China’s “Thousand Talents Program” and Taiwan’s national security issues | Lee Bu-lan

Published (HKT): 2020.09.17 12:22

Professor Lee Duu-jong of the Department of Chemical Engineering of National Taiwan University (NTU), a candidate for the post of the president of National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST), was reported to have been a member of China’s Changjiang Scholars' Program and was on the list of China’s “Thousand Talents Program” (TTP). The report sparked controversy and Lee issued a statement through the NTUST yesterday afternoon announcing that he will drop out of the race to put an end to the tempest. Nonetheless, this incident deserves to be taken seriously by those in charge and even from all walks of life. There are key questions that need to be clarified in this incident. Is it illegal to accept Chinese research grants? Did Lee fully disclose his part-time position in China with relevant authorities? Are the relevant laws and regulations in Taiwan comprehensive? In addition, in the face of the encroachment of key scientific research projects by the “copycat nation,” how can open and democratic societies such as Taiwan and the U.S regulate without hindering academic autonomy?

From the beginning of the Sino-U.S. trade war, the emerging formation on the geopolitical map of the Indo-Pacific, to the establishment of a new global industrial chain decoupled from China, the U.S. government’s use of “academic espionage” to investigate American universities and national laboratories have always been an important battlefield of the Sino-U.S. strategic game. The arrest of the 61-year-old Harvard University professor Dr. Charles Lieber in January this year was a climax. Dr. Lieber is an American chemist and pioneer in nanoscience and nanotechnology, named by Thomson Reuters as the leading chemist in the world (2000-2010) based on the impact of his scientific publications, and is expected to win a Nobel Prize. In early June, he was formally charged with two federal counts of making false statements to federal authorities regarding his participation in China’s TTP. In May, the daily student newspaper of Harvard University, the Harvard Crimson quoted U.S. prosecutor as saying that the monthly salary of US$ 50,000 paid to Lieber under the TTP contract is “a corrupting level of money.”

We have to ask, how many Taiwanese scholars have participated in the TTP? Is accepting salary and funding for research from China the same as corruption? As a part-time consultant or an independent director of a public or private institution outside the university, a professor at a national university must not only obtain approval in advance, but also pay at least one month’s salary to the school as administration fee. However, have those full-time Taiwanese professors who have served as doctoral supervisors, chair professors, Changjiang Scholars and TTP members of Chinese universities ever been approved by the three-level teaching assessment committee? Who would have ownership of the intellectual property of the research project? In examining these issues, it is clear that there is a large gray area in Taiwan’s relevant regulations for part-time employment in China.

“Nature,” the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal has reported in 2018 that, through high salaries, important positions and substantial research funding, China attracted more than 7,000 talents from overseas to join the TTP. This year, “The New York Times” reported that China has attracted more than 10,000 talents from overseas to join the TTP with pay raises exceeding 300% to 400%. “The New York Times” also pointed out that American universities encourage international cooperation and there are no laws restricting the receipt of foreign research funding. Originally, there are no explicit prohibitions from being affiliated with foreign higher education or research institutions. However, if research scholars use universities or high-tech company laboratories to develop cutting-edge and valuable technologies and carry out the same research in China without disclosure, a Georgetown University professor stated that “Even if you do not violate the law, it is a violation of professional ethics.”

Similar to the global practice of academia, Taiwanese scholars can apply for bilateral, regional or EU international academic cooperation programs through the Ministry of Science and Technology. The general procedure is to solicit research proposals, peer review and funding apportionment. Most of the funding is used for foreign travel expenses and seminars. Aside from the 15,000 Taiwan dollars per month from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the moderator is not entitled to additional personnel expenses. This cooperative spirit and practice of openness and transparency in the international academic community of purely academic research are completely different from China’s closed-door and concentration of resources on personal key scientific research projects, let alone stated that it must cooperate with China’s strategic goals.

When facing China’s various talents acquisition plans that are untypical, unopened and with resources of a totalitarian country, how can open and democratic societies like Taiwan and the U.S. regulate without hindering academic autonomy? How can we encourage “pure” academic exchange activities with China, at the same time take the country’s sovereignty and interests into consideration and avoid using “pro-China” to criticize and ban those activities? This is never a simple question and needs to carefully evaluate and assess. Regardless, a full disclosure of information is an essential condition. During an interview by the student newspaper, the President of Harvard University said, “we don’t investigate every faculty member to determine whether or not they have outside engagements...we rely upon the honesty and good faith of our faculty members...” he also said that university is not law enforcement or intelligence agency. If a faculty member is found having not disclosed information truthfully, it would be tricky for the university to deal with.

Back to Taiwan, those who used to be Changjiang Scholars and members of TTP must answer: what are the rights and responsibilities of participating in TTP? Has the Taiwan university you teach approved? Are the income and other remuneration received the same as what was declared? Has the research fund paid the school management fee according to the regulations? Has the process caused any conflicts of interest and why?

Actually, the accusation from the U.S. of China using TTP to steal Cutting-edge technology and intellectual property rights is not without reason. There are even countless cases to back up. The U.S. Assistant Attorney General, therefore, used “rob-replicate-replace” to describe China’s technology espionage policy. Magazine “Foreign Policy” pointed out, China’s planned theft has caused the U.S. US$200-600 billion worth of intellectual property lost per year. The prosecutor of Dr. Lieber criticized that this type of spy war “is the most serious issue in U.S. national security, but no one talks about it.”

We have to ask, is this also an issue for Taiwan’s national security? Is there anyone talking about it? Our tertiary education, especially the top national universities, are not just a cradle to nurture technology talents, but also the center of research and development for cutting-edge technology. Those full-time professors work part-time and receive income in China, host research projects in China funded by China, represent both Taiwan and Chinese universities when publishing these all comply with the regulations of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education? These problems have been existing in Taiwan academic circle for years. If it wasn’t for the news of a Taiwanese scholar, a former Changjiang Scholar and TTP member, who might be selected to be the president of NTUST, No.1 in technical and vocational education, these problems might never get anyone’s attention.

So the sheep have escaped. Shall we still mend the hole of the sheep pen? The answer is obvious. We need a complete act to regulate the conflict of interests involved when the scholars carry out research projects, and clearly require full disclosure of information from them. Let the controversy over the NTUST president selection be the last one!

(Lee Bu-lan, Professor at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.)

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