[This post is an excerpt from Daniel Golden’s new book, Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities]
Brandishing a light saber, and sporting a dark cloak and hood that concealed his eyes but not his grin, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi pranced about the stage of Window of the World Caesar’s Palace in Shenzhen, China, on the evening of January 30, 2016. So did Jedi warriors, imperial stormtroopers, and other Star Wars characters. Pulsating spotlights and jets of smoke alternately illuminated and clouded the spectacle as a cheering audience of seven hundred waved yellow, green, and purple sabers.
Titled “Battle of Future—A New Dawn,” the Star Wars parody highlighted an extravaganza that also featured live music, sensual dances, people’s faces (poked through a screen) atop puppet bodies, and a tribute to China’s military. It marked the sixth anniversary of Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology and Kuang-Chi Science Ltd., which aim to conceive and commercialize breakthroughs in the fast-growing field of metamaterials. Ruopeng Liu, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, is the founder and head of these ventures; the other Jedis, their executives; the performers and audience, their workers. Several members of the audience won prizes epitomizing the fearless, innovative spirit that Liu preaches: trips to the North Pole, the South Pole, and Near Space.
Still in his costume but now sans saber, Liu clutched an enormous bouquet of flowers in his left hand and a microphone in his right, and glorified his accomplishments in song. “No matter how thrilling it is outside, I behave with perfect composure,” he crooned in Chinese. “You can’t say how hard the trip is, it’s fortunate we kept a cool head.” Then he segued into the chorus from the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Chubby-cheeked and endearingly boyish at the age of thirty-two, Liu had a lot to celebrate. His majority stake in Kuang-Chi Science, which is traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, made him a billionaire with a business empire extending to the United States, Norway, Canada, and New Zealand. Chinese media dubbed him the “Elon Musk of China,” equating him as a visionary with the iconic founder of electric car maker Tesla. By the end of 2015, his fledgling institute had sought an astounding total of 3,289 patents, and received 1,783. China’s government showered him with honors and responsibilities for technology policy, and President Xi Jinping, as well as many prominent ministers and party officials, toured Liu’s enterprises in Shenzhen.
Yet Liu’s wealth and fame are a mask, like his costume at the anniversary gala, or the invisibility cloak that he helped design as a Duke graduate student in electrical engineering, under renowned professor David R. Smith. They hide an unsettling reality that has never been made public: he owes much of his success to what one might call a higher education form of economic espionage. Liu exploited an unwary professor, lax collaboration guidelines, and Duke’s open, global culture by funneling Pentagon-funded research to China. He arranged for Chinese researchers to visit Smith’s lab and reproduce its equipment, and passed them data and ideas developed by unwitting colleagues at Duke. He secretly started a Chinese website based on research at Duke, and deceived Smith into committing to work part-time in China. His activities compromised the United States’ edge in an emerging technology that could someday conceal a fighter jet, tank, or drone, affecting the outcome of a war or covert operation. Once Liu returned to China, a grateful government invested millions in his start-up ventures.
Looking back, some of Liu’s former colleagues in the Duke lab feel that he violated their trust. “When you toil away in academia, only about ten people know it’s your idea,” one member of the lab, Jonah Gollub, told me. “Ideas were flowing from here to China. In retrospect, people feel they weren’t given the full picture.”
The Liu case illustrates how vulnerable academic research is to foreign raiders, and how little universities do to protect it. Eager to attract international students and open branches abroad, universities are reluctant to offend China and other countries by cracking down on research theft. Yet, by looking the other way, they’re betraying the government agencies, and ultimately the American taxpayers, funding the research. We pay taxes for our military to defend us, only to have universities compromise that security by pursuing global prominence without acknowledging or addressing the collateral damage.
Although Liu has never been charged with any crime, the FBI looked into his activities and briefed university presidents and law enforcement officials about them. At an October 2012 closed-door session of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board at FBI headquarters, according to an agenda obtained through a public records request, Smith recounted how, “without his knowledge, a Chinese national targeted his lab and … created a mirror institute in China. The episode cost Duke significantly in licensing, patents and royalties and kept Smith from being the first to publish ground-breaking research.” An FBI video interview with Smith about the episode, shown to an invitation-only audience in September 2015, was titled simply “The Theft of a Great Idea.”
Liu “was definitely filled with intent,” and his actions “could have tremendous economic impact in the future,” Smith wrote me in July 2015. “I think if people understood how something like this happens, and how those with potentially ill intent can take advantage of the natural chaos that occurs in US academic environments, they might become more aware and avoid things like this in the future.”
* * *
ACADEMIC RESEARCH OFFERS a valuable, vulnerable, and low-risk target for foreign espionage. Despite pursuing groundbreaking technologies for the Pentagon and the intelligence community, university laboratories are less protected than their corporate counterparts, reflecting a culture oriented toward collaboration and publication. Typically, university researchers aren’t required to sign nondisclosure agreements, which run counter to the ethic of openness.
“There’s a lot less control than in a company like Boeing,” says John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Universities are ripe pickings for anybody who’s interested in accessing intellectual property.”
Ignorance about intellectual property safeguards, or even hostility toward them, is rife among science students and faculty. There is “zero instruction” on the topic outside law school, Villasenor told me. Significant proportions of UCLA engineering graduate students whom he surveyed couldn’t define a patent (21 percent), copyright (32 percent), trademark (51 percent), or trade secret (68 percent). Never contemplating the possibility of espionage, American professors sometimes comply with requests from acquaintances or strangers overseas for research advice, manuscript reviews, or unpublished data. A civil engineering professor at Penn State once phoned Graham Spanier, then the university’s president, to say that a foreigner had emailed him asking how to build an underground concrete structure that could withstand a megaton explosion.
“I was about to hit send, when it dawned on me, I’d better ask,” the professor said. “I don’t know this person.” Spanier notified the FBI, which traced the request back through seven intermediary layers before losing the trail. The elaborately disguised source was never unmasked.
The casual university attitude belies the growing threat. Academic solicitation, or “the use of students, professors, scientists or researchers as collectors,” tripled from 8 percent of all foreign efforts to obtain sensitive or classified information in fiscal 2010 to 24 percent in 2014, according to the Defense Security Service, a Defense Department agency that protects American technology.
American college graduates with a flair for engineering or computer science typically join high-technology companies, or start their own, rather than continue their educations. As a result, international students dominate graduate programs in those fields at U.S. universities, forming the backbone of their workforce for cutting-edge research. In 2012–13, foreign students earned 56.9 percent of doctorates conferred by U.S. universities in engineering and 52.5 percent of those in computer and information sciences. They comprise more than 70 percent of graduate students nationwide in Smith’s specialty, electrical engineering.
“Foreign intelligence services, foreign corporations and foreign governments often target these students in an attempt to have them provide the results of the research they are working on or other proprietary and intellectual property that belongs to the United States government or to United States corporations that are funding the research,” David W. Szady, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, wrote in a July 2014 newsletter. “Foreign militaries can develop state-of-the-art weapons systems by stealing research from colleges and universities that is sponsored by the United States Department of Defense.”
