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FBI regrets slow response to China stealing research secrets

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wished it had taken swifter action as Beijing recruited US-based researchers to transfer intellectual property (IP) from American laboratories, a senior official at the agency said during a Senate testimony.

The admission by John Brown, assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division at the FBI, backed up a Senate subcommittee report that found federal agencies had responded too slowly as China recruited the researchers, leaving US taxpayers unwittingly funding the rise of China’s economy and military.

“With our present-day knowledge of the threat from Chinese plans, we wish we had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past,” Brown told a Senate subcommittee. “The time to make up for that is now.”

Amid rising tensions between the United States and China over issues including trade and Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, Washington has been confronting Beijing over what it sees as the use of sometimes illicit methods for acquiring rapid technological advances.

According to the Senate investigators, one example of such activity previously involved a post-doctoral researcher – part of China’s 'Thousand Talents Plan' – who removed more than 30,000 electronic files, including presentations, technical papers, research and charts from a laboratory before returning to China.

Meanwhile, China has repeatedly insisted Washington has exaggerated the problem for political reasons and asked for a response to the FBI’s comments. Also, the nations Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that “Cold War mentalities” should be discarded and dismissed espionage allegations as groundless.

Speaking at a regular briefing in Beijing, Shuang said: “Strengthening cooperation and communication in science and technology benefits both countries as well as humanity.”

The US senators also pressed officials from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy and State Department about what should be done to counter China’s efforts to steal intellectual property.

“I hope very much that this is one of the first steps we take in developing a real national strategy in combating this because clearly China has a strategy, and we need one of our own,” Senator Maggie Hassan said.

Furthermore, senators Rob Portman, the Republican subcommittee chairman, and Tom Carper, its top Democrat, said they would use the report to write legislation to end “the abuse” of US research, intelligence property and taxpayer money.

“These talent plans are a win-win for China. China wins twice. First, the American taxpayer funds China’s research and development. Second, China uses that research to improve its economic and military status,” Portman said in a statement.

The report said China had originally hoped to find 2,000 people for its Thousand Talents Plan and other such programmes, but it had recruited more than 7,000 by 2017.

Portman and Carper released the report amid discussions between the US and China aimed at coming to an initial agreement to resolve a trade war that has lasted for more than a year.

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