, New Jersey, for his doctorate. His adviser, Steven Bernasek, told me that Tao was “an incredible student, one of the very best I’ve ever worked with—very creative, very hardworking, filled with ideas.” Tao never missed a day in the lab, and in four years completed a formidable dissertation and published fifteen papers. He felt free and happy. When the couple’s twins—a girl and a boy—were born, they were both named, with respectively gendered variations, after Bernasek; upon each was bestowed the middle name Princeton.

Tao studies an arcane subfield of chemistry that focusses on how chemicals react on the surfaces of substances. As a postdoc at Berkeley, he learned to use a technique called ambient-pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, which allows for precise analyses of these reactions; though AP-XPS experiments involve highly constrained, artificial conditions, the resulting theoretical insights may eventually provide a basis for the development of clean-energy sources. The work was fiendishly difficult, but Tao found solace in Christianity, later rechristening himself Franklin, after the church in which he was baptized. Peng, who kept deferring her own professional ambitions, told me, “He should not have married me but married science.”

In 2010, Tao entered the job market. He was offered a fellowship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, historically home to a range of classified research, and cleared a background check, but ultimately decided that he preferred a university environment. He was invited to interview at M.I.T., but before he could travel to Cambridge he received a take-it-or-leave-it offer from Notre Dame. The university promised to purchase him an AP-XPS machine—a room-size collection of dials, hoses, and domes that looks like a child’s retrofuturistic notion of a time-travel device—to support his experimental program, and he accepted. Before long, he received a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation for about six hundred thousand dollars and another from the Department of Energy.

After four years, Tao was lured by a friend to the University of Kansas to help build a new program there. Kansas was not quite what he had envisioned—the lost M.I.T. interview was never far from his mind—but he would be hired with tenure. In August of 2014, Tao, his family, and more than a million dollars of federal grant money moved to Lawrence. In the meantime, his friend had second thoughts, and left Tao to build the new program alone. During Tao’s first semester of teaching, his father’s health deteriorated. He made the four-day journey home, and when he returned after his father’s funeral, a month later, student complaints about his absence had been registered in his file.

Two years later, Tao was passed over for an anticipated promotion. He found this baffling. He published about fifteen papers per year, most of them in his field’s top journals; in his estimation, he produced a quarter of his department’s output. But he wasn’t a schmoozer. One recent postdoc told me, “You saw other faculty members in the department go to lunch together and whatnot, but Franklin spent all his time working.” His lack of “soft skills,” as a former student delicately put it, made recruitment a challenge, and some researchers switched groups. The smartest of his American students, Tao noticed, preferred industry to scholarship, so he scouted for talent abroad. “Go to any research-university campus at 10 p.m. and knock on the door of a lab, and a lot of the researchers still working are going to be Asian,” he told me. In retrospect, Tao thinks that his single-minded ambition may have been his downfall. “We were encouraged to apply for grants from the funding agencies, and I was very successful,” he said. “But if I’d just taught they couldn’t have charged me.”

The Trump Administration’s forays into academia, where the distinction between routine coöperation and impropriety can be nebulous, proved more troublesome than officials may have expected. The D.O.J. had been emboldened by the successful prosecution of more straightforward cases of industrial espionage. In 2013, Xu Yanjun, a senior operative in Jiangsu Province’s Ministry for State Security, reached out, under various aliases, to experts at American aerospace companies, offering them paid travel expenses and stipends to give presentations at Chinese universities. In 2017, he narrowed in on an employee at G.E. Aviation, seeking information related to composite fan blades used in jet engines, which the Chinese had been unable to replicate. The employee contacted the F.B.I., which instructed him to hand over dummy documents and eventually to arrange a meeting in Belgium, where Xu was arrested. For the Administration, such activity was only the most visible aspect of a more submerged menace. In 2018, Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I., testified before the Senate that China represented a “whole-of-society threat,” and that its intelligence efforts were now exploiting “nontraditional collectors—especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students.”

“I knew the indoor pool was too good to be true.”
Cartoon by Jon Adams

China was indeed interested in annexing the world’s research-and-development base. In the nineties, it inaugurated a raft of “talent programs” designed to encourage Chinese researchers to return from overseas posts. The prospect of repatriation apparently held little appeal, so subsequent programs allowed recipients, either Chinese expats or Westerners, to maintain jobs elsewhere as long as they spent some time contributing to scientific infrastructure in China. The country spent lavishly—by one estimate, two trillion dollars in the past decade, more than its military budget—to subsidize salaries, startup costs, and living expenses for scholars who might seed domestic programs with the newest techniques. For researchers, the benefits were obvious: whereas American science funding had been relatively flat for three decades, Chinese expenditures increased by an average of sixteen per cent every year. American universities had long been encouraging collaborations in China, which were not only productive but could be lucrative.

For those inclined to take a zero-sum view of our rivalry with China, the talent programs were easily construed as a hazard. If China could simply import basic research wholesale, it could devote its own resources to breakthroughs that might have commercial or military applications. A former U.S. government official, who worked on these issues for various intelligence agencies, told me, “This was all a literal policy plan. Back in 2014, Xi Jinping said, ‘Our national power is going to be science and technology—that’s how we’re going to be a superpower, and we’re going to displace the U.S.’ It’s not a global collaboration to further science.” He continued, “The idea is: ‘We’re going to set up a parallel lab at our institution to replicate the work you’re doing in the U.S. We’re going to place researchers at your parallel lab in China. You’re going to train them up in the U.S. so they can come back. You’re going to take the federally funded research at your facility and run it in China so we don’t have to pay for it.’ ”

Trump Administration officials blamed American academics for being naïve collaborators, warning them in one F.B.I. memo that China “does not play by the same rules of academic integrity.” (The memo goes on to assert that the annual cost of stolen intellectual property is “between $225 billion and $600 billion,” oft-repeated numbers that Mara Hvistendahl, in “The Scientist and the Spy,” her account of Chinese economic espionage directed at Monsanto, shows to be essentially made up.) Most of the examples provided were drawn from industry, and the particular campus peril was left vague. Andrew Lelling, the former U.S. Attorney in Boston and one of the architects of the China Initiative, told me that the point was to encourage transparency: “The government was worried that there was a huge amount of collaboration with the Chinese that nobody knew about, and that was true!” F.B.I. agents toured American campuses to make their case, but the meetings often ended in mutual incomprehension.

The academic skepticism was not unwarranted. Participation in a talent program is not illegal. Plenty of countries have similar incentives to encourage technological development, and scientific expertise is necessary to determine what kinds of collaboration are improper. In 2015, the physicist Xiaoxing Xi was arrested at gunpoint in front of his family for sending sensitive blueprints to Chinese colleagues; he faced eighty years in prison. It later came out that the F.B.I. hadn’t bothered to consult anyone trained to read the blueprints, which were actually for something anodyne. Classified research occurs at national laboratories; most college professors couldn’t understand what their work—which was invariably destined for open publication—had to do with national security. “When the F.B.I. people left the room, everyone looked around at each other and said, ‘They have no idea how science works,’ ” a former senior State Department official told me. “ ‘We don’t have trade secrets and we don’t work on anything that’s classified.’ ”

University administrators could ignore the F.B.I., but they couldn’t ignore major funders. In August of 2018, the National Institutes of Health sent more than ten thousand letters to academic institutions saying that it had reason to suspect that “systematic” attempts to steal intellectual property were under way, and advising them to pay attention to scientists who didn’t disclose foreign ties. Some letters mentioned individual scientists, whose names had been drawn from research papers where Chinese institutions were listed before American ones.

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