A few years ago on a farm in Iowa, an agricultural company contacted its local FBI office and reported someone was seen digging up corn seeds in one of its fields. A subsequent FBI investigation led to the criminal conviction of a Chinese national for conspiracy to steal trade secrets from the United States. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison and subsequently deported.
Though it is relatively well-known the Chinese government has been stealing trade secrets from American industry, it is also happening at our colleges and universities. American colleges and universities have long been the envy of the world, and much of their success can be attributed to an academic culture that embraces the free exchange of ideas and international collaboration. This culture led to countless scientific and technological breakthroughs.
In 2018, more than 1.4 million foreign nationals participated in America’s open and collaborative academic environment — whether as students, professors, graduate assistants, or academic fellows. A portion of these foreign nationals studied, taught, or have otherwise been affiliated with Louisiana academic institutions. These foreign academics represent the best and brightest from around the world and provide enormous benefit to our universities. But these benefits of openness and international collaboration have not come without risk.
Unfortunately, the very strength of the American higher education system also makes it vulnerable to foreign governments who seek to illicitly benefit from America’s research. The vast majority of the 1.4 million foreign academics in the United States pose no threat to their host institutions or our national security, and collaboration with foreign partners is a critical part of academic research.
However, we now know the Chinese government employs specialized programs, called Talent Plans, to financially incentivize and pressure participants to transfer American research and technology to further the scientific, industrial, or military goals of the People’s Republic of China.
LSU holds advanced research in the areas of sustainable and renewable energy. Louisiana Tech University houses the Center for Numerical Simulation and Modeling, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette hosts the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise. Given their importance to Louisiana and the United States, it is not surprising each of these areas of research are a potential target of the Chinese government, whose “Made in China 2025” strategy seeks to displace nations such as the United States, Japan, and Germany as high-income, modern manufacturing centers for innovation and high-tech production.
The next question is obvious: How would the Chinese government go about targeting universities such as LSU, Louisiana Tech, and University of Louisiana Lafayette? The simple answer: any way they can. The communist government in China is flush with resources and actively leverages these resources to collect the information it needs. Specifically, the Chinese government provides financial support to programs designed to entice and recruit both foreign students and United States citizens to bring their expertise to China. At the same time, the Chinese government sends some of its academics to the United States as students, visiting scholars, and researchers to collect and bring home the cutting-edge innovations developed in American universities.
In monetary terms, the independent Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimated that Chinese government-backed theft of our intellectual property costs America between $225 billion and $600 billion annually. Make no mistake, theft at this scale is a national security problem. While Louisianans always welcome fair competition from other countries, states, or football teams, we will not allow our hard work to be stolen.
I write this to highlight the magnitude of this threat and to reaffirm our commitment at the Department of Justice to partner with academia and research institutions to ensure the continued free exchange of ideas, while also protecting our national security. China is not just an ordinary economic competitor, but a global rival whose government is sponsoring theft to achieve economic and military supremacy. We as Americans must do more.
Bryan A. Vorndran is FBI special agent in charge in New Orleans.