May 27, 2020 - Technology

Arrest deepens rift with China over 1000 Talents scholarship program

An Illustration of the U.S. and China map overlapping while being outlined by a star

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Justice Department's arrest of Simon Saw-Teong Ang, an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, for wire fraud earlier this month ratcheted up a long-running confrontation with China over a controversial scholarship program.

What’s happening: Ang’s indictment was related to his failure to disclose the extent of his ties to China’s 1000 Talents Program, an initiative of the Chinese government to encourage U.S. scientists and researchers to share technical know-how and innovations with Chinese universities and businesses.

  • U.S. officials view the program warily — primarily as an instrument used by the Chinese government to facilitate the transfer of valuable intellectual property out of the United States, and perhaps even to steal it.

The big picture: Ang’s arrest was the latest in a crackdown by DOJ officials over the 1000 Talents Programs, which has ensnared the chair of Harvard’s chemistry program, a former Emory University neuroscientist, a Coca-Cola engineer and others.

  • 1000 Talents-related criminal charges have generally not involved espionage and have centered instead on the theft of trade secrets, false statements, tax fraud and wire fraud.
  • This isn’t entirely unusual in national security-adjacent cases, but critics say that DOJ’s hard-charging approach will chill scientific exchanges between the U.S. and China and discourage open laboratory environments more broadly.

The bottom line: The U.S. is walking a tightrope between aggressively pursuing intellectual property theft cases and creating a chilling effect through overbroad and/or racially tinged prosecutions.

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