Espionage and Discrimination in Science: China’s Complicated Role

Science is frequently viewed as an enterprise dependent on collaboration. It is crucial for scientists worldwide to work across cultural, political, and generational barriers for the sake of furthering scientific knowledge, as the open exchange of information between scientists facilitates faster, more efficient, and higher quality research. However, recent developments in the international research community have endangered this culture of collaboration due to governments attempting to exploit it, hoping to steal research secrets from their collaborators. While many countries are guilty of this tactic, one of the most prolific perpetrators is China. Complicating these matters further, targeted countries often respond to Chinese espionage by curtailing the civil liberties of Chinese scientists working overseas. Despite the pressing security risks, it is imperative that countries protecting their research do so without infringing upon the civil liberties of scientists.

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According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the military branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been rapidly increasing its sponsorship of military scientists. These scientists study and perform research with institutions around the world, with more than 2,500 scientists being sponsored between 2007 and 2018. While this exchange may seem indicative of healthy collaboration, there are dozens of recorded instances of PLA scientists engaging in illegal intellectual property theft and espionage at their collaborating institutions. One such example was identified earlier in 2019 at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where three scientists were ousted due to undisclosed relationships with the Chinese government and concerns of stealing research. It is still unclear how many PLA scientists are currently conducting research espionage worldwide.

Due to the wide variety of scientific fields in which these scientists do research—ranging from biochemistry to physics to engineering to social science—there are concerns that espionage can lead to the stealing of secrets with cross-cutting military, economic, and national security implications. Naturally, these instances of intellectual property theft and espionage give targeted countries cause for concern. In the past decade or so, these concerns (in tandem with heightened nationalistic tendencies globally) have prompted Western governments to retaliate against China and other governments performing research espionage. Two prime examples are the governments of the United States and Australia.

In 2018, the Australian Parliament passed the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill 2018 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018, a pair of bills intending to crack down on espionage and foreign influence in various facets of Australian civil society. In the United States, the State Department announced increased regulations on Chinese student visas and the National Institutes of Health issued letters to U.S. research institutions asking for information about faculty suspected of having secret ties to foreign governments. The complicated problem with these retaliatory policies, however, is that they are prone to discrimination against researchers of Chinese descent, resembling racial-profiling. Universities may feel pressured to audit or even fire Chinese scientists. In some cases, governments have pursued unfounded criminal charges against these researchers, jeopardizing the scientists’ careers and livelihoods.

Many in the U.S. research community remember Xiaoxing Xi, the former chair of the Physics Department at Temple University who was arrested in 2015 on charges of illegally sending research findings to China, charges that were eventually dropped. Despite the dropped charges, Xi was stripped of his chairmanship and most of his federal research grants. He has since been waging an ongoing lawsuit with the U.S. government, claiming his treatment was motivated by racial bias.

Xi’s case served as a clarion call for researchers of Chinese descent and human rights activists to voice their displeasure with anti-Chinese regulations and sentiments; several researchers of Chinese descent in Australia and the United States have signed open letters criticizing retaliatory policies. They claim these policies alienate people of Chinese ancestry and are indicative of a rise in anti-Chinese xenophobia that could scare brilliant scientists from bringing their talents to Australia and the United States. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which criticized the Australian legislation as “clear examples of government overreach in the name of national security,” and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been providing Xiaoxing Xi with assistance in his legal battles, denounce these policies as racially motivated civil rights infringements. 

With these civil rights considerations in play, what options do targeted countries such as Australia and the United States have at hand? It is undeniable that intellectual property theft and research espionage are serious problems and warrant preventative action. However, the civil rights and liberties of persons of Chinese descent are put at risk by unrestrained preventative action, not to mention risking the well-being of the global scientific community. If governments are to implement policies intending to prevent Chinese influence in research settings, they need to be targeted in a manner that restricts the reach of the PLA, not the civil liberties of Chinese researchers. Otherwise, these governments risk damaging the exchange of ideas necessary for a robust research enterprise and weaken the hallmark civil protections of liberal democracy.

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Ben Goodrich

Ben Goodrich holds a B.A. in Political Science and History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work at the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) focuses on the policies affecting the scientific community, especially those conducting social and behavioral science research. He also serves as the Outreach & Communications Manager for YPFP’s Washington headquarters. You can connect with him on Twitter @benmgoodrich and Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-goodrich/.

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