* * *
AMERICAN TAXPAYERS FUND a significant amount of academic research and development. The U.S. government spent $27.4 billion on it in 2014, up from $16.9 billion in 2000 and $9.1 billion in 1990. That includes $2.4 billion in 2014 from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies (not counting the CIA, which doesn’t report expenditures), up from $1.7 billion in 2000 and $1.2 billion in 1990.
Some of this research is off-limits to foreign students. If it’s classified, only people with security clearances can work on it, usually in secure, off-campus facilities. If it’s export-controlled, the next level down on the secrecy scale, the university must obtain a license from the government for a foreign national to participate. Such licenses are typically denied for students from countries such as China and Iran.
The bulk of federally funded university research, though, is fundamental, and open to all students. Since it can also be published without restriction, one might wonder, why bother stealing it? The answer: to save time, and avoid mistakes. Access can provide insights beyond the results published in an academic journal. “It’s great to know the solutions, but the process is arguably just as important,” says historian Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “You can see the paths not taken, the failures and dead ends.” With a mole in a U.S. university laboratory, researchers overseas can publish and patent an idea first, ahead of the true pioneers, and enjoy the consequent acclaim, funding, and surge in interest from top students and faculty.
A foreign government may be eager to scoop up a fundamental breakthrough before its applications become so important that it’s labeled secret—and foreign students lose access to it. J. A. Koerner, the former head of counterintelligence in the FBI’s Tampa office, has a term for such promising science: pre-classified. “Once it becomes integrated into a military system, it will be classified and harder to get at,” he says.
The very openness of U.S. universities denies them recourse against foreigners who siphon American ideas abroad. Economic espionage laws require the owner of stolen trade secrets to have taken reasonable precautions to protect them, like Coca-Cola’s famed vigilance in defense of its formula. Lacking nondisclosure and collaboration agreements to safeguard intellectual property, universities can’t meet that standard.
Reflecting his prominence at Duke, Professor David Smith has two offices in different buildings that face each other across a well-manicured lawn. He runs both his own research group out of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences, which has a stone façade and modern amenities like “smart bridges,” as well as the department of electrical and computer engineering out of older, red-brick Hudson Hall.
When we talked in April 2016 in the Hudson Hall office, where a remodeling had left the walls and shelves bare, Smith displayed none of the self-importance that one might expect from a department chair and award-winning scientist often touted as a Nobel Prize candidate. Casually dressed, he came across as soft-spoken and unpretentious.
The case of Ruopeng Liu, his former student turned Chinese billionaire, had taught him how easily the relationship of trust that scientific collaborations depend on can be abused, he told me. “No one has any training in intellectual property,” he said. “It’s something we’re all grappling with—where to draw the line.”
* * *
SMITH WAS BORN in 1964 in Okinawa, Japan, where his father served in the U.S. military. When he was a baby, his parents divorced, and he had no more contact with his father. His mother worked odd jobs, and they lived all over California: Riverside, San Diego, Carlsbad, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and finally Escondido, where he spent his last three years of high school.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1988 and his doctorate in 1994, both from the University of California, San Diego. His hobby in graduate school was blackjack. He learned to count cards, a strategy that improves the player’s chances by predicting the value of cards remaining in the deck. “I ended up organizing a group that played blackjack in Las Vegas for a while.” Scammed by dealers using marked decks at a casino on an Indian reservation near San Diego, he sued to recover his losses. After five years of litigation, during which Smith “learned quite a bit about Indian gaming law,” a California appeals court ruled against him.
Smith was a latecomer to academic stardom. At UCSD, he “was a fairly typical graduate student with no expectations on that level at all,” said David Schurig, who overlapped with him there and later was a researcher in Smith’s lab at Duke. “It’s quite an impressive rise.”
As a postdoctoral student at UCSD, Smith became involved with a biotech company his adviser was starting, and hardly published any research. He decided to leave academia for industry, but thought that a few publications first would help his career. As it happened, his articles helped launch the field of metamaterials—artificial materials with properties not found in nature—and “I was lucky enough to turn things around.”
Around 1998, he began collaborating with Sir John Pendry, an English physicist and professor at Imperial College London, who theorized that metamaterials could warp the path of light as it moves through space. At a scientific meeting in San Antonio in 2005, Pendry suggested what he regarded as an “amusing” application. “I said, ‘By the way, we can make something invisible,’” he later recalled. “I just gave a sketch and one slide with a formula on it and I sat down and I expect everybody to laugh. Straight faces.”
Smith, who had joined Duke’s faculty in 2004, missed the conference, but two members of his lab attended Pendry’s speech. “Pretty soon the phone lines were hot, and David said, ‘We’ve got to build this stuff,’” Pendry recalled.
“I and my group thought it would be a fun challenge and we realized right away we could do the experiment and the design,” Smith told me. “I never expected that interest in this topic would be so huge.”
Invisibility has always fascinated humankind. After killing Medusa, Perseus donned an invisibility helmet to elude the Gorgons. Long before Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, King Arthur and Tom Thumb wore invisibility cloaks, while Gyges, a shepherd featured in Plato’s Republic, sported an invisibility ring to murder a king and seduce the queen.
Journalists crave invisibility for professional benefit; we long to be unnoticed observers, flies on the wall, albeit flies with notebooks, pens, cameras, and tape recorders. Similarly, the obvious advantages of invisibility in war and espionage have long intrigued strategists. The British Army employed a stage magician and a filmmaker as invisibility consultants in World War II. For a 2002 Wall Street Journal article about the CIA’s resurgence at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I sat in on a meeting where the agency’s chief scientist, John Phillips, suggested projects for college seniors. High on his list was bending light rays to keep a spy in the shadows.
“Make me invisible,” the six-foot-three, 250-pound Phillips exhorted.
In June 2006, Pendry, Schurig, and Smith coauthored an article in the prestigious journal Science explaining how to make an invisibility cloak. The following October, in a report published online by Science, those scientists, together with other members of Smith’s lab, unveiled the first successful cloak. Composed of thousands of copper circuits, it “can make light curve around an object, and then emerge just as if it had passed in a straight line,” Smith later wrote. “Think of it like water flowing past a rock in a stream.”
There was one major caveat. The cloak only concealed objects from microwaves, not the human eye. Since visible light waves are 10,000 times shorter than microwaves, the metamaterials would need to be correspondingly tinier. Such a difference in scale creates a practical difficulty that remains to be solved: the metals used in those smaller metamaterials mostly absorb light, rather than diverting it. Still, the discovery had a range of potential applications, from improving cell phone reception by bending waves around a building or other obstacle, to reducing interference by antennas in military signaling.
The two Science publications spurred a media blitz. The diffident professor of electrical engineering found himself famous, with his research admired—and, in some quarters, coveted—worldwide.
“I would never have imagined that someone would believe our group to be so important,” he told me. “I could barely find students to join our group, and finding funding is a nonstop struggle that is never certain. It just would never have seemed a possibility that anyone would seek to obtain intellectual property from us.”
