China quietly recruits overseas chip talent as US tightens curbs

China stealthily hires foreign top chip talent as the US tightens restrictions

Up until 2018, China attempted to hire top scientists with advanced degrees from outside as part of a lavishly funded effort that Washington saw as a threat to American interests and technological dominance.

According to three sources with knowledge of the matter and a Reuters review of more than 500 government documents spanning 2019 to 2023, China quietly revived the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) under a new name and format as part of a larger mission to accelerate its tech proficiency two years after it stopped promoting it amid U.S. investigations of scientists.

The three sources who spoke to Reuters about the revised recruitment campaign said it includes benefits including home purchase subsidies and standard signing bonuses of 3 to 5 million yuan, or $420,000 to $700,000.

At various levels of government, China runs talent initiatives that are aimed at a combination of abroad Chinese and international specialists. According to national and local policy documents, online job postings, and a person with firsthand knowledge of the situation who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, Qiming, a program run by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, is the primary replacement for TTP.

President Xi Jinping has emphasized China’s need to attain semiconductor self-reliance in light of U.S. export restrictions, which has sparked a race to recruit tech expertise. The U.S. Commerce Department established regulations in October that, among other things, forbid American citizens and permanent residents from aiding the development and manufacturing of advanced semiconductors in China.

Questions about Qiming received no response from either the ministry or the China State Council Information Office. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, China has previously stated that its international hiring efforts under the TTP aimed to develop an innovation-driven economy and encourage talent mobility while safeguarding intellectual property rights.

According to two of the people, Qiming, or Enlightenment, recruits from scientific and technological domains that include “sensitive” or “classified” areas, like semiconductors. The sources claimed that this was because it was more sensitive than its predecessor because it does not announce recipients and is not present on websites run by the national government.

In several of the documents, Qiming is mentioned alongside Huoju, also known as Torch, an ongoing project of the Ministry of Science and Technology that aims to establish tech company clusters. An inquiry for comment was not answered by the ministry.

According to two of the sources and another source with knowledge of the situation, Qiming also works in parallel with hiring drives supported by the government carried out by Chinese semiconductor companies as well as municipal and provincial agencies. Reuters was unable to independently identify the implicated companies.

The United States has long accused China of stealing technology and intellectual property, which Beijing has denied as being politically motivated.

When asked about Chinese talent recruitment practices, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. government’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said, “Foreign adversaries and strategic competitors understand that acquiring top U.S. and Western talent is often just as good as acquiring the technology itself.”

“Risks to U.S. economic and national security can arise when that recruitment creates inherent conflicts of interest or commitment.”

According to Nick Marro, a China analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, it is challenging to stop intellectual property leakage through talent movements since such initiatives “run the risk of turning into ethnically-charged witch hunts.”

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