National Security

Communist Party Talent Program Scooped Up Former Microsoft Researchers. Now They Work In China’s AI Industry

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Will Kessler Contributor
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A Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talent recruitment program scooped up former Microsoft researchers, including some who now work in China’s artificial intelligence (AI) industry, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation found.

The “Thousand Talents Program” is the largest Chinese talent recruitment plan, aiming to poach U.S.-educated scientists and engineers for the benefit of the CCP. U.S. national security agencies have sounded the alarm over the program, saying it’s being used to steal intellectual property and technology to advance China’s military and economic goals.

Reviewing Chinese-language news reports, the DCNF was able to identify six former Microsoft researchers who were recruited by the CCP’s Thousand Talents Plan and currently work at China-based companies and universities. Five of those six individuals currently work in China’s AI industrial complex, the DCNF found.

Microsoft did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

China is racing to keep up with the U.S. in the contest to produce increasingly powerful AI systems that can be used for both commercial and military applications, according to The New York Times. Despite pressure from the CCP on firms in that country to catch up to the U.S., China remains a year or more behind in AI development and is using U.S. technology it can get its hands on to try and fill in the gap.

More than 10,000 scientists have been recruited as part of the program, former CIA Senior Intelligence Service member William Hannas told The New York Times.

“This isn’t just any old recruitment program that recruits and trains technologists like we would have in America,” Geoffrey Cain, an author and journalist who’s spent a decade investigating Microsoft in China, told the DCNF. “This is a communist party-run project to ensure that China can achieve technological supremacy over the Western liberal democratic world.”

Microsoft has positioned itself as an industry leader in the race to create increasingly expansive and useful AI-powered products, partnering with OpenAI and incorporating AI into its existing offerings like its search engine and word processor, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“If [China] lead[s] the world in AI, that is a nightmare scenario, including for the Chinese people,” Conor Healy, director of government research at security and surveillance industry research group IPVM, told the DCNF. “Just ask the Uyghurs, 10 million of whom live in an open-air prison in Xinjiang automated by surveillance technology.”

‘Burying Its Head In The Sand’

Microsoft boasted in a 2016 news release that 20 alumni of its Asian research institute, called Microsoft Research Asia, had been selected for membership in the Thousand Talents Program. Through Chinese-language news reports, the DCNF identified six prominent former Microsoft researchers who went on to join the CCP’s Thousand Talents Program while working for China-based companies and universities. (RELATED: San Francisco Mayor London Breed Dines With, Accepts Stuffed Panda From Chinese Influence Operatives)

Computer scientist Zhang Zheng, for instance, worked at Microsoft Research Asia from 2001 to 2014, where he was eventually made vice president. Zheng has also been described as an expert in AI, according to Chinese news site ScienceNet. In 2016, the Chinese news site Caixin identified Zheng as a national Thousand Talents Program “expert.”

Zheng was appointed to be the director of Amazon Web Services’ Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Lab in 2018, and he is currently listed as a professor of computer science at New York University Shanghai. Zheng did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

In another case, Li Shipeng worked at Microsoft as a “research area manager/principal researcher” from 1999 to 2015 before becoming a vice president at the voice recognition tech firm iFlytek. The U.S. government sanctioned iFlytek in 2019 over its role in oppressing Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.

China’s Ministry of Science and Technology listed iFlytek among three other companies as the country’s leading firms in AI in 2017, The South China Morning Post reported.

Shipeng is described as a Thousand Talents Program “expert” in a biography written for a 2018 China Computer Federation forum, which the DCNF translated. The biography also claims Shipeng holds 196 U.S. patents. Shipeng is currently the executive president of the Shenzhen Institute of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for Society in China. The institute did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment. Shipeng could not be reached for comment.

Ya-Qin Zhang worked for Microsoft from 1999 to 2014, serving as founder and chairman of the Microsoft Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group starting in 2006. Zhang then led tech company Baidu as president from 2014 to 2019. Zhang was recruited by the Thousand Talents Program during his tenure at Baidu, the Chinese news outlets Jiemian and China News Service reported.

Zhang serves as dean of the Institute for AI Industry Research at China’s Tsinghua University. Zhang did not respond to requests for comment.

Zhang’s former company, Baidu, pushed to become a top contender in AI while he was working there. Former Baidu COO Qi Lu worked at the company from January 2017 to June 2018 and encouraged the push into AI, Wired reported. Lu previously worked at Microsoft from 2009 to 2016.

Former Microsoft Research Asia employee Wen Jirong later became chairman of Elensdata, a technology company focused on developing AI, according to the company’s website. Elensdata’s website identifies Jirong and other founding team members as experts from the Thousand Talents Program and notes Jirong’s experience working on AI at Microsoft. The website also says Jirong holds 50 U.S. patents.

Jirong serves as a professor and the executive dean of the Gaoling School of Artificial Intelligence at China’s Renmin University. Jirong did not respond to requests for comment.

Microsoft Research Asia employed Zhang Hongjiang from 1999 to 2011 before he went to work for the Chinese software and internet service company Kingsoft, according to a 2018 Carlyle Group press release. Hongjiang joined the investment firm that year as a senior advisor. Zhang was a research manager at HP Labs in Palo Alto, California, before he joined Microsoft, according to Carlyle’s release.

Hongjiang was recruited by the Thousand Talents Program in 2012, not long after leaving Microsoft, according to Chinese industry news site Brandcn. Hongjiang is currently listed as a distinguished visiting professor at Tsinghua University in China, where he is the chairman of the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence. Honjiang didn’t respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

Chen Benfeng was selected in the eleventh batch of the Thousand Talents Program in 2015, according to the Chinese news site CNICN. Benfeng worked at Microsoft’s U.S. headquarters on the company’s browser team, according to Sing Tao Daily.

Benfeng founded cybersecurity firm CloudDeep Technology in 2013 and is still listed as working there. CloudDeep did not respond to requests for comment, and Benfeng could not be reached for comment.

“Microsoft would seem to have a strong interest in proactively preventing and monitoring this, but it is not alone among American corporations in burying its head in the sand,” Healy told the DCNF.

‘Too Close To A Foreign Adversary’

Microsoft has deep political ties to the Biden administration, with Microsoft President Brad Smith visiting President Joe Biden’s White House at least 30 times as of February 2024. Smith’s visits came as Microsoft sought to shape the Biden administration’s AI policy and as company executives shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to the president’s reelection efforts, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The tech giant and its subsidiaries spent millions to lobby the federal government in 2022, as it looked to retain the U.S. government as a massive buyer of its productivity software. Microsoft lobbied on 12 different bills that sought to regulate AI in 2023, more than Google, Meta and Amazon, according to Open Secrets.

In that vein, Microsoft promised in July 2023 that it would ensure that AI research is “safe, secure, and trustworthy,” according to a blog post from the company.

“The fact that the Thousand Talents Program is recruiting Microsoft researchers is incredibly alarming because U.S. law enforcement and counterintelligence have raised concerns that Thousand Talents is being used to steal intellectual property and spy on Americans,” Cain told the DCNF.

“This is what happens when a company becomes too close to a foreign adversary,” Cain said. “Microsoft has instilled in them a vast amount of intellectual property and technological trade secrets that could easily be used against Americans.”

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