A Story of China's Intellectual-Property Theft

Ruopeng Liu, "China's "Elon Musk," allegedly stole some important tech research from Duke University.

Lewis Morris · Jul. 31, 2018

The heated competition for supremacy in the marketplace between the U.S. and China is at the heart of the current trade conflict between the two countries. China is hot on America’s heels in developing new technologies for consumer use; a challenge to this nation’s economy. China is also applying its technological developments for military application, which is surely a threat to America’s national security.

How is China gaining this advantage? At least partly through men like Ruopeng Liu, a tech billionaire who has been referred to as China’s Elon Musk. The big difference between the two men is that while Musk comes up with products and services through grit and great ideas, Liu apparently steals them — with the backing of the Chinese government.

Liu stands accused of stealing intellectual property from Dr. David Smith of Duke University, where Liu graduated in 2009. Smith is one of the leading experts in a manufactured substance called metamaterials — hi-tech components that can be used for a variety of uses. One particular metamaterial that Smith has been working on for years is an invisibility cloak, a device that can guide electromagnetic waves around an object to make it appear that the object is not there. This cloak isn’t straight out of the magical world of Harry Potter — it would not make an object or person invisible to the naked eye, but it would fool scanning and thermographic instruments. The military applications are obvious.

Liu attended Duke University from 2006 to 2009, and he was part of Smith’s research and development team. According to Smith and former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi, Liu, with the help of the Chinese government, stole Smith’s cloaking technology and brought it back to China.

Smith initially believed Liu to be an enterprising student, but over time he realized that things did not seem right. Liu repeatedly broke protocol with regard to sharing and claiming credit for information about the project. He also refused to share some of his work with Smith, who was Liu’s supervisor and head of the project.

Under the guise of international collaboration, Liu talked Smith into letting Chinese researchers visit the lab. They took a lot of pictures while Smith wasn’t around and later returned to China. Liu also returned to China after receiving his degree from Duke in 2009. A year later, he founded a tech company there now valued at over $6 billion. In the lobby at headquarters is a prototype of a cloaking device very similar to the one Smith has been working on for years.

Liu categorically denies that he stole Smith’s work. But Smith and FBI investigators are quite confident that he did. Liu’s company and work have received generous support from the Chinese government, which may have also backed his stay at Duke. It may be the case that Liu was under Chinese government orders all along to attend an American university and gain access to important technological R&D work, preferably something with military application.

Unfortunately, Liu’s story is not unique. Thousands of foreign nationals, including those from adversarial countries like China and Russia, attend American universities all the time. They gain student visas, come to the U.S., work on important projects, and then take their knowledge back home — sometimes into the waiting arms of government officials looking to seize that intellectual property and use it to their advantage.

American colleges and universities are eager for foreign financial support and to further academic research. This approach, however, leaves them wide open to intellectual property theft by malevolent Chinese and Russian entities. Export control licenses, written agreements, and security protocols for taking part in certain research projects have been put in place in some instances to protect against more Lius.

U.S. academic institutions are at the forefront of advances in civilian and sometimes military technology. Their traditional open door policy has helped foster research and collaboration, essential in our global economy. At the same time, however, not everyone plays fair. Many of the technological advances that China boasts of have been stolen and repurposed from American universities and companies. It’s time that American higher education starts putting a tighter leash on who it allows to work on key research projects before this country’s best work ends up being used against us.

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