Recently, the United States forced several Chinese news organisations to register as agents of the Chinese government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. China has also expelled several Wall Street Journal reporters from Beijing, accusing them of racist reporting in their coverage of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. (W. Ebbs, Did coronavirus originate in America? Chinese media Push Conspiracy, 24 February 2020).
Much of the attitude of the Trump Administration was guided by the perception of the decline of American power. To those aware of, and concerned about it, it was not a new phenomenon. It dates back to at least the Obama Administration (J. St. Clair and J. Frank, Hopeless, Barack Obama and the politics of illusion, Oakland, Edinburgh, Baltimore, AK Press, 2012) and continues more noticeably during Trump’s days. (H. A. Giroux, America at war with itself, City Lights Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 2016 and H. A. Giroux, American nightmare: Facing the challenge of Fascism, City Lights Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 2018).
Here is a recent example of the diplomatic duel between the United States and China. And it is the U.S. which is suffering the consequences. Consider the case of Professor Tan Weihong, until recently in charge of the University of Florida cancer research laboratory. Professor Tan is now half a world away in China, leading a team of 300 scientists and researchers who work furiously to develop a fast, easy test for COVID-19.
The 59-year-old Tan is a stark example of the intellectual firepower fleeing the U.S. as a result of a Trump Administration xenophobic crackdown on university researchers with ties to China. Tan abruptly left Florida in 2019 during an investigation into his alleged failure fully to disclose Chinese academic appointments and funding. He moved to Hunan University in south-central China, where he now conducts his vital research.
Tan, a chemistry professor whose research has focused on diagnosing and treating cancer, quickly pivoted to working on a coronavirus test when the outbreak began in China. Boosted by a Chinese government grant, he teamed up with researchers at two other universities in China and a biotechnology company to create a test which produces results in 40 minutes and can be performed in a doctor’s office or in non-medical settings like airport screening areas, according to a 13-page booklet detailing the test’s development and benefits. It has been tried successfully on more than 200 samples from hospitals and checkpoints, according to the booklet, which Tan shared with a former Florida colleague. It is not clear how widely the test is being used in China.
Epidemiologists say that testing is vital to mitigate the spread of the virus. But the U.S. has lagged well behind China, South Korea, and Italy in the number of people tested. It is hard to know if Tan’s test would have made a difference. The slow U.S. ramp-up has been blamed largely on bureaucratic barriers and a shortage of chemical agents needed for testing.
A star researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health, Tan taught for a quarter century at Florida and lived there with his family. He was also a participant in the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’, China’s aggressive effort to lure top scientists from U.S. universities. He had been working part time at Hunan University for even longer than he had taught at Florida. In 2019, alerted by the N.I.H., the University of Florida began investigating his outside activities.
China began sending students to the U.S. in the late 1970s in the hope that they would return with American know-how and foster China’s technological prowess. But, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many of the students stayed in the U.S. after earning their degrees.
The Chinese government has been the most active in the world in introducing policies aimed at a reverse brain drain.
Established in 2008, ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ was intended to lure prominent scientists of Chinese ethnicity under age 55 back to China for at least half the year with generous salaries and research funds and facilities, as well as perks such as housing, medical care, jobs for spouses and schools for children. Some ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ employment contracts require members to sign nondisclosure agreements related to their research and employment with Chinese institutions. ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ aimed to reverse China’s brain drain to ‘the West’ by offering elite Chinese scientists attractive salaries and excellent facilities to return home permanently. Not quite successful at first, it compromised by leaving participants like Tan free to keep their U.S. position and work in China in addition.
Tan provided documentation that his department chairman at Florida was “supportive” of his research in China as recently as 2015. He was one of three University of Florida researchers – along with others from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Louisville, Kentucky – who returned to China while under investigation for allegedly hiding Chinese funding or affiliations with universities there.
Such nondisclosure may well be pervasive. A ProPublica analysis found more than 20 previously unreported examples of ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ professors who appear not to have fully revealed their additional work in China to their U.S. universities or N.I.H.
Yet the government’s investigations and prosecutions of scientists for nondisclosure – a violation previously handled within universities and often regarded as minor – may prove counterproductive. The departure of Tan and his colleagues highlights a disturbing irony about the U.S. crackdown. The Trump Administration is – perhaps unwittingly – helping China achieve a long-frustrated goal of luring back top scientific talent.
