By Julie Zhu, Fanny Potkin, Eduardo Baptista and Michael Martina
HONG KONG/SINGAPORE/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For a decade until 2018, China sought to recruit elite foreign-trained scientists under a lavishly funded program that Washington viewed as a threat to U.S. interests and technological supremacy.
Two years after it stopped promoting the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) amid U.S. investigations of scientists, China quietly revived the initiative under a new name and format as part of a broader mission to accelerate its tech proficiency, according to three sources with knowledge of the matter and a Reuters review of over 500 government documents spanning 2019 to 2023.
The revamped recruitment drive, reported in detail by Reuters for the first time, offers perks including home-purchase subsidies and typical signing bonuses of 3 to 5 million yuan, or $420,000 to $700,000, the three people told Reuters.
China operates talent programs at various levels of government, targeting a mix of overseas Chinese and foreign experts. The primary replacement for TTP is a program called Qiming overseen by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, according to national and local policy documents, online recruitment advertisements and a person with direct knowledge of the matter who, as with others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
The race to attract tech talent comes as President Xi Jinping emphasises China’s need to achieve self-reliance in semiconductors in the face of U.S. export curbs. Regulations adopted by the U.S. Commerce Department in October restrict U.S. citizens and permanent residents from supporting the development and production of advanced chips in China, among other measures.
Neither China’s State Council Information Office nor the ministry responded to questions about Qiming. China has previously said its overseas recruitment through the TTP aimed to build an innovation-driven economy and promote talent mobility, while respecting intellectual property rights, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Qiming, or Enlightenment, recruits from scientific and technological fields that include “sensitive” or “classified” areas, such as semiconductors, two of the people said. Unlike its predecessor, it does not publicise awardees and is absent from central government websites, which the sources said reflected its sensitivity.
Some of the documents mention Qiming alongside Huoju, or Torch, a longstanding initiative of the Ministry of Science and Technology that focuses on creating clusters of tech companies. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Qiming also operates in tandem with recruitment initiatives run by local and provincial authorities and a government-backed hiring drive by Chinese chip companies, according to two of the people and another source familiar with the matter. Reuters could not independently establish the companies involved.
The U.S. has long accused China of stealing intellectual property and technology, a charge Beijing has dismissed as politically motivated.
“Foreign adversaries and strategic competitors understand that acquiring top U.S. and Western talent is often just as good as acquiring the technology itself,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesperson for the U.S. government’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, when asked about Chinese talent recruitment schemes.
“When that recruitment creates inherent conflicts of interest or commitment, that can create risks to U.S. economic and national security.”
Curtailing intellectual property leakage via talent flows is difficult, said Nick Marro, a China analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, because such efforts “can run the risk of turning into ethnically-charged witch hunts”.
China’s chip industry has flourished in recent years but faces a shortage of about 200,000 people this year, including engineers and chip designers, according to a 2021 report published by the China Center for Information Industry Development, a government think tank, and the China Semiconductor Industry Association.
China’s newer talent endeavours, which like the TTP focus on elite-level recruitment, favour applicants trained at top foreign institutions, three sources said.
“Most of the applicants selected for Qiming have studied at top U.S universities and have at least one Ph.D,” said one of these people, adding that scientists trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Stanford universities were among those sought by China. The universities did not respond to requests for comment.
Reuters could not determine how many experts have been recruited under Qiming or associated programs, though thousands have applied, according to Reuters’ review of government documents.
U.S. officials say that while talent poaching in the U.S. is not illegal, university researchers risk breaking the law if they fail to disclose affiliations with Chinese entities while receiving U.S. government funds to conduct research, illegally share proprietary information, or violate export controls.
Reuters found more than a dozen advertisements for Qiming applicants posted since 2022 on Chinese platform Zhihu and LinkedIn by people who identified themselves as recruiters.
In a February LinkedIn post, Chen Biaohua, who listed his employer as Beijing Talent Linked Information Technology, asked candidates eligible for Qiming and Huoju to email him their resumes.
The post said Chen was seeking “young talents” under 40 with a doctorate from well-known universities and overseas experience. He was also seeking applicants who held senior roles at foreign academic institutions or large companies.
Headhunting firm Hangzhou Juqi Technology posted an ad in March on ResearchGate, a social network for academics, seeking people with doctorates from top universities and experience at Fortune 500 companies to help recruit 5,000 overseas researchers for Chinese enterprises.
The ad described this effort as serving Qiming and Huoju, with each researcher able to obtain as much as 15 million yuan, or about $2.1 million, in rewards. It said that anyone who recommends a candidate who is then selected for the talent programs would receive “diamonds, bags, cars, and houses”.
Chen and LinkedIn declined to comment. Questions sent to Chen’s employer, as well as to Zhihu, ResearchGate and Hangzhou Juqi Technology yielded no responses.
One foreign-trained semiconductor expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) was identified on its website as a 2021 Qiming recipient. Ma Yuanxiao is an associate professor at BIT’s School of Integrated Circuits and Electronics, who did his masters at Britain’s University of Nottingham between 2013 and 2015 and his Ph.D at the University of Hong Kong until 2019.
Ma and BIT did not respond to requests for comment.
Across China, provincial and municipal governments are pouring resources into the recruitment drive, official documents show.
One initiative is the Kunpeng Plan, run by authorities in eastern Zhejiang province, whose 2019 launch was covered in state media. The Zhejiang Daily reported in June 2022 that the program aimed to attract 200 tech experts in five years, with 48 already recruited.
In the eastern city of Wenzhou, local authorities’ investment in each Kunpeng professional can reach up to 200 million yuan, including an individual reward, start-up funding and housing, according to a 2022 talent policy report by the city government.
A report by the Wenzhou branch of the Communist Party’s Organization Department, which oversees personnel decisions, said its total budget in 2022 increased 49% from a year earlier, mainly because it had assigned 85 million yuan to Kunpeng and similar programs.
One Kunpeng recipient is Dawei Di, a Cambridge-educated professor at Zhejiang University whose research focuses on semiconductor optoelectronic devices, the university’s journal reported in 2021.
In Huzhou, also in Zhejiang, employers that recommend candidates to Qiming can receive incentive payments of up to 1.5 million yuan from the city or district governments if those people are accepted, according to a 2021 city directive.
None of the city, provincial or Communist Party authorities, nor Di or his university, responded to queries from Reuters.
‘ONE FOOT OUT’
Despite Xi’s emphasis on advancing China’s chip know-how, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said many Chinese semiconductor experts overseas were wary of returning because of China’s political environment and weaker position in chip development relative to the West.
“They have no idea if the programs could change overnight or lose government support,” one said.
Zhuji, a county-level city in Zhejiang, reported in October 2022 that it had over 200 applicants for talent programs, mainly Qiming, but only eight successful candidates from the previous year had returned to China. Zhuji government’s general office did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Two people familiar with the matter said some Chinese scientists, especially those with foreign citizenship or permanent residency, worried that joining China’s government talent programs could mean forgoing international opportunities or becoming subject to U.S. investigations.
In some cases, these people said, those experts will be offered roles at Chinese chip companies’ overseas operations.
“Safer to have one foot in China, one foot out,” one said.
($1 = 7.1475 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Julie Zhu, Fanny Potkin, Eduardo Baptista and Michael Martina; editing by David Crawshaw)