* * *
IN AUGUST 2006, as Smith was adjusting to sudden celebrity, he welcomed a graduate student from China into his lab. He had high expectations for Ruopeng Liu. While Chinese candidates, who made up more than 80 percent of the department’s applicant pool, were “very difficult to evaluate,” Liu stood out as an “outstanding prospective student,” Smith recalled.
The professor and his new pupil had contrasting personalities. While Smith was diffident, thoughtful, and precise, Liu was gregarious, eager, self-confident, and prone to hyperbole. As the youngest member of the group, “he came across as a lovable, bumbling, enthusiastic kid,” Smith said.
Liu was “a very high-energy guy, almost in a cartoonish sort of way,” another professor recalled. “Pretty outgoing, very friendly, bopping around. Awkward at times, but endearing. When he introduces himself, he’ll bounce into a room. Easy to be around. He was remarkably open to different and new ideas. He was willing to take a crazy idea and see how far it could go.”
Where Smith was a late bloomer, Liu was something of a prodigy. Born in Shaanxi Province, in northwest China, he moved south at the age of nine to Shenzhen. A fast-growing manufacturing and financial center across a river and a bay from Hong Kong, Shenzhen is home to telecommunications giant ZTE Corporation, where Liu’s parents worked. As a sophomore at Zhejiang University, he encountered the hot new subject of metamaterials. A year later, Tie Jun Cui, one of the leading Chinese scientists in the field, became a visiting professor at Zhejiang, and Liu’s mentor. Liu began taking a train each weekend to work in Cui’s lab at Southeast University in Nanjing. “He conducted his research in my group” for two years, Cui told me. Liu also assembled a group of Zhejiang students to explore mathematical modeling.
“He’s very energetic and ambitious, and he knows how to organize people,” said Da Huang, a friend of Liu’s at Zhejiang who later joined Smith’s lab. “When he’s focused, he thinks fast.” In his leisure time at Duke, Liu enjoyed grilling meat for potluck dinners and watching a Chinese television drama about Mongol emperor Genghis Khan.
Liu came to Duke with “a thousand ideas” and wasn’t shy about sharing them, recalled Jonah Gollub, another member of Smith’s lab. Within a week, Liu organized an hour-long seminar to discuss his research in China. “He came in with this grand unified theory of metamaterials,” Gollub said. “It’s not how science is usually done, but there was the sense he was brilliant. He doesn’t sleep, he’s one hundred percent focused on science, one hundred percent enthusiasm for what he was working on.”
“Ruopeng was a very unusual graduate student,” another lab member recalled. “He hit the ground running. He was having debates with David Smith and postdocs on day one. That’s something you normally see at the end of the first or second year.”
When he arrived, Liu was one of only five students in Smith’s group. It would swell to half a dozen graduate students and three or four postdoctoral fellows by 2010. They worked primarily on fundamental research, though occasionally a project was export-controlled. They exchanged ideas at weekly meetings. The lab relied on federal funding, especially from the U.S. military’s research branches.
As the boss, Smith was supportive but not intrusive. He expected researchers to be independent and solve problems on their own. “At the time, I found David’s approach to be very frustrating, very hands-off,” Gollub said. “You didn’t necessarily feel that you were strongly guided in any direction. If you were struggling, you couldn’t necessarily count on him to notice.”
Liu stepped into the void. Acting more like a professor than a mere graduate student, he familiarized himself with all of the projects in Smith’s lab, and many in other Duke engineering groups, dispensing ideas and encouragement and initiating collaborations. “He was really more of an organizer and manager than a scientist,” Smith said. “His strongest skills were not in science, but he seemed to have an extraordinary ability to get others to do things.”
Rarely, though, did Liu knuckle down himself to the rigorous tasks of analyzing and testing his creative notions. “He was a talker,” Schurig said. “He spent all of his time talking to people. He was a good communicator. You never saw him spending long hours focused on his computer. I’m always a little suspicious of people like that. They’re gleaning their ideas from others.”
* * *
SOON AFTER JOINING Smith’s group, Liu suggested collaborating with his former team, run by Cui at Southeast University in Nanjing. Liu told Smith that Cui had a large, talented roster of scientists whose projects would mesh with the Duke lab’s research.
Smith liked the idea. His international association with Pendry had proven fruitful, and Cui was a respected scientist. At San Diego, Smith told me, his adviser “had been extremely paranoid and xenophobic. That really harmed us as a group, and when I began to be more independent, my feeling was to be as open and collaborative as possible.”
Like most collaborations that bubble up from student or faculty interactions, the one between Smith’s group and Cui’s was unwritten. No formal agreement was drawn up that might have set limits on sharing intellectual property. “The majority of collaborations are just informal, people getting together at meetings and brainstorming,” Smith said. It’s “another nebulous area in the system that is in need of clarity.”
Liu became the liaison between the Duke and China teams. “He had this kind of advantage of being able to shift between universes, our group and the Chinese group,” Gollub said.
Then Liu broached another proposal: Smith should enhance the collaboration by inviting Cui’s team to Duke. When Smith objected that he didn’t have the budget, Liu told him to relax: China would pay. So the researchers visited Smith’s lab, where they photographed the equipment: mainly, two big plates of aluminum separated by one centimeter, on mechanical stages. Then they measured the length of the plates, the thickness of the metal, and other dimensions.
Taking pictures of other teams’ laboratories is controversial in academia. To maintain a competitive advantage, some research groups at U.S. universities ban the practice. Though dismayed, Smith reasoned that his collaborators were entitled to study the equipment. According to the FBI, the lab was later reproduced in China.
As a member of Smith’s group, and coauthor of the October 2006 Science article, Bryan Justice designed the apparatus. He could tell from later publications by Cui’s group, he told me, that they had “painstakingly duplicated” it and “had everything down to the nuts and bolts … a little more closely than you should be able to by reading our papers.”
Justice said he “spent probably a semester and a half developing, troubleshooting, and debugging that system before it was ready for prime time.” Cui’s group could “duplicate it in a couple of weeks because we’ve already done the heavy lifting.” However, according to Smith, they failed to reproduce the cloak itself, which limited their ability to collect data with the apparatus.
In emails to me, Cui didn’t deny that his team photographed and replicated the equipment, but he downplayed the benefit, and said he was surprised that anyone would regard it as a violation of academic ethics. Smith’s group had already published a description and picture of the apparatus, which was simple in concept and design and easy to build, Cui wrote. “By the way, I have seen at least five similar equipment in China, UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong.”
The collaborations between his group and Smith’s, he added, were “properly scientific.”
A talk by Cui at Duke also raised suspicion about his—and Liu’s—intentions. At the time, Liu was working with a postdoctoral fellow in Smith’s group who had devised a new application of transformation optics, or using metamaterials to bend light. The postdoc, who asked not to be identified in this book, told me that he supplied files and data from his simulations to Liu, who was “supposed to find an implementable design and to fabricate a structure that would comply with the material parameters I calculated.”
Instead, the fellow was stunned to hear Cui deliver the simulation results, as if the Chinese team had discovered them. “For me, it was obvious that Ruopeng reported my results to T. J. Cui and most likely sent him the files,” he continued. “I was really upset and I think one day after the talk I reported the case to David Smith.”
