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China’s Hidden Talent: The Thousand Talent Plan

  • Published
  • By Major Shawna A. Matthys

At the age of 60, Dr. Charles M. Lieber was a world-renown chemist at Harvard University with an extensive resume from his groundbreaking work in nanoscience and nanotechnology, publication of over four hundred papers in peer-reviewed journals, lead inventor on 50 patents, and founder of two commercialized nanotechnology companies. [1] Once in the race for the Nobel Prize, Leiber became a convicted felon in December 2021 when he was found guilty of two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts (FBAR) with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). [2] Lieber’s downfall stemmed from his failure to disclose his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) which generously paid him $50,000 per month, plus $150,000 in living expenses, and $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. While participation in the TTP is not illegal if properly disclosed, the number of recent cases of Chinese espionage linked to this program has started to raise questions. Although the Chinese claim that the TTP seeks to recruit highly skilled foreign researchers by offering attractive salaries and other compensations, it is likely that the TTP’s true objective is to procure or steal intellectual property from expert scientists and engineers such as Lieber under the guise of international cooperation in scientific research.

Although the program appears to promote a multi-national collaborative research environment for the greater good of science, there are many red flags within the TTP application process and the program that suggest it is not as genuine as it may seem. Before applying for the TTP, the potential applicant must receive a firm job offer from a Chinese institution where their current or prior research aligns with the demands of the fields of study at a Chinese university. The university will likely recommend to the individual that they should apply for the TTP, which includes submitting a resume, any published papers, and a list of academic qualifications. Once accepted, the individual will get a contract that ranges from three to five years working at or with a Chinese university with benefits that may include a $150,000 starting bonus, potential for additional research funds, accommodation subsidies, meal allowances, relocation compensation, paid-for visits home, and subsidized education costs.[3]

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to be leveraging the TTP, however, to steal intellectual property (IP) to achieve its strategic objectives. The TTP was launched in 2008, shortly after the CCP announced its goal in 2006 to become an “innovative country” by 2020 and the world’s leader in science and technology (S&T) by 2050.[4] Since the program’s inception, it has recruited thousands of scientists from across the globe, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, France, and Australia. As a result, China has now outpaced the U.S. in the number of international patents filed for the first time in 2019, which skyrocketed since the TTP began.[5] Possibly aware of the vulnerability of their targets, the TTP appears to focus on individuals who can fill distinct gaps in China's research or other capabilities. Here, the PRC uses the Chinese university to reach out to the individual first to secure a solid job offer as if the recruitment targets a specific individual or skill.[6] During the application process, the targets then submit their published papers and information, which provides China with publications that they may not usually have access to.

Although China refutes these claims by saying their technological exchange programs are similar to those in the U.S., there are several key differences. Most U.S. scientific application processes are open to all applicants, while the TTP is only available to individuals that have been selected by Chinese authorities. Furthermore,  the TTP requires participants to agree to nondisclosure provisions, whereby the TTP can cancel the contract at any time and own the information. Thus, the TTP goes against many of the U.S. research norms, values, and principles. Following the bad publicity of several infamous cases, such as that of Dr. Yu Long, China has removed all references to the TTP on its websites.

The case of Dr. Yu Long is a perfect example of how the CCP leveraged individuals in the TTP to steal U.S. IP for economic and military advantage. In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) arrested Dr. Yu Long, a citizen of China and a permanent resident of the U.S that had been a TTP participant. During his employment at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) in Connecticut as a U.S. defense contractor as a Senior Engineer/Scientist from May 2008 to May 2014, he worked on F119 and F135 engines used in the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft and the F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, respectively. Long had access to highly sensitive, proprietary, and export-controlled materials, including information for a U.S. Air Force consortium of major defense contracts that shared technical data to work together to reduce the cost of certain metals used. In 2013 and 2014, Long was recruited by state-run universities in China, including the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) and the Shenyang Institute of Automation (SIA). During this time, Dr. Long began expressing his intent to return to China and leverage his research and development knowledge from UTRC, especially on jet engines, to benefit China further and even create a spin-off business in the future. While in negotiations with SIA, Long stated, "in the past five years, I have been working with Pratt Whitney, also other UTRC business units, like UTAS (including Hamilton Sundstrand and Goodrich), Sikorsky, CCS (including Carrier and Fire & Security), and Otis. These unique working experiences have provided me a great starting point to perform research and development and further spin-off business in China. I believe my efforts will help China mature its aircraft engines." Long began working for SIA in June 2014 and was listed as the project engineer for a research plan for CAS the following month. While in China, Long accessed a laptop and UTRC external hard drive for his job in China, which contained a substantial amount of digital media protected by International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Export Administration Regulations for multiple U.S. companies, all of which were sensitive and proprietary. Upon his return to the U.S. on August 19, 2014, he was greeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who noticed that he had an application for a state-controlled aviation and aerospace research center in China outlining parts of his work related to the F119 and F135 jet engines. Ultimately, Long pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to engage in the theft of trade secrets knowing that the offense would benefit a foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agent, and one count of unlawful export and attempted export of defense articles from the U.S. in violation of the Arms Export Control Act.[7] While it is likely Long knew what he was doing was illegal, he can also be considered somewhat of a victim of China’s TTP which likely specifically targeted him due to his UTRC position and citizenship.  Using the lure of TTP benefits, China was able to obtain secrets out of him. The case of Dr. Long is not an isolated incident as many others were likely recruited based on their positions.

