- - Friday, February 19, 2021

One of the most important issues of our competition with the Chinese Communist Party is its theft of intellectual property from leading universities and research institutions in the United States.

This theft is critical, in large measure, because the United States tends to thrive economically and militarily on its ability to invent, improve, adapt and adopt technology faster and better than most other nations. If that competitive edge is dulled, it may mean commercial failure, or worse, military failure.

Fortunately, there are people who are fully aware of the risk posed by the Chinese Communist Party and are doing something about it.

One of the unlikely heroes in this new cold war is Chris Sprowls, the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Mr. Sprowls, a graduate of the University of South Florida and Stetson Law School who has the direct manner one would expect from the son of a New York City police detective, says simply: “China is expanding traditional warfare through the theft of intellectual property.”

He should know. When he served as chairman of the Florida House’s Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, he headed an investigation into Tampa Bay’s Moffitt Cancer Center and its involvement with the Chinese Communist Party.

In that instance, Alan List, then the CEO of Moffitt, which is one of the leading research institutions in the United States, was recruited with three researchers to join the Thousand Talents Program. That project is designed specifically by the Chinese communists to bring native-born Chinese scientists home and to recruit, wherever possible, foreign talent as well. 

In Moffitt’s case, the recruited employees accepted cash honorariums, paid travel and other pay not disclosed to Moffitt. Mr. List and other Moffitt employees set up personal bank accounts in China to receive tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Thousand Talents.

The experience with Moffitt confirmed Mr. Sprowls’ belief in the need to be aggressive in protecting state research institutions and state-developed intellectual property. “The problem of Chinese Communist infiltration into American institutions of higher learning is pervasive.”

He is almost certainly the first state legislator in the nation to engage in oversight on this issue, and unfortunately, there have been instances other than Moffitt. The most egregious of these was a University of Central Florida researcher — working on silent submarine motors — who fled back to China once it became apparent that the authorities were looking into his work and the possibility that he was “sharing” it with China.

Mr. Sprowls makes the point that essential questions need to be asked. How are researchers being screened? How are facilities being audited? What policies are in place to assess relationships with China?

It is obvious to him that states have a major role to play. They appoint boards of trustees to universities. They fund these schools. They provide funding and favorable tax treatments to companies, hospitals and research institutions.

As if to make the point sharper, a week after I spoke with Mr. Sprowls, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor was charged with grant fraud for allegedly hiding his relationship with China.

The FBI in Boston said MIT professor Gang Chen failed to disclose his work with China to the U.S. Department of Energy when he applied for millions of dollars in grants.

“Our investigation found Chen was working with the Chinese Communist government in various capacities dating back to 2012 at our country’s expense,” Joseph Bonavolonta, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, said at a news conference in Boston in mid-January.

“In applying for these scarce federal grants, we alleged Chen failed to disclose that he was acting as an overseas expert on science and technology for the Chinese communist government after China’s consulate office in New York asked him to provide expertise and advice in exchange for financial compensation and awards,” Mr. Bonavolonta said.

Last year, Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber was also charged by federal investigators with lying about his ties to China. While there is no evidence that the cases are connected, Mr. Lieber and Mr. Chen are both involved in nanotechnology.

Let’s circle back to Mr. Sprowls for a moment. His inaugural address as the Florida House speaker was a masterpiece. In it he noted: “Discussions about accountability make some people uncomfortable. But we can’t be afraid to be honest when something isn’t working. Silence strangles the truth. We can’t avoid talking about the things that matter because the conversation might be controversial.” 

He’s right. Accountability, truth and directness will be important in this new cold war. He’s also a man to watch with respect to China and otherwise.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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