Again, Smith shrugged off the concerns. “With me believing that we were in a collaboration, I felt that we just needed to tune things a bit,” he told me. He told the postdoc that “he was not obliged to share details of his project if he felt uncomfortable with the situation.” The postdoc ended the collaboration with Liu and virtually stopped speaking to him. In retrospect, Smith said, “he made a very good choice to be cautious with his results around the lab!”
Surfing the Internet, the postdoctoral student noticed that Liu was coauthoring scientific articles with Cui’s team. The fellow notified Smith, who didn’t know about the publications. “Being new to all of this, I assumed the best, and thought they just didn’t understand that you shouldn’t do that,” Smith said. He talked with Liu, who said it was a misunderstanding, and wouldn’t happen again. But it would.
After the Chinese team’s visit to Duke, Liu began inviting his colleagues in Smith’s group to reciprocate. Still angry that Cui had appropriated his data, the postdoctoral student declined. But Smith and several other members of his lab agreed to go to China. The offers were hard to resist, because the trips were free: China’s government footed the bill.
Early in 2008, Jonah Gollub accompanied Liu to China and gave talks on his research at five universities. “I was confused about why he was bringing me over there,” Gollub told me. “We saw many, many different groups. It was kind of weird. Even at the time, I was saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Gollub added that “it was clear they had money for this sort of thing.”
In November 2008, Smith, Liu, Schurig, and other Duke researchers participated in an international metamaterials workshop that Cui organized at the Jinling Riverside Conference Hotel in Nanjing. Along with Cui, Smith and Pendry were listed as cochairs. “I’m not positive that I agreed,” Smith told me. “In retrospect, I think they were trying to sell us as active collaborators in China.”
“A whole bunch of us visited China,” recalled Schurig, who is now a professor at the University of Utah. “At the time, we were pretty excited about it. We’d never been to China. They were great hosts. It was a really fun trip. A lot of research was presented by the Chinese and the visitors. China paid for everything.”
Smith almost backed out of the conference, he told me. He was hoping to save one day for sightseeing, but Liu was demanding that he cancel his touring. Since Cui and China were picking up the Duke group’s expenses, Liu told him, he should devote all of his time to giving technical advice and talks to Cui’s group. The two of them argued in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as their flight to China was about to depart. “He began trying to add constraints and things to all of the invited speakers,” Smith recalled. “I told him that my understanding was that this was a conference and that we were invited speakers, and we weren’t there to work for Professor Cui. Ruopeng got upset and said that it was important for the program that we provide some technical input to Cui’s program.”
Smith finally threatened to turn around and go back to North Carolina. Liu “clearly was under pressure from China to make our trip worthwhile,” Smith said.
It’s likely that Chinese officials anticipated Smith’s full cooperation because Liu had persuaded him to join a program called Project 111. Cui was associated with Project 111, and set up the metamaterials workshop under its aegis.
Liu had explained to Smith that Project 111 would strengthen the collaboration with Cui and fund research. But he didn’t divulge its true purpose, or the commitment that Smith was making. China’s Ministry of Education and its State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs established Project 111 in 2006 to spur “scientific renewal” of Chinese universities by recruiting renowned scientists as “overseas academic masters.” In return for travel fees, allowance, housing, and medical services, each master was expected to work at least one month at “innovation centers” established on Chinese campuses.
Liu sought to enlist other Western metamaterials experts besides Smith in Project 111. One of them, a China-born professor at the University of California, became suspicious. He translated the contract into English and warned Smith that it required working in China. Smith went back to Liu, who assured him that everything was fine, and not to worry about it.
“I was incredibly naïve about all this,” Smith said.
* * *
IN A NUMBER of high-profile cases, the U.S. government has wrongly accused Chinese-American scientists of economic espionage. Most notably, Professor Xi Xiaoxing, chairman of Temple University’s physics department, was cleared in 2015 of sending a secret design to China of a superconductor device known as a pocket heater, when it turned out that the blueprints were for entirely different equipment. A study by Thomas Nolan, a California defense attorney specializing in economic espionage cases, shows that people with Chinese surnames were sentenced on average to 32 months in prison for stealing trade secrets, as against 15 months for everyone else.
False accusations and unfair sentencing are inexcusable. Nevertheless, they stem from a disturbing reality: foreign theft of American science and technology is running rampant, and China is the leading culprit. The 2013 report of the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, cochaired by former U.S. ambassador to China Jon M. Huntsman Jr., concluded that China accounts for between 50 percent and 80 percent of the more than $300 billion in intellectual property that the United States loses annually. Almost two-thirds of all economic espionage cases alleging a foreign destination for stolen trade secrets involve China. Of China-related cases between 1997 and 2016, twenty-four led to convictions or guilty pleas, three were reduced to lesser charges, eight were dropped or dismissed, and thirteen were pending.
Project 111 is one of a vast array of Chinese “brain gain” programs that, intentionally or not, encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. universities. These initiatives to attract overseas scientists, especially those born in China, offer such generous salaries, laboratory facilities, and other incentives that a borderline candidate may be tempted to improve his chances by bringing back somebody else’s data or ideas.
Chinese recruitment programs “pose a serious threat to US businesses and universities through economic espionage and theft of IP,” according to a September 2015 FBI report. Koerner, the FBI’s former head of counterintelligence in Tampa, sums up the implicit message to Chinese researchers in the United States: “Don’t come home empty-handed.”
In March 2013, Huajun Zhao, a research assistant at Medical College of Wisconsin, was arrested and charged with stealing three vials of a cancer-fighting compound from his professor, Marshall Anderson, who had patented it. Zhao, who claimed that he invented the compound and wanted to bring it to China for further study, had applied for funding from Chinese agencies that support research and overseas recruitment. One application was an “exact translation” of an old grant proposal by Anderson, according to the 2015 FBI report, which was distributed only to law enforcement and corporate security members of its Domestic Security Alliance Council. Zhao later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of illegally downloading research data and was sentenced to the four-and-a-half months he’d already served plus two years’ probation.
Since its inception in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has recognized the importance of foreign-trained scientists in accelerating technological progress. Established that same year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences “soon welcomed over 200 returning scientists who contributed to CAS the high-level expertise they had acquired abroad,” according to its website. Driven out of the United States as a suspected communist on flimsy evidence, California Institute of Technology rocket scientist Qian Xuesen returned to China in 1955 and built its space and missile programs.
After the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to send throngs of students to the United States, he hoped that 90 percent would return and foster China’s technological prowess. Instead he spurred a brain drain that peaked after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Students who had opposed the crackdown feared prosecution in China, and the U.S. government allowed them to stay.
In response, China’s national, provincial, and municipal governments embarked on aggressive efforts to lure back the most successful expatriates. Of the slew of initiatives, the best known are the Hundred Talents Program and the Thousand Talents Program. Hundred Talents seeks up-and-coming scholars under age forty. Thousand Talents, established in 2008 by the Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department, woos prominent professors of Chinese ethnicity under age fifty-five. Aside from salaries, laboratories, and research funds, the perks include housing, medical care, jobs for spouses, and top schools for children. The government also rewards Chinese universities for landing foreign experts.
