Feds’ suspicions that China has targeted Boston’s medical mecca with biological espionage underscores a new development in a longstanding Chinese campaign to plunder American technological secrets and intellectual property, foreign policy experts say.
“China has moved up the tech ladder,” said American Enterprise Institute’s Derek Scissors, adding that Beijing is more focused today on biotechnology and genetics, compared to agriculture in the past.
A Chinese national here on a Harvard-sponsored student visa is accused of stealing vials of cancer research material from a Beth Israel lab, according to federal officials who say they believe the Chinese government is involved.
“This does sound consistent with the types of activities where China is trying to acquire advanced technology to catch up,” said Scott Harold of the RAND Corporation. “China puts a lot of pressure on its own nationals to become accomplices to acquire this advanced technology.”
The theft of intellectual property is a major part of President Trump’s trade war with Beijing, Syracuse University professor Mary Lovely noted.
“China exporting this information to other countries is a concern,” she said. “The U.S. ends up losing sales in China, and in other parts of the world.”
Federal prosecutors have warned that Boston is a rich target for Chinese economic espionage.
“Boston is a node for this activity,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said earlier this year, citing the number of universities, defense contractors and other tech firms — and a large number of Chinese nationals on visas here. A Chinese national living in Wellesley last year was arrested on charges of conspiring to illegally export American goods used in anti-submarine warfare to China.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said earlier this year, “More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets — our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers.”
People who work in critical industries should be watchful, Harold said: “If something seems really weird or odd, or if you learn someone has gone into business on the side, those are far better warning flags than simply the person’s heritage or ethnicity.”