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.