NYT: Chinese Scientists Indicted by U.S. Are Seen as Stars at Home

May 22, 2015


BEIJING — Several of the six Chinese scientists who were charged with economic espionage by the United States this week are young stars in their fields, and any government ties they have are rooted in their work with a university vying to be a major force in microchip engineering and sales, according to online documents and an interview with a colleague.

[Reposted from The New York Times  |  Edward Wong  |  May 20, 2015]

The indictments announced by the United States Justice Department on Tuesday were widely reported in the Chinese news media, and they surprised many people here, especially those who know the six accused men.

Zhang Hao, 36, who was arrested on Saturday after he landed at Los Angeles International Airport on his way to a conference, was known for “being such a high achiever at such a young age,” said Li Xinghua, an engineering professor at Tianjin University, a state-run institution where Mr. Zhang and at least two other defendants also work.

“I was very shocked” by the “unthinkable” news of his arrest, Mr. Li said. “Everyone is talking about it.”

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said the Chinese government was trying to get more information about the case. “The Chinese government expresses its serious concern,” Hong Lei, the spokesman, said at a news conference in Beijing, adding that it “will ensure that the legitimate interests and rights of Chinese personnel involved in China-U.S. exchanges are effectively protected.”

The Communist Party and Chinese government have for decades had a broad policy of trying to get technology from overseas companies and institutions, often with the help of Chinese scientists and researchers who have traveled abroad, according to American officials, scholars and information from previous court cases in the United States.

Chinese universities and research organizations are often involved in such attempts. Recently, foreign analysts say, the American chip industry has been one focus of Chinese espionage efforts.

Federal prosecutors indicted the six men under an infrequently used provision of the Economic Espionage Act that covers actions for the benefit of a foreign government. Only about a dozen such cases have been prosecuted in the United States in the past 20 years.

The prosecutors say the six defendants took cellphone chip technology from two small American companies where they worked, returned to Tianjin University, created a partnership company with the university and then manufactured and sold the chips to the Chinese military and to commercial customers.

At least three of the six men teach at the university. But Shen Dingli, an associate dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said that their affiliation with the school did not mean the men had the direct support of the central government or were working for the government’s benefit.

“I’m a professor at a university, but any stealing that I do might have nothing to do with the Chinese government,” Mr. Shen said.

Some analysts have also questioned whether the Chinese government had anything to do with other cases of alleged industrial theft by Chinese hackers. Last year, the Justice Department indicted five men in the Chinese Army, accusing them of hacking into the computers of American companies to steal commercial secrets.

But it is rarely obvious for whom such hackers are working — for the military, another government agency, a state-owned enterprise, a private company or themselves, according to cybersecurity experts in China, where a freelance culture of hacking and economic espionage is common.

Mr. Zhang, one of the accused scientists, is listed in the staff directory of Tianjin University’s School of Precision Instrument and Opto-Electronics Engineering. Mr. Li, his colleague, said Mr. Zhang had the remarkable achievement of becoming a professor in the department before he turned 30 and was “the star of our department.”

“Professor Zhang Hao is a very nice person, loved by his students,” Mr. Li said. “He works extremely hard and is very smart and capable.”

In September 2011, Mr. Zhang co-founded a company, ROFS Microsystem, whose website says that its “core team has Ph.D.s from the U.S. and more than 10 years of work experience at famous semiconductor companies overseas.”

A government environmental approval paper issued in 2012 said the company was investing about $40 million to build a production line for Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems chips, commonly known as MEMS chips, in Tianjin. The line would be able to produce 648 million chips per year, the paper said. The company’s website does not list any government clients.

The ROFS website also does not mention any ties to Tianjin University. But an online job advertisement from the company’s early days said its office was on the university campus. In 2012, the company moved to a high-tech zone in the city that, according to an official website, also serves as the “Tianjin University micro- and nanotechnology industry base.”

The university’s president and the deputy director of the technology commission of Tianjin municipality’s Communist Party committee both appeared at the groundbreaking ceremony.

In China, universities often operate companies that seek to profit off the research and inventions of faculty. Sometimes, those companies also become enmeshed with the Communist Party and the government.

One example is Tsinghua Holdings, a highly connected company that once counted the son of a former Chinese president, Hu Jintao, as its Communist Party committee secretary. The company, which oversees companies spun off from Tsinghua University, has a subsidiary considered by analysts to be China’s new national leader in chip technology.

For Tianjin University, an equivalent company is Tianjin Micro Nano Manufacturing, an investor in ROFS Microsystem. The Tianjin University company’s website says one goal is “to smash the monopoly positions of foreign companies” in its industry and to help develop China’s supply chain for high-precision electronic components.

The company is also listed on a number of government websites as an example of the success of China’s indigenous innovation policies, which aim to foster a domestic technology industry.

The Justice Department indictment says Mr. Zhang and another professor from the same engineering department at Tianjin University, Pang Wei, both applied for patents based on technology from the United States.

Mr. Pang, 35, was a founding investor in ROFS Microsystem, according to an online regulatory filing.

Chen Jinping, one of the six men charged and a member of the board of ROFS, also teaches at the same Tianjin University engineering school as Mr. Zhang and Mr. Pang.

Mr. Shen, the professor of international relations at Fudan University, said that it was normal for countries to try to steal information from one another, and that there had been an unspoken rule among nations to stay quiet about this mutual espionage. But lately, the United States appears to be taking a new route, he said.

“Snowden has given ample evidence of the U.S. stealing information from China, but China has never hyped that,” Mr. Shen said, referring to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. “The U.S. always likes to make a fuss, but China’s attitude is more mature on this issue.”

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