By investigating Tan and other Chinese researchers for nondisclosure, the short-sighted Trump Administration is accomplishing what ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ has struggled to do. In the name of ‘safeguarding American science’, the Trump Administration is driving out innovators, who will then make their discoveries and insights in China instead of the United States. The potential drawbacks bring to mind an episode in the ‘McCarthy era’, when a brilliant rocket scientist at the California Institute of Technology was deported by the United States for supposed ‘Communist sympathies’ and became the ‘father’ of China’s missile programme.
John Brown, the F.B.I.’s assistant director of counterintelligence, told the U.S. Senate in November 2019 that participants in ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ and other Chinese talent programmes “are often incentivized to transfer to China the research they conduct in the United States, as well as other proprietary information to which they can gain access, and remain a significant threat to the United States.”
Fang Hong, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., disputed such accusation. “The purpose of China’s ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ is to promote talent flow between China and other countries and to galvanize international cooperation in scientific and technological innovation,” he said. While firmly opposing any “breach of scientific integrity or ethics … we also condemn the attempt to describe the behaviors of individual researchers” as “systematic” intellectual property theft by the Chinese government. “It is extremely irresponsible and ill-intentioned to link individual behaviors to China’s talent plan.”
Steven Pei, a University of Houston physics professor and former chair of the advocacy group United Chinese Americans, said that both countries have gone too far. “The Chinese government overreached and the American government overreacted,” Pei said. “China tried to recruit but it was unsuccessful. Now we help them do what they cannot do on their own.” Pei added that American universities are failing to protect their Chinese faculty: “When the pressure comes down, they throw the researchers under the bus.”
N.I.H. has long viewed collaborations with China as a boon for biomedical research, even initiating a formal partnership with China’s National Natural Science Foundation in 2010. But it became concerned in 2016 when it learned from the F.B.I. that an Asian faculty member at MD Anderson had shared federal grant proposals he was reviewing with researchers at other institutions – a violation of N.I.H. rules.
Examining the grant applications of its federally funded researchers, N.I.H. found many undisclosed foreign ties, particularly with research institutions in China. Some researchers were accepting dual appointments at Chinese universities and publishing results of U.S.-funded research under their foreign affiliation. Often, these foreign positions were not reported to the N.I.H. or even the researchers’ own American universities.
In August 2018, the N.I.H. launched an investigation to ensure that its researchers weren’t “double dipping” by receiving foreign funds for N.I.H.-funded work or diverting intellectual property produced by federally supported research to other countries. The N.I.H. found at least 75 researchers with ties to ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ who were also responsible for reviewing grant proposals. In some cases, Lauer – the N.I.H. deputy director of extramural research – said, ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ scientists with access as peer reviewers to confidential grant applications had downloaded them and emailed them to China. Other researchers had disclosed consulting or teaching in China but had not acknowledged that they had signed an employment contract with a Chinese university or were heading a laboratory, he said. N.I.H. gave the names of “individuals of possible concern” to the researchers’ institutions but did not make them public.
To gauge the extent of the problem, ProPublica matched ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ recipients identified on Chinese-language websites with their disclosures to their universities and grant applications to N.I.H., which were obtained through public records requests. It was found that at least 14 researchers apparently had not disclosed foreign affiliations to their U.S. universities, which included the University of Wisconsin, Stony Brook University and Louisiana State University. It was not possible to determine if these researchers were also on N.I.H.’s confidential list.
The link between hiding ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ affiliations and stealing research secrets may be tenuous. Universities bear some responsibility for the nondisclosure, because they are supposed to certify the accuracy of information supplied to N.I.H. Until recently, many schools were lax in enforcing disclosure rules. “It’s fair to say, at some universities, they have not really been paying attention to how their faculty spend their time” N.I.H.’s Lauer said. One professor was away for 150 days a year and the university did not notice, he said.
Non-Chinese scientists, including doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies, also underreported outside income. Nor did universities want to restrict partnerships with Chinese universities; in the prevailing culture of globalisation, they encouraged foreign collaborations and sought to open branches in China to boost their international prestige and attract outstanding, full-tuition-paying students.
