Australia’s spy agency has warned universities about the risk to national security from Chinese government recruitment programs, including the Thousand Talents Plan, and has alerted them to the potential for collaboration to turn into espionage. ASIO gave private briefings to universities urging them to strengthen their disclosure regimes and making them aware of the risks of foreign talent recruitment programs including technology transfer, security sources said. The revelations come as the deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Labor MP Anthony Byrne, supported a demand by his Liberal colleague and committee chairman Andrew Hastie for an “urgent” inquiry into the Thousand Talents Plan.
Mr Byrne said the inquiry should take place through the parliamentary committee in order to obtain classified briefings from Australian and US agencies. An investigation has revealed dozens of researchers at universities across the country had been recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan, which in some cases pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to academics and provides other lucrative perks. In exchange, academics are bound by contract terms that can include a requirement to assign intellectual property to Chinese universities. Mr Byrne said: “This raises an alarm about our national sovereignty. It would appear that Australian universities have turned a blind eye to their own academics selling their knowledge to a foreign power through a program that the FBI have identified as a national security and economic espionage threat. This is totally unacceptable.”
Education Minister Dan Tehan has revealed that his department would in coming weeks brief two powerful parliamentary committees on the issue. The “Thousand Talents Plan” is a Chinese Government program to recruit top scientists from around the world. It was originally designed to reverse China’s brain drain. Under Xi Jinping’s civil-military fusion, the Thousand Talents Plan helps China achieve technological and innovation advances. Western academics have been recruited through their colleagues, superiors or even via LinkedIn. They are offered a lucrative second-salary, upwards of $150,000 a year, with generous research funding. Some academics are given an entire new laboratory in a Chinese university and team of research staff.
Many are proud of their Thousand Talents link and participate with consent of their universities. Others have not disclosed the link to their universities and do not publicly admit to being part of the program. Some Thousand Talents contracts stipulate they cannot disclose their participation in the Chinese Government program without permission. They continue to work full-time for their Australian university while making frequent trips to China to visit the affiliated Thousand Talents Plan university. They continue to apply for Australian Research Council grants, with no checks about where the research will end up. Their new inventions are patented in China, often secretly.The inventions may be commercialised, with China reaping the economic benefits. Thousand Talents academics may be required to recruit more academics.
“I am working to ensure Australia’s higher education sector has strong protections against foreign interference,” Mr Tehan said. “In the coming weeks, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment will be providing in camera briefings on the government’s work to strengthen protections against foreign interference to the Senate Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.” ASIO has briefed universities on warning signs relating to academics who had been recruited by the Chinese government and also expressed concerns about some specific academics. ASIO confirmed the briefings on the Thousand Talents Plan and similar programs in a rare statement.
“ASIO regularly engages with Australian tertiary institutions and academia on national security issues,” a spokesperson said. “The details of those discussions are sensitive and it would be inappropriate to comment further.” Pressure is mounting on the Morrison government to hold an inquiry into foreign interference. Mr Tehan and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton both declined to comment on whether they supported the push. Higher education sources citing the sensitivity of the discussions, said ASIO had twice provided high-level briefings about foreign influence in the sector, including Thousand Talents and similar programs. The agency had also provided specific briefings to universities when it had particular concerns about a researcher, said sources involved in these discussions.
Universities already have disclosure registers for secondary employment and other conflicts of interest, but all contacted during the investigation of the Thousand Talents Plan declined to make these available. A security source said universities needed to be careful international collaboration did not become more serious and that they needed to be aware “there may be an espionage element”. “The starting point is research collaboration is overwhelmingly a good thing,” a senior security source said. “There are risks and these programs are sometimes used as a way of Intellectual Property or technology transfer.” The “Thousand Talents Plan” has been described by FBI director Christopher Wray as “economic espionage”.
Under “Thousand Talents Plan” contracts, scientists legally sign away the rights to their intellectual property to China. A standard clause in the contracts states China: “owns the copyrights of the works, inventions, patents and other intellectual properties produced by Party B (the academic) during the Contract period.” Many contracts order the scientist to observe the Chinese legal system, stating the academic: “shall observe relevant laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China and shall not interfere in China’s internal affairs.” Australian academics are also warned about religious practices, with contracts often stating: “Party B shall respect China’s religious policies, and shall not conduct any religious activities incompatible with his/her status as a foreign expert.”
They are offered a lucrative second salary, upwards of $150,000 a year, with generous research funding. Other perks include travel, tuition for their children and housing subsidies. Some academics are given an entire new laboratory in a Chinese university and team of research staff to work for them. They then have a “clone” team in China – often unbeknown to their Australian employer. The academic often makes numerous trips to China to conduct research. The aim of the program is to ‘own’ the research conducted and paid for by western universities. Another Thousand Talents contract states: “We anticipate that you will make several trips to China each year during the term of your engagement, but will perform much of your work remotely.”
China will benefit from the commercialisation: “Should Chinese scientists contribute to your discoveries in China, as we anticipate, our institutions will jointly own, protect and manage the commercialisation of these jointly-made discoveries.” While the FBI is investigating more than 1000 cases in the US involving real or attempted theft of intellectual property, with many involving the Thousand Talents plan, in Australia, there is no agency that combines intelligence and law-enforcement. The Thousand Talents Plan does not fall directly into ASIO’s remit and it also involves IP theft in exchange for money. This is not currently illegal in Australia, although it is open to police to make a case for fraud, if one exists.
There is also the question of Australian Research Council grant funding going offshore. There are no checks and balances to ensure this does not happen. Official regulation of the sector is patchy, with universities themselves left to police questions of foreign interference. Mr Sharma said the revelations about the Thousand Talents program were deeply worrying. “If you’re employing an academic, you have a right to assume they are loyal to you, some of these academics seem to have been serving two masters, without the knowledge of their Australian university employer,” the Liberal MP said. Mr Wilson said: “It’s essential to be vigilant against the Chinese Communist Party’s tentacles. Senator Kitching said Australia was “playing catch-up with other jurisdictions” when it came to combating this problem.
Source: Compiled by APN from media article
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