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Top US cancer center moves to terminate staff amid Chinese spying concerns

A computer. (Pixabay/Released)
April 26, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A top cancer research center in the United States is taking steps to fire three scientists amid concerns that the Chinese government is trying to steal U.S. scientific research, according to U.S. media reports.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, took the action after receiving e-mails last year from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) outlining conflicts of interests or unreported foreign income linked to five of its faculty members, the Houston Chronicle reported in an article jointly produced with Science Magazine.

The center said it had begun the process of terminating the contracts of three researchers, for fear of losing NIH funding, the paper reported.

It said the NIH allegations come amid heightened concern in the U.S. that China and other foreign governments are exploiting U.S.-funded research for their own benefit, “enlisting students and visiting scholars to pilfer intellectual property from confidential grant applications, luring scientists to run ‘shadow laboratories’ in their countries.”

The allegations came after NIH director Francis Collins told a Senate panel earlier this month to expect related firings at institutions across the country, amid growing concerns over state-sponsored theft of intellectual property at U.S. academic institutions.

However, Chinese and Chinese-American communities have hit out at the investigations, saying that they involve racial profiling.

According to the Houston Chronicle and Science Magazine, more than 20 employees are currently under suspicion or investigation, while 10 senior employees of Chinese descent have retired, resigned, or been placed on administrative leave, amid what some say is a “toxic climate.”

Attendees at a forum on Sino-U.S. diplomacy in Washington on Monday warned against a “red panic” reminiscent of the McCarthyist purges of the 1950s.

Worrying climate

Former CIA China analyst Dennis Wilder said the current climate of suspicion was a worrying one, and meant that U.S. students who had spent time studying in China would fail security vetting on their return, barring them from government jobs.

“We often send students to China through the scholarship program to learn Chinese and experience Chinese culture,” Wilder told the panel.

“We pay to send them abroad so that they can return to China to serve the U.S. government, but guess what happens when they come back and prepare to join the U.S. government? They fail their background check. Why? Because they have lived in China.”

Wilder, who now trains future U.S. diplomats, said the policy was “unreasonable.”

Fang Enge, a senior U.S. political risk management consultant with connections to Congress, said there have been many cases of students in the pay of the Chinese government.

He said the U.S. authorities are also suspicious of teachers and professors in China, and the potential links that remain with their former students in the U.S.

“They will inevitably have to report back to state security agencies,” Fang said. “So it’s really understandable that the U.S. has stepped up vetting procedures.”

Deepening mistrust

Chinese media commentator Jin Zhongbing said there is a climate of deepening mistrust between China and the United States at the moment.

“The degree of mutual distrust between China and the United States is deepening, to the point of mutual antagonism and hostility in some areas,” Jin said. “This is very unfavorable to exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.”

He said there should be limits set to any process involving mutual suspicion.

“If you rely on speculation targeting anyone who comes from a certain place, then that … is pretty scary,” he said.

Scientific commentator Heng He said the Chinese government has an overarching strategy of acquiring intellectual property from overseas wherever it can.

“The central government has set up a number of foundations at local level across the country to attract scholars coming home with knowledge,” Heng said. “Only China is doing this right now.”

“They also set up shadow laboratories. This doesn’t happen anywhere else but China,” he said.