But times have changed, and now Chinese scientists at U.S. universities are in a difficult position. Even those who rejected overtures from China have been hounded. Dr. Wu Xifeng, an epidemiological researcher, worked at MD Anderson for nearly three decades and amassed an enormous dataset to help cancer researchers understand patient histories. She twice turned down invitations to join the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’. But she collaborated with and accepted honorary positions at research institutions in China, where she grew up and attended medical school. Although she said she earned no income from these posts, N.I.H. identified her as a concern, and MD Anderson found that she did not always fully disclose her Chinese affiliations.
In early 2019 Dr. Wu left MD Anderson – one of at least four researchers who were pushed out of the centre in the wake of the federal investigations. She has become dean of the School of Public Health, with a well-equipped laboratory, at Zhejiang University in southeast China.
Dr. Liang Dong, Wu’s husband and the chair of the pharmaceutical and environmental health sciences department at Texas Southern University, felt that MD Anderson buckled under pressure from N.I.H., which provided the institution with more than $145 million in federal grants in 2018. “A few years back, they wanted the collaborations [with China],” said Dr. Liang. “And now, they take it back.” The disclosure rules, said Liang, were not clear, “and now it becomes a violation.”
“The Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain,” David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Wang Huiyao, director general of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, wrote in 2012.
The ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ succeeded in attracting 7,000 foreign scientists and researchers as of 2017, the U.S. Senate reported. But it had trouble enticing professors at elite U.S. universities, who were reluctant to uproot their families and leave their tenured sinecures. It created a second tier for recruits who were “essentially unwilling to return full-time,” Zweig and Wang wrote. They could keep their U.S. jobs and go to China for a month or two. Complaints arose in China about ‘fake returnees’ who “work nominally in China for six months” but “in fact, most of them are still abroad,” according to a 2014 op-ed on the BBC News Chinese website.
Struggling to attract top researchers, ‘Thousand Talents Pla’ also reached out to non-Chinese scientists, like Charles Lieber, the Harvard chemistry chairman charged in January 2020 with making false statements to the U.S. government by denying his involvement with ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ and with Wuhan University of Technology. His three-year ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ contract called for Wuhan to pay Lieber $50,000 a month plus more than $1.5 million for a research laboratory, according to the Department of Justice.
While at Florida, Professor Tan maintained a connection to Hunan University in China, where he studied as an undergraduate. His curriculum vitae states that he was an adjunct professor at the school from 1993 through at least 2019, when he left Florida. The part-time teaching job is the curriculum’s only reference to any professional work in China.
In his annual disclosures to the University of Florida, Tan did report positions and income in China, but not everything – as alleged by university investigators. In 2017, he said he was working ten hours a week at Hunan for a salary of $30,000. In 2018, he said his hours had doubled to twenty a week, for $50,000. In 2019, he reported working a total of twenty hours a week for Hunan and the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Renji Hospital in Shanghai. His combined emoluments from the positions was $120,000, according to his form.
The association with Hunan began during a gap as shown in Tan’s résumé – between receiving a 1992 doctoral degree from the University of Michigan and starting post-doctoral work in 1994 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.
In recent years, according to colleagues, Tan’s work in China intensified. He was making frequent trips there, sometimes travelling twice a month. Tan told colleagues that his research in China complemented his Florida work, and that it was easier to conduct testing on people in China than in the U.S. His research in Florida focused on basic science testing which did not involve patients.
Tan knew his increasing workload in China was putting a strain on his full-time position in the U.S. He told a colleague he was considering asking for a leave of absence from the University of Florida. It is unclear if he did request a leave.
In January 2019 the N.I.H. notified the University of Florida that Tan might have undisclosed affiliations with foreign institutions as well as foreign research funding. The university then launched its own inquiry. It provided investigator notes regarding Tan and two other researchers: Yang Lin, an N.I.H. – funded professor of biomedical engineering, and Ling Chen, an up-and-coming paediatric cancer researcher.
The University of Florida hired Yang from the University of Kentucky in 2014 as part of a ‘Preeminence Initiative’ to boost its ranking among public universities. Yang travelled to Beijing for a ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ interview in 2016, according to the university’s investigative notes. The following year, he was selected for the programme at a Chinese university.
Yang resigned his Florida position in 2019 after the university began looking into his alleged failure to disclose his association with ‘Thousand Talents Plan’. University investigators also alleged that he hid being chief executive, founder and owner of an unidentified China-based company.
Yang disputed many of Florida’s findings. He said he applied for a ‘Talent’ programme but then turned it down. He said he never had any foreign grants or academic appointments in China while employed by Florida. Yang’s attorney said that the University of Florida began an initiative in 2010 to encourage overseas collaborations. “To be punished for doing what the university called on you to do doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “The effect of this is universities are bleeding good people.”