“In fact, the Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain,” David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Huiyao Wang, director general of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, wrote in 2012.
Such initiatives have attracted numerous foreign scientists. In the 296 national research programs approved by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology from 2006 to 2011, 47 percent of the chief scientists earned their doctorates abroad, and 32 percent came to China via the Thousand Talents Program. Of Chinese students who received science and engineering doctorates at American universities in 1996, 98 percent remained in the United States in 2001. Among the corresponding cohort a decade later, 15 percent left the United States, likely due to China’s enticements.
Hong Ding was one of the Thousand Talent Program’s biggest prizes. The tenured full professor of physics at Boston College accepted what Ding called a “very attractive” package, including a $147,000 relocation allowance, to lead two projects for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Boston College faculty “were shocked,” Ding told China Daily. “People thought staying in the US was good for my career. But I wanted to contribute to basic research going on in China.” China made Ding “unbelievable offers of salary and equipment,” a Boston College physics professor told me. “He was an up and coming star.”
Still, China has snared relatively few scientists of Ding’s status from U.S. universities. Most are reluctant to uproot families and leave tenured sinecures in the creative disorder of American academia to work in an authoritarian society. As a result, Thousand Talents and similar programs have modified their rules to allow recruits to keep their jobs abroad and come to China two or three months a year, much like Smith’s contract with Project 111. Yitang Zhang, a University of California, Santa Barbara, math professor who has won a MacArthur “genius” award, rejected a full-time offer from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2013. Instead, Zhang, a former Chinese dissident, teaches graduate students at CAS in Beijing for two months in the summer. The Chinese have a phrase for such summer returnees: “migratory birds.”
Even a part-time commitment was too much for Xiaochun He, a nuclear physicist at Georgia State University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. For both family and career reasons, he rejected a Thousand Talents offer to spend three months a year at a Chinese university with a higher salary and bigger laboratory.
“My friends in China, they have a whole floor of lab space,” he told me. “My biggest concern is the research environment, and whether it’s dominated by government policy instead of my free will. I’m a scientist. I do what I’m interested in.”
Disdained by elite scientists, the talent programs appeal primarily to those on the fringes of American academia: untenured or adjunct professors, postdoctoral students with uncertain prospects. They realize what China wants—rapid progress in fields where it lags behind the West—and may be tempted to enhance their credentials by plundering American research.
“The structure, particularly of the Hundred Talents, encouraged people to bring back technology that was not available in China if they wanted to get a position,” Zweig told me. “People do plan to go out looking for something they know is missing. They know that’s their comparative advantage.”
* * *
LATE IN 2008, Liu and a Duke graduate student in statistics, Chunlin Ji, developed a new invisibility cloak. Ji wrote the computer code for the design, and Liu translated the algorithms into the layout of wires needed to make the cloak. It could hide a bump on a flat surface from a broad spectrum of wave frequencies, bringing tantalizingly closer to fulfillment the dream of making objects invisible to the human eye.
Smith was pleased. Still, after the paper was submitted to Science, he asked Liu, the lead author, for a clearer explanation of the breakthrough. “I really had wanted him to be able to present—for his own education—all of the details in his own words,” Smith said. Liu stalled him, and Smith wondered why. “This is the point where I started becoming very suspicious, because Ruopeng would never produce the technique by which he achieved the design of the cloak. I probably asked him fifty times, and he kept saying he’d get to it. It was okay for a while, as we were finishing up the paper and it clearly worked.… But he kept stonewalling.”
Exasperated, Smith finally asked Nathan Kundtz, another member of the team, to figure out the method. Two weeks later, “I had the tool, and presented it to the group,” Kundtz recalled. “I was not thinking, I’ll show Ruopeng. I was blissfully ignorant that anyone would care.”
One listener did care. As Kundtz spoke, Liu “sank in his chair, looked incredibly angry, and was silent,” Smith said. Liu was not only chagrined that a colleague could replicate his technique and frustrated that he couldn’t keep it for himself, but also brooding about a shift in the group’s pecking order. Kundtz, a graduate student in physics who had joined the lab in January 2008, was eclipsing him as the star student.
When Kundtz came to the lab, he told me, Liu was “the most charismatic” member, and published the most. “He had his own de facto subgroup, and he would run the meetings like a professor.” Initially the two were “very friendly,” Kundtz said. But tensions developed. Kundtz was just as ambitious, stubborn, and aggressive as Liu, and a more painstaking researcher.
Liu began sulking, and his research contributions diminished. “Certainly Ruopeng was unhappy that David was taking a liking to Nathan and spending more time with him,” Gollub said.
Smith, in fact, was increasingly disenchanted with Liu’s grandiose approach to science. Liu had developed what he called a theory of metamaterials and was determined to publish it, but Smith wouldn’t let him, because the analysis was flawed. “As time progressed, his theory fell apart,” and Liu couldn’t correct it, Smith said. Finally, Smith fixed it himself in a published article.
“Ruopeng would often find interesting things,” Smith said. “The theory wasn’t right. He’d present it, and look so confident, that a lot of people thought he was brilliant. It was hard to tell in half an hour that it was all nonsense.”
Soon after Kundtz unveiled Liu and Ji’s invisibility cloak technique, several postdoctoral students arranged a confidential lunch with Smith. They complained that Kundtz was stealing ideas and urged Smith to expel him from the group.
One of them, Aloyse Degiron, told me that their demand had nothing to do with Kundtz reconstructing the cloak technique. He said Kundtz’s abrasiveness had antagonized his colleagues: “It was very difficult to work with Nathan. He has this very strong personality. Clearly he had a very high opinion of himself. If someone said something stupid, he wouldn’t hesitate to say it was stupid.”
However, Gollub said that the postdocs felt “a certain sympathy” for Liu. “People felt some of these projects that were originally pushed along by Ruopeng were getting unfairly shifted to Nathan.”
Smith believes that Liu incited the mutiny: “He was so mad about Nathan spilling the beans on his theory.” When Smith went around the table, asking each postdoc what ideas Kundtz had stolen, “one after the other of the postdocs said they didn’t know firsthand but heard it from someone else,” he recalled. He told them that they should blame him instead, because he had assigned Kundtz to get a handle on the projects.
“A bunch of smart people were allowing themselves to be manipulated, and I was pretty irritated,” Smith said.
* * *
THE JANUARY 16, 2009, publication of “Broadband Ground-Plane Cloak” in Science, with Liu and Ji as lead authors and Smith and Cui among the coauthors, should have been a triumph for Smith’s group. It drew wide attention, including a joke in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue: “Scientists are developing a cloak that bends light to make you invisible—like being an actress over forty in Hollywood.” Bada boom.
Smith heralded the advance in a Duke publication. “The difference between the original device and the latest model is like night and day,” he announced. “The new device can cloak a much wider spectrum of waves—nearly limitless—and will scale far more easily to infrared and visible light.”
For Liu, the article generated both prestige and profit. As another incentive for technological achievement, China’s government rewards Chinese scientists for bylines in premier journals. It paid Liu more than ten thousand dollars, according to Smith.
