China’s efforts to lure its scientists back from overseas institutions have been paying off militarily, with more than a little help from the United States.
Military projects they have been involved in include China’s development of hypersonic weapons capable of penetrating missile-defence systems and the design of new submarines able to patrol quietly along the US west coast, researchers familiar with the programmes told the South China Morning Post.
For more than a decade, China has been ramping up efforts to lure back talented scientists working at laboratories in the US linked to America’s nuclear weapons programme and other military research, as well as those working for Nasa and companies such as Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing.
Many of the scientists returning to China have worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which plays a key role in today’s US nuclear weapons programme, or the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
While the numbers remain unknown, so many scientists from Los Alamos have returned to Chinese universities and research institutes that people have dubbed them the “Los Alamos club”.
The Los Alamos laboratory, home to a wide range of defence research facilities, including a supercomputer and particle accelerator used for weapons research, has hired many foreign scientists to compensate for a shortage of American science and engineering talent. Its website says more than 4 per cent of its nearly 10,000 employees are of Asian origin.
In 1999, the US accused Taiwanese-American nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee, who worked at Los Alamos, of giving the design of America’s most-advanced nuclear warhead to China. The charges were dropped by 2006 due to a lack of evidence but the incident sparked widespread unease among ethnic Chinese scientists at the laboratory, according to media reports.
China has been trying to woo foreign-trained scientists back home since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, with one early success being Qian Xuesen, who returned to China from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 to lead the country’s space and military rocket research.
But it has stepped up its efforts in recent years, using financial incentives, appeals to patriotism and the promise of better career prospects to attract scientists with overseas experience in defence research.
One scientist who returned from Los Alamos was Professor Chen Shiyi, who as director of the State Key Laboratory for Turbulence and Complex Systems at Peking University played a key role in the development of China’s hypersonic glide vehicle, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing told the Post.
China tested the hypersonic glide vehicle, capable of travelling at speeds of up to 11,000km/h – about 10 times the speed of sound – in April last year. At those speeds it could deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere on the planet in just over an hour – too fast for any existing anti-missile system to respond to.
The development of the weapon required sophisticated testing facilities, including high-speed wind tunnels. Chen’s laboratory built the first such wind tunnel in China.
Chen was formerly deputy director of the Centre for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos but he quit the high-ranking job in 1999 and returned to China in 2001.
He’s an expert on turbulence, one of the most challenging problems in physics. An object passing through air or a fluid generates chaotic disturbances but modelling them on a computer is extremely difficult. The faster the object, the harder it becomes.
The CAS researcher said Chen played an important role in convincing the Chinese government to build a wind tunnel for hypersonic vehicle development.
“I don’t think he brought back a blueprint of a wind tunnel or a hypersonic vehicle design from Los Alamos,” the researcher said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
“His research there was mainly theoretical, dealing with science problems rather than technological details. But he might have seen and heard things, which prompted him to come up with a solid proposal to the government after he returned.”
When the completion of the hypersonic wind tunnel was announced in 2010, it was the third facility of its kind in the world and the only one operating outside the US, according to the laboratory’s website.
Chen did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
In 2015, the central government appointed Chen, then a vice-president of Peking University, to lead Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), with an ambitious mission to turn the young research university in Shenzhen into “China’s Stanford”.
One of the first things he did was to found a Los Alamos club, which researchers said had already been growing rapidly at other top research institutes on the mainland including Peking University, Tsinghua University, CAS, the University of Science and Technology of China, Harbin Institute of Technology and Fudan University.
Dr Zhao Yusheng, a former senior scientist and team leader at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Centre, joined SUSTech as professor of physics in 2015 after 16 years at the US laboratory and oversaw the university’s development planning as director of research.
Dr Wang Xianglin left Los Alamos in September last year and became a chair professor in SUSTech’s chemistry department. Wang had spent more than 18 years at Los Alamos, working his way up from a post-doctoral researcher to project manager of its chemistry division, where he developed new materials for security applications such as energy storage devices and bio-sensors. He won many awards for his research and worked as an expert for the US Defence Department’s Homeland Defence and Security Information Analysis Centre in 2015, according to his résumé on the university’s website.
Dr Shan Xiaowen, head of SUSTech’s department of mechanics and aerospace engineering, is another Los Alamos alumnus. He’s also a senior scientist involved in the development of China’s first passenger jet, the C919.
The list goes on … Dr He Guowei, a researcher with CAS’s Institute of Mechanics, left Los Alamos shortly after Chen. Also a turbulence scientist, his team is now developing computer models for submarine development, according to the institute’s website.
A recent breakthrough allowed them to predict the turbulence generated by a submarine more quickly and accurately. The technology will allow China to build quieter submarines and better detect foreign ones.
He declined to talk about his work at Los Alamos, saying: “It was long time ago. What I knew is no longer relevant.”
Not all of those to return from Los Alamos were involved in military research. Li Ning, dean of the school of energy research at Xiamen University, was a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos’ accelerator facility in the 1990s. Now he’s a lead scientist in China’s programme to develop a new generation of clean, safe and highly efficient nuclear power plants.
Dr Hang Wei, who worked at Los Alamos for eight years becoming a professor of chemistry at Xiamen University in 2005, said the scientists’ return to China was “just a job”, and it should not be regarded as a threat to US national security.
“When I was there, there could have been hundreds Chines scientists in Los Alamos,” he said. “Most of us are foreigners. We are not US citizens.
“Our security clearance level is the lowest. Los Alamos operates one of the most detailed and sophisticated security systems in the world. We had absolutely no access to military secrets.”
But Hang admitted his research and that of other Chinese scientists had both civilian and military applications.
“The line (between civilian and military applications) can be grey,” he said.
A mainland national security expert told the Post the US government was well aware of the reverse brain drain but could do little about it because scientists had the freedom to choose where they worked and for whom.
“Even [US President Donald] Trump can do little about it,” he said. “If he bans foreign scientists, most US research institutes will shut down immediately because not many Americans are interested in becoming scientists.”
James Andrew Lewis, vice-president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Chinese scientists were “targets of Chinese espionage recruitment, and this requires extra attention”.
The success of China’s efforts to lure people had been “mixed”, he said.
“Many return and then leave again, for the same reasons so many wealthy Chinese are buying houses overseas – Vancouver or Sydney are nicer than Beijing,” Lewis said.
“If people are working on science, there is little security risk. This is a normal practice and the science community is international. If they are working on weapons, there is a risk, but foreigners usually don’t have access.”