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Trade war

China hushes up scheme to recruit overseas scientists

US has become increasingly suspicious of China's Thousand Talents Programme

China's 'Thousand Talents Programme' is made up of several different schemes and has recruited some 6,000 scientists.   © Reuters

BEIJING (Financial Times) -- China has asked officials to stop mentioning its premier programme to recruit the brightest tech talent from overseas, after growing suspicions over the scheme from the US.

Late last year, the government ordered civil servants and recruiters not to discuss by name the "Thousand Talents Programme", under which thousands of scientists and experts have been attracted to China with lavish grants.

The plan, which began in 2008 to boost the standard of Chinese research, and which was instrumental in bringing back a large number of scientists born in China who had grown up or studied overseas, is still active, according to a number of recent applicants and civil servants. The last application round occurred in December.

But an order to hush up the programme came after US investigators turned their attention to the scientists who have taken part, especially those who previously worked in the US or who had returned to the US after spending time in China.

In December, Bill Priestap, assistant director of the counter-intelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned a US Senate committee that China's "talent recruitment and "brain gain" programmes... also encourage theft of intellectual property from US institutions".

Last September, Texas Tech University warned faculty in a letter that the US Congress saw the Thousand Talents programme as "part of a broader strategy to build technological superiority" and that the State Department and Congress believed elements of the plan to be "closely allied to the Chinese military".

The letter contained a warning: that recipients of Thousand Talents awards could be barred from Department of Defense grants, and in future possibly federal research grants, a significant disincentive for researchers.

Han Lifeng, the chief executive of a talent agency that has worked with about 30 "Thousand Talents" experts, has noticed the mood shift. "Technology competition between the US and China is fierce now. The US sets obstacles for scientists who want to come back, so China doesn't mention the name 'Thousand Talents Plan' in documents or meetings any more."

One academic at a top Chinese university was told to remove the "Thousand Talents" awards from the websites of some faculty members, in order to "protect them from suspicion".

Others have warned against US government concerns turning into a broad-brush, racial attack against Chinese scholars, following a shortlived White House proposal to halt student visas for Chinese nationals.

"The US is trying to suppress China all-round, the Thousand Talents plan is not the problem," said Rao Yi, a professor of neurobiology at Peking University who gave up his US citizenship after 22 years of living there in order to return to China. Mr Rao said he had been denied visas to the US several times.

At the Shenzhen Innovation Park, a tour guide skipped past the Thousand Talents slogan painted on to one wall. "We don't mention that scheme by name any more," she explained.

The national Thousand Talents programme is made up of several different schemes and has recruited some 6,000 scientists. One major branch targets academics with job offers from a Chinese university, either to teach full-time or for a shorter summer placement.

Academics usually receive about Rmb1m ($146,670) in a personal "setting-up" grant, and then up to Rmb5m extra for a research grant to be spent as they wish. Experts can receive even more from local governments and add-on grants. According to the Chinese media, some "outstanding" researchers have been awarded as much as Rmb100m.

The plan helps Chinese universities compete with their better-funded international counterparts, and has played an important role in reversing some of the brain drain of talented families who left China to seek their fortune elsewhere.

"I think this program has done a lot to attract talented Chinese from abroad who otherwise would've stayed abroad. I think that's their main goal, really, to build the system back up with talent which is native to the country. I don't think there's anything wrong with that," added a foreign academic who wished to remain anonymous.

Tim Byrnes, assistant professor of physics at New York university's Shanghai campus, and a Thousand Talents recruit, said the Chinese government had not interfered with his research or directly investigated what he was doing.

"I've not had to give reports of my research for the Thousand Talents, and I don't see any plans to do so," he said.

The system can be highly opaque: Mr Han admits that the application process can be bureaucratic and require "connections" or "special channels" to make sure one is successful.

As a result, although "the intention is good", a lot of experts who are recruited are not necessarily world-class, said one professor, a recent Thousand Talents applicant. "Some of them are reaping benefits from confusion," the professor added.

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