But the celebration was short-lived—and all because of a footnote. It cited funders for the research: not only Smith’s patrons, such as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and defense contractor Raytheon, but also Cui’s, which included the National Basic Science Foundation of China, the National Basic Research Program of China, and Project 111. In late January, Smith’s project manager at the Air Force sent him “a very harsh email” telling him that the Pentagon wanted to know why he was taking money from China. Presumably the Pentagon had invested in Smith’s research because it hoped to mask a fighter jet or other weapons from enemy radar. It didn’t want China, a potential adversary, to have the same capacity.
Alarmed, Smith pulled out of the collaboration with Cui’s group and Project 111. “It all just fell apart after our sponsors became so concerned,” he said. Smith told Liu not to work with Cui’s group any longer, and to distinguish clearly in his dissertation between his own research and that of collaborators at Duke and in China.
* * *
AS LIU PLUGGED away at his doctoral dissertation on “Designing and Building Microwave Metamaterials” in 2009, he began preparing for his career after Duke. He was torn between two paths: academia and business.
He had a knack for entrepreneurship. One night in the lab, he talked with a colleague about technology opportunities in Africa, such as manufacturing cheap cell phones. But he could also see himself as a professor, guiding his own group’s research. “Ruopeng wanted to do something innovative and real, and also to be a business success,” Da Huang, his friend from Zhejiang University and Smith’s group, told me.
Armed with recommendations from Pendry and Smith, Liu applied to top U.S. universities. “I believe that Ruopeng did make a positive scientific contribution and one or two of his ideas I would describe as creative,” Pendry told me. “I wrote positive references for him.” He added that their “limited interactions were entirely scientific … although I certainly heard the rumours connecting espionage.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which had an opening for an assistant professor, invited Liu to give a presentation. Smith agreed to help him by glancing over it beforehand. On April Fool’s Day 2009, over lunch at a restaurant on the Duke campus, Liu ran through the slides for his job talk on his laptop. One of them caught Smith’s eye. It depicted an elaborate website, complete with contact phone numbers and email addresses, the details of Liu’s experiments, and an article from a Duke science publication.
Smith pointed out that Liu needed Duke’s permission to reprint the article. Liu answered that the site wasn’t real; he had only created it for the MIT interview.
Liu had been shirking his Duke responsibilities, both in Smith’s lab and in a course on electromagnetism, where he was supposed to be a teaching assistant but rarely showed up. “You’re doing no work for the group, no one can find you, and yet you put all this effort into a website?” Smith asked.
Sobbing, Liu insisted that he had cobbled the site together quickly. “I came here at twenty-two years old,” he said. “I’m naïve.”
“I was on to him,” Smith told me. “I said, ‘We both know that’s not true. You know what you’re doing.’” It turned out that the website was hosted on a server in China. It was the venture, Smith concluded, for which Liu had hoped to save the cloaking technique.
Similarly, Liu’s commercial ambitions in China seemed to explain why he sometimes sought to delay publication of Duke research. “Ruopeng would show the material to Cui in advance of publication, and then slow down the publication,” Kundtz told me. “It was a timing game.”
Despite those slowdowns, Liu was startlingly prolific. Scouring the Internet a few days after their lunch, Smith took a close look at Liu’s publications, which the postdoctoral fellow had warned him about in 2008. He found at least forty-three scientific articles that Liu had coauthored at Duke. A typical graduate student has between zero and five publications; a remarkable student, perhaps a dozen. He had amassed his astonishing total largely by inspiring other students with his visionary babble, and then feeding off their ideas and data. He hadn’t told Smith about at least a dozen papers that he wrote with Cui’s group, although several listed Smith as a coauthor, exploiting his name and reputation. One of Liu’s published collaborations with the Chinese addressed a topic on which Smith had assigned him to work with a Duke student. That was a “clear violation” of academic ethics, Smith told me.
Smith summoned Liu to his office. The professor sat behind his desk, with the offending publications stacked on his lap, hidden from Liu’s view. Then he trotted out one paper, as if it alone concerned him, and reminded Liu that they had agreed to sever ties with Cui’s group. Liu at first protested that he had told Smith about the article, but then admitted he had forgotten, just that once.
Smith pulled out another publication, and another. Liu grew very quiet. He eventually blamed his Chinese collaborators and “made a big show of telling everyone that they shouldn’t do that again,” Smith said.
Liu similarly misled Smith about a different sort of collaboration. After the 2008 Nanjing conference, Liu suggested publishing its proceedings, which is customary in academia. He asked Smith to compose an introduction. Smith said he was too busy to write or edit fresh material, which wasn’t needed anyway. Liu agreed and said he would write the abstracts for each presentation by Smith’s group. “There was no mention of this being a book, and I was so busy that I just ignored all of the subsequent correspondence,” Smith said. “Later, Ruopeng began to call it a book, and I’d stop him and I’d say, ‘This is just a collection of conference papers, right?’ and then he’d nod and agree.” One day, a box of books showed up at Smith’s door, and he saw himself listed as the volume’s co-editor, and coauthor of six chapters, which Liu had written. “It was filled with broken English and not very high quality,” Smith said. Liu had again exploited Smith’s fame to fulfill his ambitions and boost his reputation.
Smith’s tolerance was exhausted. On April 21, 2009, he took away Liu’s key to the lab and told him to finish his dissertation at home. Later that year, Smith also nixed Liu’s prospects for a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton by telling an old friend there about Liu’s rogue collaborations with Cui’s group.
Understandably, Liu feared an even more severe blow: that Duke would deny him a doctoral degree. Duke’s graduate school standards of conduct prohibit academic dishonesty, such as “representing someone else’s work as your own.” According to a person familiar with the procedure, “There usually has to be a panel assembled to evaluate the evidence if formal charges are brought. That takes weeks and weeks to get done. It would have delayed his graduation certainly.”
Instead, Liu defended his dissertation on November 30, 2009, without incident. The discussion was purely technical: Smith didn’t even tell the other professors on the committee about Liu’s pipeline to China. “It would have been very difficult at the time to show that he had done anything unambiguously wrong,” Smith told me. The website in China, for example, could be “excused by a Chinese student not really understanding the rules well enough,” or even praised as entrepreneurial zeal. Smith discussed his suspicions with some Duke administrators and professors, but received no guidance, he said.
Duke may have wanted to avoid a brouhaha for another reason: it was forging ahead with plans for a branch campus in China. A week after Liu’s dissertation defense, Duke trustees approved continuing negotiations with Chinese officials to build a campus in the city of Kunshan, which would supply the land and facilities for free. “Duke, like the other universities that aspire to be world class, recognize that they need to have a presence in China” if they are “going to get the best students, the best resources, the best faculty,” said Dan Blue, chairman of Duke’s board. It would have been an awkward time to punish a Chinese researcher already renowned in his homeland for his prestigious Science article.
