Why Is the Pentagon Enabling China’s Theft of America’s Tech?

Last month, Newsweek reported that the Department of Defense had funded a Chinese-born researcher, Song-Chun Zhu, who at the time was openly transferring sensitive technologies to Chinese institutions, including those relating to artificial intelligence with military implications.

It was just the latest sign that China’s espionage has reached crisis proportions. “The U.S. government estimates that China’s intellectual-property theft costs America as much as $500 billion a year,” wrote John Ratcliffe while serving as director of national intelligence in December 2020. He titled his Wall Street Journal piece “China Is National Security Threat No. 1.”

There has been over the course of decades a fundamental failure to prevent researchers in America from helping China develop military technologies, especially AI. While working in the United States and funded by the Pentagon, Zhu was a member of the Chinese central government’s “Thousand Talent Plan,” designed to transfer critical technologies to China. Zhu, according to Newsweek, “effectively trained a generation of students from China, with many returning there to work in top laboratories, universities, or companies that often were connected to Zhu or to other top scientists.”

Zhu moved to Beijing in 2020 to join Peking and Tsinghua Universities, China’s Harvard and MIT. He also founded BIGAI, an AI institute, and an AI organization in Wuhan, the Lotus Hill Institute for Computer Vision and Information Science. Prior to his leaving the U.S., Zhu received grants from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as well as the Army and Navy.

“Mr. Zhu’s case is not an isolated occurrence in the field of scientific research,” wrote House Republican lawmakers to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the 17th of this month. “The illicit transfer of sensitive and advanced technology and know-how by participants of PRC-backed talent recruitment programs has been, and continues to be, distressingly common.”

Why did America allow Zhu such easy access to this country’s tech?

Pentagon To Explain Chinese AI Scientist Funding
Two House committees want the Pentagon and others to stop funding scientists who transfer knowledge, such as AI research, to China.
Photo-illustration by Newsweek/Getty

For one thing, America needs foreign talent. “The fact of the matter is that the U.S. has failed to educate at least an entire generation in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—subjects, while that is what China fixated on,” Brandon Weichert, technology analyst and author of Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, told me. “The solution is to completely reimagine the way we do K-12 education in this country, but that’s a generational challenge.”

And it will take a generation, as David Goldman suggested in Newsweek this month. As the prominent American thinker has correctly said, the U.S. needs something akin to the Eisenhower administration’s National Defense Education Act, enacted in the panic caused by the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik. “Still, even if we waved a magic wand and reformed the educational system overnight, it would take a dozen years for the supply of qualified personnel to affect the workforce,” he wrote. “We don’t have a dozen years.”

So what does the United States do in the interim?

As an initial matter, America needs to continue to attract the world’s brightest. According to a 2021 report from the Institute for Defense Analyses, foreign-born workers account for 28 percent to 30 percent of America’s STEM workforce. “This in and of itself is not a bad thing, because the United States has long benefitted in attracting foreign talent to augment its innovation and industrial bases,” Weichert says. “The only problem is that the U.S. is increasingly relying on scientists from countries with hostile regimes—notable the People’s Republic of China. Some Chinese scientists coming here are, in fact, members of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are coming to conduct espionage.”

Industrial-scale espionage, Weichert points out, “is one of the primary reasons why in critical technologies—such as biotech, artificial intelligence, quantum computing science, and hypersonics—China is both able to compete with the U.S. and, at times, leapfrog Americans.”

Goldman argues that Washington should not cut off the flow of Chinese students and researchers into America. “The idea of quarantining China gets easy applause, but we won’t reverse our long-term productivity decline without Chinese talent, data, and technology,” he writes.

The truth, unfortunately, is that Chinese law codifies an obligation to commit espionage and, more important, no Chinese national or entity may disobey an order from the Communist Party of China. The Party, which has identified the United States as its enemy, demands “absolute” obedience. Moreover, the Chinese central government and the Party often coerce Chinese people in the U.S., both nationals of the People’s Republic and those who aren’t, to do its bidding, including committing espionage.

“No, we should not exclude ethnic Chinese from tech development, but, yes, we must vet them very, very, very carefully,” said Blaine Holt, technology entrepreneur and retired Air Force brigadier general, to me.

The U.S. and China are locked in a “cold tech war,” and the winner will end up dominating the 21st century. America cannot, therefore, allow China to steal what it wants because then it would not matter how many scientists, engineers, and mathematicians America graduated.

Chinese theft is a national emergency requiring immediate and extraordinary measures.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and The Great U.S.-China Tech War. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.