Ling, a part-time research associate professor, won multiple grants to study gene therapy techniques which target the most common paediatric liver cancer. “Early in a very promising career, Ling is already making great strides in the development of innovative therapies for cancer,” the chairman of the medical school’s paediatrics department said in a 2012 press release.
Ling left Florida in 2019. The university investigative notes which appear to refer to Lin allege that he failed to inform N.I.H. that he was participating in a Chinese government sponsored ‘Talent’ programme, and that he received an unreported research grant from a Chinese foundation. However, Ling did report working at Fudan University in Shanghai to the University of Florida officials in 2018.
Ling, who did not respond to emails seeking comment, is continuing his research as a professor at Fudan. A former Florida colleague described him as “very smart” but somewhat naive in dealing with conflict of interest issues. “I don’t think he did anything with malicious intent,” said the colleague. “He paid a heavy price for this.”
In 2015, when Tan was up for election to the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, his chemistry chairman at the University of Florida recommended him and lauded his ongoing research in China. “We are very happy to see his great success at Hunan University in research and education,” Professor William R. Dolbier wrote in the letter provided by Tan. “We are very supportive of his research and educational activities there.”
Tan’s positions were also publicly listed on the web before N.I.H. notified the University of Florida that there might be a problem.
The English language website of Hunan University, beginning in at least March 2018, listed Tan as a vice president and director of a chemistry laboratory. According to the site, Tan had run the laboratory since 2010 and had been a vice president of the school since August 2017. The school also indicated Tan was a full professor there and supervised doctoral students. Tan appeared in an English-language video in 2017 to promote a textbook he edited and presented himself as a distinguished professor of chemistry at both Florida and Hunan.
On several occasions, Hunan University publicly lauded Tan. In 2017, when he was named an associate editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, both the University of Florida and Hunan University issued press releases announcing the appointment. Florida officials at the time were apparently unaware of Tan’s positions in China, and the school’s release made no mention of them. Hunan, on the other hand, listed his position in Florida.
Tan was also named an “honored professor” in 2017 at the East China University of Science and Technology. A story about a ceremony marking the appointment on that university’s website includes photographs of Tan touring school laboratories and meeting with faculty. It lists him as holding several academic posts in China as well as his University of Florida professorship.
After the N.I.H. notified Florida at the beginning of 2019 about a potential problem with Tan, the university’s office of research began reviewing Tan’s emails. In correspondence, Tan acknowledged his Hunan appointments.
The investigators found evidence that Tan had significant ties to Chinese government-sponsored ‘Thousand Talent Plan’ and helped recruit American researchers to the ‘Plan’. The emails also indicated Tan had received at least four research grants from the Chinese government ‘Plan’ but had not told N.I.H. about them. Of all of Tan’s extensive university and government ties with China, the only item he appeared to have disclosed to the N.I.H. and Florida was an adjunct teaching position at Hunan.
When Tan suddenly resigned his position in Florida last year, he told colleagues that he was going to work full time in China but was vague about the reasons for leaving after almost a quarter century at Florida. Administrators scrambled to find new mentors for the more than dozen graduate and postgraduate students working in his two laboratories.
The University of Florida said in a statement that it has taken steps to prevent other professors from joining ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ and concealing foreign positions. As a result of a new risk assessment process for detecting foreign influence that it introduced in 2018, it said, Florida resolved to deny most requests from faculty to participate in foreign ‘Talent Plan’ programmes.
The University said that it “maintains a robust and vigilant program to safeguard our technology and intellectual property from undue foreign influence, and to extend appropriate oversight to its activities, and those of its faculty members) in connection with foreign organizations.” A spokesman declined to answer questions about individual professors, citing ongoing investigations.
Tan told William R. Dolbier, the former chemistry chairman at Florida and now an emeritus professor, that he would be glad to try to make his COVID-19 test available in the United States. (D. Armstrong, A. Waldman and D. Golden, The Trump Administration drove him back to China, where he invented a fast coronavirus test, 21 March 2020).
The story thus far was limited to a choice between Fort Detrick and Wuhan as to who in fact had laboured on the coronavirus, possibly generating COVID-19, and who was now blaming the other for the consequences of a possible accident which caused the release of the infernal germ.
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