Liu received his doctorate on December 30, 2009. Like Princeton, MIT had turned him down, but China was beckoning. His mentor, Cui, had ties to a brain-gain program, and Liu could bring Duke’s metamaterials research and some of its most promising China-born scientists back with him. He likely could have named his price. He told a friend over dinner that, through one of its ventures to lure overseas talent, the government offered him as much as $100 million to start a metamaterials center. “They would pay for the equipment, they would hire as many engineers as he needed,” the friend said. “There were companies in China that would be in the pipeline to productize the technologies that he would invent. Before he left America, he knew of this institute that he was going to be leading.”
Liu returned to China in January 2010 with his wife, Weizi Huang. She had been working on her own dissertation at Duke—on statistical models for identifying genetic risks for ovarian cancer—and planned to earn a doctorate in computational biology in another year. One day she told her adviser, Edwin Iversen, that she had to go back to China with her husband. She settled for a master’s degree.
“She wasn’t happy to leave,” Iversen told me. “She wanted to complete her PhD.” Her consolation prize was to be a founding member of Kuang-Chi Science.
* * *
AT MY REQUEST, and armed with a series of questions that I had prepared, a Shenzhen-based freelance journalist interviewed Liu in June 2016. They met in the billionaire’s office on the second floor of Kuang-Chi’s Shenzhen headquarters. The office, which overlooks a nearby pond, is spare and functional: white walls, whiteboard, file cabinet, desk with a globe and a photo of himself, sofa, conference table with oranges in a plastic bowl, coffee table with some of his awards and a model helicopter.
Cornering Liu wasn’t easy. He’d canceled a prior appointment after a two-hour wait, and then left for Singapore and Beijing. Back in Shenzhen, he was an hour late for the rescheduled interview, but finally materialized, smiling and affable, wearing a light gray blazer and a white shirt.
During the ninety-minute conversation, he acknowledged that Smith had accused him of “stealing stuff” and taken away his key to the lab, that he had been “a little worried” that the university would withhold his doctorate, and that “the FBI went to Duke to investigate all the stuff after I left.” Still, he said he did nothing wrong, and “nothing was stolen,” because all of the research was basic and open, and sharing of ideas is integral to academic collaboration.
“I’m not working in any kind of classified lab,” he said. “I worked in fundamental research and published papers and they can be seen by everyone in the world. Everyone right now can download the paper and see what I have done; it is all transparent.”
He maintained that he started Kuang-Chi with fifty thousand dollars borrowed from his mother; China’s government did not send him to snatch American technology and did not pay him to return. The Duke research “is not all that valuable.… We cannot solve any problems in reality and it is all in academic environment and everything is transparent. Anyone can look at anything we have done and it is published, so if China and Shenzhen funded as a reward this kind of fundamental research, I think it would spend all of its money.”
Asked about criticism from his former Duke colleagues of his scientific prowess, Liu clapped his hands together twice, and then laughed. “We’ll make things work,” he said. “Comments cannot change the world. Build the machine. Make it fly.”
He suggested that Smith had turned against him for fear of losing research support after the Pentagon backlash. “Probably what people can do is prevent future funding,” he said. “That’s why I can understand that Dave had concerns with that, and he should have concerns with that; otherwise it would influence the funds for the whole team.”
He recalled the argument with Smith in the Chicago airport: “Some people wanted to have a tour, and then no one would be able to chair the seminar, so I said no.… We just needed someone to chair the global academic session.” He blamed Chunlin Ji, his coauthor from the statistics department, for starting the China-based website that featured Duke’s research, and T. J. Cui’s team for publishing articles, without Smith’s knowledge, that listed Liu and sometimes Smith as coauthors. “They wanted to put the other party, the team at Duke, because they do think that they have worked together a lot with Dave.”
Liu was less forthcoming on other episodes that alarmed members of Smith’s lab. He had a habit of responding, “That’s interesting,” and then equivocating. For example:
Did visitors from Cui’s lab take pictures of the equipment so they could reproduce it in China? “That’s interesting. So how could people go to the lab? Duke has to invite people, then people can get the visa, and they come to the lab, it is an academic exchange.”
Did he mislead Smith about Project 111? “If he says I set him up for Project 111 without telling him, then how could he spend time in China? I have no right to kidnap him. Right?”
Did he dodge Smith’s request to explain how the invisibility cloak worked because he was saving the method for his business in China? “What’s the proof? So if we do not put all the algorithms and the stuff out, how can we publish a paper?”
Was Liu upset that Kundtz figured out the technique, and did he stir up the protest against him? “That’s interesting. Actually, when Nathan came, I was about to graduate. He wanted to work together with me on some projects but at the time I was about to graduate.… I was not concerned about who actually replaced me as a star student because I was leaving as a star student.” In fact, Kundtz joined Smith’s group twenty-three months before Liu graduated.
Did he write the chapters for the metamaterials book, and list Smith as coauthor, after assuring the professor that it would only be a collection of conference proceedings? “That’s interesting. At that time I was still his student and wrote up the conference proceedings and put my adviser’s name.… It was basically from the conference, but also with some new type of stuff.”
* * *
A TRIP TO Kuang-Chi’s battleship-gray, twelve-story headquarters isn’t complete without stopping at the exhibit hall on the first floor, displaying the company’s latest technology. A guide touts the Metawifi, which uses metamaterials to eliminate interference and serve crowded areas such as shopping malls and concert arenas where traditional Wi-Fi is overloaded. Visitors can try the Photonic Systems, which, by scanning a fingerprint and then shining a beam on a receptor, offer more secure building access than key cards do. “There is no equipment that can decrypt it,” the guide says.
The next section depicts Kuang-Chi’s space gadgetry, including the Traveler—a tourism pod attached to a balloon—and a blimp called the Cloud. Connected to fiber-optic cables, it’s “much cheaper than a satellite,” stays aloft 24/7, and tracks ships and cars, the guide says.
A screen presentation introduces Kuang-Chi. One slide shows the founders, including Liu, his wife, Chunlin Ji, and two other Duke alumni. Another boasts that Kuang-Chi has filed 86 percent of all current patent applications for metamaterials worldwide. A third describes the company’s mission with the kind of grandiose rhetoric that has been Liu’s trademark since his Duke days: “empowering machines with souls and bringing happiness and human connection.”
Since his return to China, Liu and his enterprises have made quite a splash, with official help. Kuang-Chi was the third recipient of funding under Shenzhen’s Peacock Program, initiated in 2010 to lure overseas professionals. Overall, municipal records show, Shenzhen and Guangdong Province have awarded $13.7 million to Kuang-Chi.
“We do receive great support from the Shenzhen government,” Liu said in a March 2016 interview on Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong–based broadcaster.
“Since 2010, Guangdong and Shenzhen have launched a lot of schemes to attract talents. We happened to catch these opportunities.”
In 2012, Liu was chosen as a metamaterials expert for a national government committee overseeing scientific research and investment, the youngest person ever to hold such a position. That December, Liu escorted Xi Jinping around Kuang-Chi’s exhibit hall, showing off the Metawifi high-density coverage, the photonic security system, and other technology. The Communist Party leader was impressed.
