China is investing more than $1.4 billion in a new institute run by former scientists at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, part of an ambitious program to hire top U.S. scientists and obtain advanced American technology, according to an investigation by The Washington Times.
The Eastern Institute of Advanced Study (EIAS) is described on its Chinese website as the precursor to the planned Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in Ningbo, China. Organizers are paying American scientists million-dollar salaries and providing other lucrative benefits for their knowledge of cutting-edge technology that China has been unable to generate independently.
The program has hired some of the United States’ most experienced scientists, according to documents and open-source research specialists who have studied the project.
The EIAS and the proposed EIT are below the radar and backed financially and politically by the regional Chinese Communist Party in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. The project is the latest version of Beijing’s Thousand Talents recruitment program.
The Justice Department’s China initiative targeted the Thousand Talents program for its focus on American technological knowledge and skills. Since 2018, the Justice Department unit has prosecuted more than 20 U.S. figures with ties to American universities. Many of them were allegedly involved in sensitive U.S. government research while covertly working for Chinese government-linked projects.
The China initiative was launched during the Trump administration in a bid to halt an estimated $250 billion to $600 billion annual loss from Chinese technology theft. The Biden administration halted the legal initiative over concerns that the prosecutions appeared racially motivated.
The Times investigation into the technology theft and recruitment program is based on information and interviews provided by specialists with knowledge of the program, documents outlining the goals and objectives of the project, and information posted on the Chinese internet.
The EIAS plan for the Eastern Institute of Technology includes a multi-acre campus in Ningbo, but the purpose is to systematically steal U.S. intellectual property, mainly in the field of semiconductors, according to security researchers familiar with the programs.
The ‘Kunpeng Plan’
China is calling the talent recruitment effort the “Kunpeng Plan,” according to EIAS documents. The plan is a crucial element of China’s answer to multibillion-dollar U.S. investments in semiconductor manufacturing backed by U.S. export curbs on sales of advanced microchips to China.
Kunpeng is a term derived from a mythical Chinese leviathan-roc, a creature that transforms from a large fish into a predatory bird.
In addition to hiring Nobel Prize-level technology specialists, the EIAS plans to obtain advanced technology from the United States in the areas of semiconductors, artificial intelligence, batteries and advanced computing.
“The practices of EIT faculty and administration would be blatant violations of trade secrets and noncompete clauses in any U.S. company,” said one expert who has studied the project.
The EIAS plan is funded by an initial commitment of $4 billion from Yu Renrong, founder and chairman of Will Semiconductor Co. Ltd. in Shanghai. The Chinese government agreed to provide matching funding of 20% to 30% of the initial investment.
The planned Eastern Institute of Technology website describes “a new-style research university” funded by Mr. Yu, a Ningbo-based billionaire and CEO of OmniVision Technologies. The local Zhejiang government provided a large plot of land that eventually will become a high-tech university campus.
Will Semiconductor was relatively small until 2019, when it quietly purchased the U.S.-based OmniVision for $2.178 billion, assisted by a $50 billion grant from the China National Integrated Circuit Investment Fund. The fund’s publicly stated goal is to pursue China’s “fusion projects” benefiting the commercial and military sectors.
OmniVision is among the world’s leading providers of image sensors — critical elements for self-driving cars, medicine, cameras and phones — and weapons systems. Mr. Yu did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted through an OmniVision spokesman.
The Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military said Beijing is aggressively acquiring military-civilian technology to become an “innovation superpower” no longer reliant on foreign technology.
In 2015, the government of President Xi Jinping launched the “Made in China 2025” plan to accelerate advances in emerging technology sectors. The plan calls for setting up regional innovation centers, such as the one in Ningbo, that will “leapfrog foreign technological competitors and create a superior innovation ecosystem,” the report said.
Beijing is focused on dominating emerging dual-use civilian-military technologies, the report said, including next-generation artificial intelligence, quantum information systems, brain science and biotechnology tools, advanced semiconductors, and deep-space, deep-sea and polar-related technologies.
“Beijing has a clear understanding of its remaining [science and technology] deficiencies and wields industrial policies and the country’s massive tech transfer apparatus in an effort to close these gaps,” the report said.
China is a global leader in AI technology with an announced goal of overtaking the West in AI by next year, the report said. AI and autonomous weapons are central to China’s “concept of future warfare.”
