China’s Thousand Talents Plan lured at least 44 Japanese Researchers

The Yomiuri Shimbun

At least 44 Japanese researchers have been involved in Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese central government-led project to attract high-level scientists from overseas, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

In some cases, the researchers were teaching at universities with close ties to the Chinese military after having received significant research grants from the Japanese government.

In order to prevent important technologies related to Japan’s economy and security from being taken, the Japanese government has decided to require researchers who receive government funds to disclose their overseas-related activities in principle.

Based on The Yomiuri Shimbun’s investigation, 24 researchers acknowledged their involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan. Involvement included participating in the program as well as accepting awards. The investigation also confirmed another 20 researchers whose involvement has been made clear on university websites or their own blogs.

As for the reasons for participating in the program, many said that the research environment in China was more attractive than that of Japan, with a large amount of research funds guaranteed by China.

The Japanese government had provided 13 of these 44 researchers with more than ¥100 million each, including for joint research, over the past 10 years in kakenhi (grants-in-aid for scientific research). According to databases made public by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and other organizations, the largest amount received was ¥767.9 million by a former professor who had belonged to a university in a coastal part of China. The total amount of kakenhi handed over to the 13 researchers was about ¥4.5 billion.

The U.S. Justice Department has deemed the Thousand Talents Plan as seeking to “reward individuals for stealing proprietary information” and violate export controls, so the United States has strengthened its surveillance, regulations and measures to prevent the outflow of technology.

In addition to requiring researchers who receive more than a certain amount of funding from abroad to disclose the information, the U.S. Energy Department has banned companies, universities and other parties using the department’s budget from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs. Tighter restrictions on the export of important and emerging technologies are also under consideration.

In Japan, there are currently no government regulations regarding participation in or other matters related to the Thousand Talents Plan, so it’s hard to find out the actual situation regarding Japanese researchers. Referring to the system in the United States, the government is considering establishing guidelines for research funded by the government by the end of this year, requiring disclosures when participating in projects related to foreign talent recruitment or accepting foreign funds.

China has been implementing the Thousand Talents Plan at the national level since 2008. It is estimated that through 2018 more than 7,000 foreign researchers, mainly from the United States and Europe, have participated in the project. In recent years, however, China has not disclosed who the participants are in the project.

Eight out of Japan’s 44 researchers belonged to seven universities that are under the supervision of China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. Five of them are former members or former collaborating members of the Science Council of Japan.

China has been promoting a military-civilian integration policy as a national strategy to strengthen its military with cutting-edge technologies from the private sector, developing and introducing state-of-the-art weapons while strengthening its hegemonic actions around Japan. The Japanese government is concerned that if technologies that can be used for military purposes are taken by China, it will lead to the deterioration of Japan’s security environment.

Of the eight researchers, four belong to the Beijing Institute of Technology, known as the “highest research institute for weapons science.” They researched and taught artificial intelligence, robotics and neuroscience that can be used to manufacture robots at the university’s robotics research center. The center states on its website that it has been researching ballistic missile guidance and dual-use robots.

A researcher who belonged to the center told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Both my research and the robotics research going on at the university can be used for military purposes.” Another researcher pointed out that it is difficult to draw a line between civilian and military technologies.

Another four Japanese researchers belonged to Beihang University, which is listed in the Japanese government’s Review of the End User List so that permission from the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry is required before exporting cargo or technology there, because it is suspected of developing missiles that are weapons of mass destruction.

“There is always the risk that anything can be converted to military use,” said a Japanese researcher in nuclear astrophysics at the university. “What I teach is in the field of basic science, which is the furthest from military use. I also have permission from the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.”