“After watching your research results and listening to Mr. Liu Ruopeng’s introduction just now, I am very glad to see such a young entrepreneurial team full of passion and enthusiasm,” Xi told Kuang-Chi executives, according to its news release. “The old generation of scientists, such as Qian Xuesen, overcame tremendous obstacles in USA, returned to China with the same patriotic obsession.… At the reform and opening-up era, you returned to China to realize Chinese dream.”
Liu accompanied President Xi to New Zealand in November 2014 and met Glenn Martin, inventor of the “jetpack” flying machine. Its potential applications range from transport of emergency medical and rescue workers to military supply and surveillance. Soon afterward, Kuang-Chi Science bought a controlling share in Martin Aircraft. Visitors to Kuang-Chi’s exhibition hall are strapped into a jetpack simulator for practice flying. Kuang-Chi has taken stakes in other firms, too, such as Solar Ship, a Canadian maker of solar-powered airships to haul freight to remote locations; and Zwipe, a Norwegian start-up with U.S. offices in Illinois and Denver, which embeds fingerprints in credit cards to authenticate transactions.
* * *
KUANG-CHI HAS STOCKPILED intellectual property, applying for one patent after another. Most of its patents are in China, and it’s hard to tell how many of them are based on Duke research, or how important they may become. “I heard he patented a ton of stuff that was probably developed at Duke,” Schurig told me. There could have been “lots of ideas floating around the lab that nobody was going to pursue. It could represent a significant value.”
Asked if Kuang-Chi had patented ideas nurtured at Duke, Liu scoffed. “We have three thousand patents,” he said. “I’m a talent that can generate three thousand patents from three years at Duke? Then call me Superman.” Later, he added, “We actually are going in a very different direction of the field, to build something greater and has no relationship to work we did in fundamental research because that is far away from the industry.”
Kuang-Chi does hold twenty-six U.S. patents, primarily for advances in metamaterials, with Liu named as co-inventor on all of them. Kuang-Chi and Liu also have more than thirty pending applications for U.S. patents. On several filings, patent examiners questioned Liu’s purported inventions on the grounds that they were anticipated by Smith’s prior research.
For example, Liu and two other Kuang-Chi scientists—including cofounder Lin Luan, who also received her doctorate at Duke—applied in September 2012 to patent a metamaterial structure for a small antenna. In April 2015, a U.S. patent examiner disallowed nineteen of their twenty claims. The examiner found that two of these supposed improvements had been anticipated by Smith, and others would have been “obvious to one of ordinary skill” who was familiar with Smith’s work. Although the rejection was labeled “final,” the inventors revised their claims, and a patent was issued in December 2015.
Kuang-Chi’s website highlighted Liu’s time at Duke, crediting him with a pivotal contribution to the field of metamaterials. “With his diligence and wisdom, Doctor Liu received his PhD degree in less than four years,” it stated. “Dr. Liu is not only a visionary as well as a doer, he is also a charismatic team leader. During his graduate study, he developed the frontier technology with other Kuang-Chi founders.… In the beginning of 2010, holding the keys to the ‘invisible cloak,’ they returned to China.”
Smith pointed out that his team conceived and executed its first invisibility cloak before Liu joined it. Liu “has not demonstrated any capabilities” to justify the website’s praise, he told me.
Smith has forsaken invisibility research, at least temporarily. “The prospect of true invisibility and cloaking remain highly speculative,” he emailed me. “The path to a full cloak is fraught with enormous challenges and not very practical at this point. We’ve become more interested in research that might transition sooner.”
Liu hasn’t given up. The Kuang-Chi Metamaterial Center, fifteen miles from the exhibit hall, produces ultrathin copper sheets that are treated with a film, then etched with patterns and rinsed in chemicals and water. “The structure is so tiny, so sensitive to certain waves with a particular waveband, it is able to fulfill the function of invisibility, so it cannot be detected by radar,” an engineer said, adding that it has military applications. In a control room, three workers used microscopes to measure patterns of metamaterials.
* * *
FROM AFAR, SMITH and members of his lab have followed Liu’s rise with both amazement and skepticism. Like some analysts and investors tracking Kuang-Chi’s stock, they wonder whether all the patents and plugs will translate into real scientific or commercial success. Could their discoveries at Duke end up benefiting China instead of the United States? Or is Liu fooling the Chinese government the way he once fooled them?
“He’s good at inspiring people with grand ideas and grand ambitions, but I don’t think he can execute anything,” Gollub told me. “It takes more than contracts and intellectual property transfers to get things off the ground.”
“Clearly, he’s a genius in terms of sensing what’s hype and how to sell it,” Aloyse Degiron added. “Scientifically, I’m not sure.”
Smith minimized the loss. While Kuang-Chi’s accumulation of patents confirmed his suspicions about Liu, “Ruopeng was not really capable enough to figure out the real value of the research we were doing, so that the patents he has filed are really not clearly detrimental, even if they might infringe,” he said. “Most of them are not of great value.”
Because he had pressed Liu to notify Duke about potential inventions, he said, “we were able to preserve the IP.” Otherwise, “certainly Ruopeng would have been patenting everything in China and we would have lost out on what has become a very important technology.”
Liu’s onetime rival, Nathan Kundtz, who also earned his Duke doctorate in 2009, runs a company that may be closer than Kuang-Chi to profiting from metamaterials innovations. Based in Redmond, Washington, Kymeta Corporation makes tiny flat antennas that replace satellite dishes and improve broadband service. Smith is a strategic adviser to Kymeta, which raised $62 million in January 2016 from a group of investors led by Bill Gates. In a sense, Kundtz and Liu are still competing, because the Kuang-Chi Metamaterial Center is experimenting with small portable antennas.
The September 2015 FBI report on “Chinese Talent Programs” examined the Liu case and the role of Project 111. Without naming Smith, the report faulted him for letting himself be gulled.
While Smith and Cui were supposed to share ideas, “the US researcher eventually realized most of the ideas were coming from his lab,” it said. “By convincing the US researcher to collaborate with Cui, Liu was able to freely share information and invite visitors to the lab. Although this was not restricted research, the metamaterials research could have both military and civilian applications. The US researcher risked his research by allowing visitors to come into his lab without personally looking at their background and being too trusting of his scientific relationship with Liu.”
Smith disputed this conclusion. “At all points in this process, I took the steps that I thought were correct, and so did others at Duke,” he told me. “I don’t feel that I or Duke have risked anything, since we took it as seriously as we could have.”
While Smith still takes Chinese students on government scholarships, he said that he would never accept direct funding from China or participate in China-funded collaborations, and that he sizes up candidates for his group more carefully. “I now look for signs of that sort of behavior—the overeagerness, the seeming agenda.”
Asked whether he has returned to the United States since leaving Duke, Liu dodged the question. “Uh, my team has visited the U.S. many times,” he said. Pressed again, he said he hasn’t. “We don’t have business in the U.S.,” he explained, apparently forgetting the Zwipe offices. Given the FBI’s concerns about him, it seems likely that Liu would have difficulty obtaining a visa.
He has contacted Smith only once. In 2011, Liu wrote to his former professor, asking him to collaborate. Smith had no desire to give him another chance. “I told him, ‘when you were here, you didn’t do things right. As you go forward, pay more attention to ethics.’”
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Golden