China currently relies on advanced foreign capabilities for AI hardware, including semiconductor fabrication and electronic design automation software, but Beijing researchers are pressing ahead with design concepts for next-generation semiconductors.
China also designed and fabricated a quantum computer capable of outperforming classical high-performance computers and is moving toward a quantum computing system, the Pentagon report said.
China “has mobilized vast resources in support of its defense modernization, including through its military-civilian development strategy, as well as espionage activities to acquire sensitive, dual-use, and military-grade equipment,” the report said.
High pay, strong incentives
Zhejiang officials say the EIAS is offering high salaries and lucrative incentives to hire 200 technology experts over the next five years. It recruited 48 U.S. specialists by mid-2022.
Those eligible under the recruitment program must hold a Nobel Prize, Fields Medal or other prestigious international award. Scientists for the program must be younger than 60 and have experience in world-renowned universities and scientific research centers in the past two years, the project document states.
Chiefs and technology officers of leading technology companies in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and Australia are also being recruited.
The recruits must resign from their positions and commit to working in Zhejiang province, where Ningbo is located, for more than five years. Chinese experts also are being recruited.
The most prominent experts will be paid more than $1 million annually. Lesser-known researchers are offered salaries of $110,000 to $137,000.
The project will pay recruited experts 20% of the cost of buying a house, fund their children’s education and provide medical treatment at “key municipal medical care” facilities, a perk usually reserved for members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Zhejiang provincial Communist Party Secretary Peng Jiaxue proposed a broad plan for an advanced digital economy for Ningbo that was approved in September 2022, according to one planning document.
Building a new university
The Ningbo government and the EIAS announced in December that a university, tentatively called the Ningbo Oriental University of Science and Technology, would be built with an initial investment of $110 million. Other information indicates that the university’s name will be the Eastern Institute of Technology.
A second document details the types of research and technology the institute is pursuing, including “intelligent hardware and perception” with a focus on “super-resolution detection, super-sensitive sensing, cross-modal fusion, and multi-modal integrated non-contact smart sensors.” Another research topic will be 3D modeling and simulation analysis and design simulation based on virtual reality and augmented reality.
The artificial intelligence research will seek to develop massive data storage, intelligent reasoning and decision-making.
Blockchain technology and information security also are major focus areas. The document says recruited scientists will pursue “major scientific issues and key technical difficulties in the international frontier fields of blockchain and information security.”
Another research area is industrial internet and feedback controls. The project will seek to solve technical problems for sensing technology, the Internet of Things and radio frequency identification and will produce cutting-edge computing capabilities.
EIAS and CHIPS
The EIAS program is part of Beijing’s response to the Biden administration’s 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, a $53 billion investment plan for the U.S. semiconductor industry, according to a report by the research group Frontier Assessments. Chinese officials accuse the U.S. of unfairly blocking access to critical high-tech product lines to curb China’s rise as a rival economic superpower.
“In response to China’s aggressive tech investments, the U.S. must urgently reevaluate its [computer chip] strategy, focusing on securing intellectual property, retaining top talent and bolstering R&D efforts,” according to a research report on EIAS by three open-source intelligence specialists. “This critical reassessment will safeguard U.S. technological leadership and address the pressing need to counterbalance China’s rapid advancements before it’s too late.”
China’s surge in scientific and technological investment and development poses a significant challenge to the United States’ long-standing global leadership in these areas. Extensive funding, the rapid creation of research centers and a strategic focus on producing future-oriented technologies are clear signs that China will reduce its reliance on foreign technology and establish itself as a global market leader.
China’s close integration of industry, academia and government strategies is an advantage in the competition for technological supremacy. The U.S. system is more compartmentalized, the report said.
“The speed and scale of these developments underscore the urgency with which China is seeking to ascend the global ranks of science and technology, marking a pivotal moment in the U.S.-China tech race,” the report said.
The Frontier Assessments report was written by L.J. Eads, a former Air Force intelligence analyst; Ryan Clarke, a strategic intelligence analyst; Hans Ulrich Kaeser, a corporate security specialist; and Robert McCreight, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and State Department official.
The experts are part of the CCP Biothreats Initiative, a program focused on issues related to the convergence of biotechnology, neurobiology, artificial intelligence and human-computer interface.
Los Alamos pipeline
EIAS President Chen Shiyi was a Los Alamos mechanical engineer from July 1997 to 2000. During that period, U.S. intelligence agencies say, China was engaged in a large-scale spying operation to obtain classified nuclear weapons data.
