Silicon Valley steps up screening on Chinese employees to counter espionage


Washington — Leading U.S. technology companies reportedly have increased security screening of employees and job applicants, which experts say is necessary to counter the cyber espionage threat from China.

While the enhanced screening is being applied to employees and applicants of all races, those with family or other ties to China are thought to be particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Beijing government.

But at least one Chinese computer science graduate student at a U.S. university is hoping to make his ties to China an asset. Zheng, who does not want to reveal his first name for fear of retaliation from the Chinese government, says he recently changed his focus to cybersecurity in hopes of improving his job prospects in the United States.

“The goal is a bit high, but I think I know more about China as a person born and raised in China. I hope to become a force with my own characteristics in cybersecurity and a role in fighting against Chinese cyber-attacks,” said Zheng, who is seeking political asylum in the United States.

While Zheng said he is not very worried that increased security checks will affect his job prospects, he said many international students in his class worry that they will be shut out from cybersecurity jobs.

Google, OpenAI and Sequoia Capital are among a number of technology and venture capital firms that have stepped up security checks on employees and potential recruits, according to a recent report by The Financial Times.

The newspaper cited sources at those companies saying they were responding to warnings from the U.S. government about a growing threat from Chinese espionage over the past two years.

Chinese cyber espionage concerns

FBI Director Christopher Wray delivered one such message in a speech in April, saying the Chinese government has tried to steal “intellectual property, technology and research” from American industries.

In response, the U.S. government has stepped up security measures over the last two years, including updating its export control regulations to restrict China’s ability to obtain advanced computing chips and artificial intelligence. The strengthened warnings to U.S. companies are part of that response.

Ivan Kanapathy, senior vice president with Beacon Global Strategies, told VOA that Silicon Valley executives share the U.S. government’s concern. “In recent years, emerging technology companies have become more wary; they don’t want to fall victim to China’s technology absorption strategy,” he said.

“Companies can’t afford to help a competitor that will put them out of business. We’ve seen that happen across many industries already. It’s only natural for American and other allied cutting-edge companies to be concerned and take steps to mitigate the risks of PRC state-sponsored espionage,” he said.

Ray Wang, CEO of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research Inc., said that the theft of American intellectual property has become more rampant since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and that people with ties to China were often targeted.

“During COVID, many folks with relatives in China were put in compromising positions where they were asked to do things for the Chinese government, or one’s relatives would be put at risk,” Wang said. “China has infiltrated almost every aspect of the U.S., and the U.S. is facing systemic problems.”

Kanapathy said China might also obtain American technology through talent poaching, meaning they recruit someone with experience in a particular technology and ask the person to take the technology to start a new company in China. Although it is ethically questionable, it is sometimes legal.

“China likely also tries to place its own people, including engineers, into certain companies that have desirable technologies. It’s a multipronged strategy,” he said.

In a statement to VOA, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu acknowledged the accusations but said the U.S. government “is short on delivering solid evidence.”

“We firmly oppose to the groundless accusations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly,” he wrote.

Liu also pointed out that the World Intellectual Property Organization last year named China as the world’s highest ranking middle-income economy and 12th overall in terms of independently creating intellectual property rights.

“China’s scientific and technological achievements are never made through ‘stealing.’ The Chinese people, including our intellectuals, made such achievements with our talent and hard work,” he wrote.

Security screening concerns

While the enhanced security reviews usually apply to all employees, Wang said. Google and OpenAI have imposed stricter reviews for Chinese employees, and Microsoft is transferring some of its most important Chinese engineers from China to other regions of the world; NVIDIA has also been highly vigilant in screening.

Microsoft employees in China, mostly involved with cloud computing, were recently offered the opportunity to work in the United States, Australia or Ireland, among other countries, state-run outlet said in a report. The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft asked as many as 800 employees, mostly engineers with Chinese nationality working on cloud computing and AI, to consider relocating.

He said companies should exercise caution to avoid triggering xenophobia.

“So almost every new worker, not just Chinese nationals, should undergo the same vetting process. I think it’s really important. As Asian Americans, we have to be very careful about those implications,” he said.

So far, that has not been a problem for Joey Wu, a Chinese software engineer in California. Wu told VOA he has not seen stringent measures exercised against Chinese people, nor has he been treated differently due to his Chinese citizenship.

“I think the U.S. is relatively tolerant and open,” Wu said. “It is not easy for a large technology company to have so many foreign employees. Chinese companies, such as Huawei, are full of Chinese faces, with very few foreigners, and it is unlikely that Americans will be hired to play a more important role.”

Kanapathy pointed out that the founders of many technology companies are from China or India themselves, and these are the people who request security checks on Chinese citizens.

VOA contacted Google, OpenAI and Sequoia Capital for comments but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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