China Hawks Don’t Understand How Science Advances

The U.S. government’s attempt to keep China from stealing technology has degenerated into a squeeze on its own scientists.

Illustration of two test tubes, one red with gold stars, the other blue with white stars.
Getty; The Atlantic

What do we mean, exactly, when we refer to a piece of technology? The answer will help determine whether the United States can maintain its technological superiority over China. Technology takes three distinct forms. It’s an embodied tool, like the pots, pans, or oven in a kitchen. It’s written instruction, like patents, blueprints, or a cake recipe. And it’s process knowledge—the irreplaceable, hard-won practical experience that’s too difficult to write down. Replicating Grandma’s cheesecake is hard, even when you’re working in her kitchen and following her exquisite notes. Unfortunately, in its competition with China, the U.S. is protecting its pots and recipes while putting legal pressure on the cheesecake experts within its own borders—thereby limiting the country’s ability to create new intellectual property. This is a worrisome sign that U.S. authorities are failing to understand something important: The most useful technology is not intellectual property in the form of written documents, but the unwritten knowledge in people’s heads.

For decades, Washington has decried China’s intellectual-property theft. With its focus on deterring and punishing cyberintrusions—in which hackers try to make off with blueprints and test data—the U.S. government has elevated written documents and other intellectual property as the primary form of technology that it seeks to protect.

During the Trump administration, federal agencies embarked on a significant escalation. In 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “China Initiative,” which he vowed would target the theft of “discoveries that took years of work and millions of dollars in investment here in the United States” but which has morphed into a program to punish U.S.-based scientists for lesser kinds of wrongdoing. Under its aegis, the Justice Department has indicted dozens of researchers and academics. Prominent victims have included science professors at America’s top universities, such as Harvard and MIT.  The Harvard nanotechnology researcher Charles Lieber’s trial on charges of hiding Chinese funding began in Boston on Tuesday. Most defendants in these cases are of Chinese origin or descent. Recent reporting in MIT Technology Review suggests that only a quarter of the cases brought under the China Initiative involve alleged intent to steal secrets or spy. The bulk of the prosecutions of the past three years, including Lieber’s, are related to a lack of candor, such as the failure to disclose ties to Chinese funding or institutions in the course of applying for federal grants. To face down these allegations, academics have been subjected to house arrest, the loss of their jobs, and ruinous legal fees.

In essence, the U.S. is protecting its tools and blueprints while harming a far more valuable asset: its scientists and scientific communities. This approach is creating a climate of fear that chills legitimate scientific collaboration and may drive away foreign-born scientists who would otherwise make their discoveries in America.

The U.S. has made this mistake before. During the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, the U.S. government arrested Qian Xuesen, a physicist who co-founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the basis of suspected communist sympathies. Deported to China in 1955, Qian subsequently oversaw China’s development of the fission bomb and the hydrogen bomb, as well as the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Deporting Qian, in other words, was a strategic blunder by the U.S. government.

Written instructions can’t replicate practical experience. Even an activity as simple as frying an egg is hard to get right the first time if you have a superb kitchen and a detailed recipe but no cooking experience.

More futile is believing that entire technological industries might be captured in blueprints or reports. The U.S. should have learned this lesson after World War II. In Taking Nazi Technology, an illuminating book published this year, the historian Douglas O’Reagan documented how American agents combed through a defeated Germany’s industrial labs. That country had enjoyed a reputation during the war for leading in the chemical and other science-based industries, while wunderwaffen such as the V-2 rocket were threats for which the Allies had no answer.

Investigators organized under a U.S. Army office called Field Information Agency, Technical (FIAT) started to roam through German labs. A breakthrough product, the microfilm camera, gave the Americans the  unprecedented ability to copy documents at scale. These scientists and technicians took on the task with zeal, photographing and sending back home reams of blueprints, scientific reports, and raw experimental data. America wasn’t the only one of the Allies seeking “intellectual reparations.” The Soviet Union, the U.K., and France each drew up their own plans to exploit German technology.

How did the secrets that FIAT unearthed change U.S. industry? Most had little effect. Many American firms in sectors such as machine tools, aircraft, and even chemicals were pleasantly surprised to learn they weren’t much behind their German counterparts. But American industry also discovered that trying to learn whole industries by examining documents was ineffective. The disappointment is summed up by a letter that O’Reagan relates from a British chemical-industry association, which noted: “Much of the ‘know-how’ is impossible to put into words,” and “No amount of ‘given’ information can ever be a substitute for the information obtained in the hard school of practical experience.”

The U.S. had greater success with Operation Paperclip, a better-known program that involved the evacuation or kidnapping of more than 1,000 German scientists to the United States. The greatest of these prizes was the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, a former SS officer whom the U.S. treated strikingly better than it treated Qian. Assisted by other German emigrés, von Braun had a starring role in developing NASA’s Saturn V rocket.

Every piece of technology is the product of a particular system and culture. A successful transfer demands the presence of the scientist, who makes technical adaptations and cultivates a talent pool that over time absorbs novel ideas. Samuel Slater departed the U.K. in 1789 and helped adapt British textile machinery to local conditions in New England in the early 1790s, thus earning the epithet “Slater the Traitor” back home.

In its efforts to prevent technology leakage to China, the U.S. government rightly tries to thwart Chinese computer hacking. Theft is always unacceptable. Furthermore, the U.S. government and American universities alike have a sound basis for examining researchers’ ties to Chinese institutions, because President Xi Jinping himself formally oversees China’s “military-civil fusion” program—an initiative enlisting universities and entrepreneurial firms in that country to contribute to its military modernization.

But the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative—which continues under the Biden administration—has expanded beyond the scope of the reasonable. As a result, America stands to drive its most valuable assets in the tech race into China’s arms.

MIT Technology Review maintains a database of 77 cases and more than 150 defendants under the initiative. The most striking fact about these prosecutions is how few allege economic espionage or the theft of trade secrets. On its own terms, the China Initiative has a poor success rate. Only about a quarter of defendants charged have been convicted, according to Tech Review. The only research-integrity case that went to trial before this week resulted in a prominent loss for prosecutors: A federal judge acquitted Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville of charges that he concealed ties with a Chinese university while receiving NASA funding. Even former federal prosecutors are raising doubts about the China Initiative. Andrew Lelling, one of the U.S. attorneys who previously helped steer it, told The Washington Post in September that pursuing academics for grant fraud is “nearing the overkill stage.” The same article quotes another former prosecutor, who said that these cases are now an exercise to “show statistics.”

Overkill has consequences. In a study conducted by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100, a nonprofit representing prominent Chinese Americans, 42 percent of surveyed Chinese scientists reported that the China Initiative, and other investigations by the FBI, has affected their plans to stay in the U.S. That is surely music to the ears of China’s government, which has already been improving its record of luring back Chinese-born scientists. Although the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged his country’s youth to study abroad, Beijing has always maintained programs to entice them to come home. According to the Chinese government’s figures, the share of overseas students who decide to return climbed from a low of 25 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2018.

The U.S. needs to learn from past mistakes. Yes, a particular blueprint or written document might help China’s capabilities, and cyberintrusions intended to extract that intellectual property ought to be deterred. But blueprints are worth only so much, and American hawks risk harming a far more valuable resource: the scientists who can develop new forms of intellectual property for America.