Mr. Chen, who served for a time as department chair of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, moved to China in 2005 and renounced his U.S. citizenship. From 2015 to 2020, he was president of the Southern University of Science and Technology, known as SUSTech.
While at SUSTech, Mr. Chen oversaw the recruitment of Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineer Chen Gang, who was indicted in 2021 on fraud charges for failing to disclose his connections to Chinese government-linked groups, including SUSTech, as required for research funding from the Pentagon and Energy Department. The charges against Chen Gang were dropped in 2022.
Mr. Chen did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
The EIAS provost is Dongxiao Zhang, a U.S. citizen and expert on renewable energy who worked at Los Alamos as a senior research scientist from 1996 to 2004. Former Los Alamos scientist Yushen Zhao is one of the institute’s vice presidents. Neither responded to requests for comment.
EIAS Vice President Wenjun Zeng, currently a U.S. citizen, worked on developing artificial intelligence at Microsoft Research Asia. Mr. Zeng did not respond to a request for comment.
Several institute specialists also have worked with Mr. Chen at SUSTech.
“It is one thing to recruit talent who start research from scratch using knowledge gained throughout their career,” said a security researcher who has studied at the institute.
“EIT’s practice is to hire people who already or just made breakthrough research using U.S. funding and move them to China, give them lofty titles, big salaries and a safety net, and funding for commercialization that will help them become strategic competitors of the U.S. government and taxpayers who paid for the research in the first place,” said the researcher, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Another EIAS expert is Lei He, a computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mr. He is working on artificial intelligence and, according to insiders, has placed many of his graduate students in leading American laboratories.
Mr. He is listed on the UCLA website as a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Mr. He did not respond to an email request for comment.
The objective was to facilitate a “human cloud” computing service that allows Chinese access to computing platforms no longer accessible to China.
A major concern is that a cluster of technological advances derived from the experts’ knowledge and involvement in developing U.S. technology will give China a significant boost in dominating key global technology fields.
People familiar with the program’s internal workings identified several key players and their roles.
Mr. Zeng, the EIAS vice president, is working to produce advanced algorithms useful for AI. Mr. He is said to be working on electronic design automation and chiplet development. Chiplets are tiny integrated circuits that boost computing power, a fundamental shortcoming of current Chinese microchips.
Others at EIAS include former Georgia Institute of Technology professor David Keezer, a specialist in semiconductor testing, and Qinghuo Liu, a former Duke University specialist in microwave and electronic design automation. Neither responded to requests for comment. While at Duke, Mr. Liu worked on projects for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army Night Vision Lab, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and Sandia National Laboratory.
Another recruit for EIAS is Chen Zhangxing, a specialist in chemical engineering who left the University of Calgary.
The three scientists did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s clear that the current era is characterized by strategic maneuvering, significant financial investments, and a fierce battle for intellectual property supremacy, particularly between the U.S. and China,” the report said. “The battleground spans several critical sectors, from semiconductors to AI, and involves not only corporate acquisitions but also the shaping of future minds through educational initiatives.”
China’s technology ambitions, embodied in initiatives such as EIT, EIAS and the Kunpeng Plan, “demonstrate a concerted effort to pivot the epicenter of technological innovation eastward,” the report said.
“These efforts are not just aspirational; they are backed by substantial financial muscle, with investments in technology procurement sometimes soaring as high as $2.178 billion.”
The strategic acquisition of technology companies further highlights the Ningbo program’s aggressive strategy.
Congress seeks answers
On Oct. 31, two House panels wrote to the director of the National Science Foundation questioning the security of the foundation’s nearly $7 billion in funding for research at 2,000 universities. The letter said foreign talent recruitment at U.S. universities is a continuing threat.
The Republican chairmen of the panels warned about “systematic attempts to exploit, degrade and misappropriate our open system of science.”
One case involved the federal indictment in 2021 of Mingqing Xiao, a professor at Southern Illinois University who was paid $151,099 by the National Science Foundation and concealed funding he was receiving from the Chinese government and a Chinese university.
“Defending American research is essential to maintaining U.S. scientific competitiveness and safeguarding economic and national security,” said the letter by Reps. James Comer of Kentucky and Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma. Mr. Comer is chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. Mr. Lucas chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
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