Scientist Alleges Fraud in China’s “Thousand Talent” Foreign Expert Program

SciencePhysicist Ulf Leonhardt made headlines when he published a theoretical framework for an invisibility cloak. Not long afterwards, he was recruited by the Centre for Optical and Electronic Research (COER) at South China University, at a salary of RMB 133,333 ($21,762) per month — three times his tenured position at the University of St.  Andrews.

COER helped him apply to a Chinese government grant program for attracting foreign talent, the Recruitment Program of Foreign Experts. But Leonhardt later came to suspect that much of the grant money was being diverted to other uses. “The fraud they committed was so brazen,” charges Leonhardt.

Maria Hvistendahl, a reporter in China for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) writes about Leonhardt’s claims in an excellent article, Show Me the Money: a Bitter Dispute Lays Bare Questionable Practices in China’s Foreign Talent ProgramsScience Magazine (Oct. 25, 2014) (subscription required).

The Recruitment Program for Foreign Experts is part of the government’s Thousand Talent Plan (千人计划), established in 2008 by the Communist Party’s Organization Department. The goal of the Recruitment Program for Foreign Experts is “to recruit non-ethnic Chinese experts, who are strategic scientists, leading experts in science and technology, or internationalized innovative teams capable of achieving critical technological breakthroughs, advancing the high-tech industries and promoting new disciplines.” 

COER’s goals in employing Leonhardt, as described in Hvistendahl’s article, seem to be those of any “rent-a-laowai” scam. The term refers to companies hiring foreigners, usually Western, as props to attend events solely because of their foreign faces. (Read the ChinaLawBlog’s for examples of one foreigner posing as a diplomat and another hired by a university to give a pitch to former premier Wen Jiabao.) The foreign face sends a signal that the company is active internationally and committed to quality. This is especially important when the company is appealing to the government for investment. A final trait of such a scam, writes one former rent-a-laowai, is that there’s a danger that the foreigner may be unknowingly implicated in the shady activities of his hosts.

The month he arrived, Leonhardt published an article in Nature, commenting on the cloaking of heat and listing COER as his primary affiliation, as his contract required. The University plugged the piece on its website, calling it the “first paper published in Nature” to prominently name the university, and later including it as one of the university’s top 10 “big research achievements” of 2013. (In fact, publication in Nature’s “News & Views” section doesn’t signify a research achievement. It’s not peer-reviewed research findings. Instead, it’s a commissioned article intended to inform nonspecialist readers about new scientific advances.)

The rent-a-laowai was paying off for COER in another way too. Leonhardt claims that COER got grant money in his name that it didn’t tell him about. His employment contract’s English version stated he would work 3 months a year, but unbeknownst to him, the Chinese version said he would work 6 months a year, supporting a bigger grant. And the contract failed to mention the $500,000 RMB ($81,642) resettlement subsidy that Leonhardt received as part of the grant.

Leonhardt complains that money from the grants was siphoned off for other purposes, such as buying computers for researchers working on unrelated projects. He also says COER never provided him with the Thousand Talent grant application in Chinese or an English translation, and says he never saw drafts of other grant applications submitted in his name. One grant application, he later learned, said he would be researching military stealth technology. “They seem to have sold me to the Chinese military,” Leonhardt laments.

Leonhardt hired lawyers to try to figure out what happened to the grant money. He emailed the Thousand Talent program along with officials at the Ministry of Science and Technology; the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s anticorruption watchdog; and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. None responded directly to him, he says.

It’s a pity that the Thousand Talent Plan appears to be vulnerable to such abuses. The program was envisioned as a way to reverse the trend of brain drain — bleeding talent to developed countries. A way to improve the overall research climate by investing in science and education.

Vulnerability to abuses may arise from the program’s lack of transparency. It’s “somewhat secretive,” according to a 2012 paper by David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Wang Huiyao of the Center for China and Globalization. The CCP Organization Department will not publish a current list of awardees. Actually, secrecy is in the Organization Department’s DNA. It fills all senior personnel appointments in ministries, state-owned enterprises, universities, and the media. Yet it has no sign outside its offices and no listed phone number.

Hvistendahl’s article implies further reasons for the program’s secrecy: the grantees aren’t necessarily doing the work. They may have full-time positions abroad. Yet sponsoring Chinese universities can still benefit by siphoning off grant moneys, not to mention qualifying for additional local government incentives worth millions of RMB just for recruiting the no-show scientists.

President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has surprised some observers by its scope and duration. But many have argued the crackdown won’t succeed unless it’s acknowledged the system is the problem — not a few “bad apples.”

Hvistendahl’s article shows that improving the Thousand Talent plan will require changes from the top. The CCP Organization Department should publicize the list of grantees, require that grantees sign a copy of the grant application in their own language, provide transparency to grantees in how their grants are administered, and disallow payment of lavish incentives to universities just for recruiting foreign experts.

Until then, the temptation may be too great for universities to treat  foreign scientists as rent-a-laowais.

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