China's TTP also targets scientists and engineers in the commercial sector to leverage IP for China’s economic gain. During her employment at The Coco-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, and Eastman Chemist Company in Kingsport, Tennessee, Dr. Xiarong (Shannon) You had access to chemical formulas for bisphenol-A-Free (BPA-free) coatings, which cost $120M to develop from major chemical companies. With funding from the TTP, You and her planned Chinese corporate partner, Weihai Jinhong Group, looked to set up a new company in China to exploit these trade secrets. Ultimately You was convicted of conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, conspiracy to commit economic espionage, possession of stolen trade secrets, economic espionage, and wire fraud.[8] In April 2022, Xiaoqing Zheng was convicted of conspiracy to commit economic espionage. Having been employed at GE Power & Water from 2008 to 2018 in Schenectady, New York as an engineer specializing in sealing technology, Zheng started to receive funding from the TTP in 2012, which he failed to disclose to GE. Zheng later exploited his access to GE’s files for turbine technologies, such as proprietary files involving design models, engineering drawings, and specifications for GE gas and steam turbines, which he sent to his business partner Xhaozi Zhang in China to further their two owned Chinese businesses – Liaoning Tianyi Aviation Technology Co., Ltd (LTAT) and Nanjing Tianyi Avi Tech Co. Ltd (NTAT), which specialized in turbine research and development.[9] By enticing individuals with the TTP, China was able to gain access to IP for its own economic gain by creating businesses that would compete with the American markets.

China’s TTP objective to gain access to valuable IP is a threat to America's national interest, specifically our economic and military advantages. Stealing IP from American businesses, who invested wealth and talent to develop these technologies, enables China to stand up competing companies at lower costs which then have an unfair advantage in the world marketplace. This could eventually lead to a loss of American jobs and income. China is also indirectly stealing from the American taxpayer. Each year, the U.S. spends over $150 billion of taxpayer dollars on scientific research for foundations such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy’s National Labs. The TTP can also erode the American military’s technological advantages as China can piece together a whole picture of multiple businesses and military programs to exploit a vulnerability within a system or develop similar technologies for their own use.

Before scrubbing their public sites after the series of bad publicity, a Chinese media outlet stated the TTP bragged it had recruited 6,000 members, including 70 Nobel Prize laureates and academicians from the United States and Europe by 2016.[10] It is very likely that many of the members are leveraging previous knowledge and expertise from their prior positions to retain lucrative benefits from the TTP. While the TTP was the largest plan, China still had over 200 active talent recruitment plans. Considering the damage already inflicted by a few individuals involved in the TTP, these other recruitment programs should be put under more scrutiny by the U.S. government.           

Major Shawna A. Matthys
Maj Matthys currently serves as the Armed Overwatch Program Manager, Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, at MacDill Air Force Base. Over the course of her 14 years of service, she has served as a Research Chemist, Executive Officer, Program Manager, Deputy, Scientist and Engineer Career Field Manager and Program Element Monitor. During her time as a scientist, she became aware of China’s Thousand Talents Program and Air Command and Staff College allowed her the opportunity to research the program and understand the economic impacts of Intellectual Property Theft.

This paper was written as part of the Dirty Money elective at ACSC.


[1].  “Charles M. Lieber,” Harvard University,

[2]. “Harvard University Professor Convicted of Making False Statements and Tax Offenses,” United States Department of Justice, December 21, 2021,

[3]. Hepeng Jai, “What Is China’s Thousand Talents Plan,” Nature (London), 554, no 7688 (2018): S8, .

[4]. U.S. Congress, Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans, (2019), 1-5,

[5]. James Jin Kang, “The Thousand Talents Program Is Part of China’s Long Quest to Become the Global Scientific Leader.,” The Conversation, August 31, 2020,

[6]. Jai, “What Is China’s Thousand Talents Plan.”

[7]., “Chinese National Admits to Stealing Sensitive Military Program Documents From United Technologies.,” United States Department of Justice, December 19, 2016,

[8]. “Ph.D. Chemist Convicted to Conspiracy to Steal Trade Secrets, Economic Espionage, Theft of Trade Secrets and Wire Fraud.,” United States Department of Justice, April 22, 2021,

[9]. “Former GE Power Engineer Convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Economic Espionage Following Four-Week Trial,” United States Department of Justice, April 1, 2022,, Christopher Burgess, “China’s Thousand Talents Program Harvests U.S. Technology and a Guilty Verdict,” Clearance Jobs, December 22, 2021,

[10]. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee, Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise, 2.

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