WASHINGTON, D.C. — The worldwide spread of the coronavirus has given new meaning to a problem Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has been trying to highlight for two decades.

What You Need To Know

  • Sen. Portman to introduce bill to stop China from stealing U.S. intellectual property

  • Portman says U.S. has “kind of been naive about this”

  • Expert says legislation would be “nice” but “hardly the whole solution”

“This is very important,” Portman said in an interview last week. “We have kind of been naive about this, and now we have to be more careful.”

He’s talking about China’s consistent efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property, which he recently explained on the Senate floor.

“One way it’s been doing that is by using secret contracts here in the United States with researchers, again, funded by tax dollars, doing research, medical research, scientific research, military research,” Portman said. “The Chinese government has actually been paying these people to provide information to the Chinese government to take this research paid for by U.S. tax dollars.”

In the last ten days, the Justice Department arrested a University of Arkansas professor and a former Cleveland Clinic employee for not disclosing their ties to China while they received taxpayer-funded grants to do research here in America.

This past Wednesday, the FBI made a public service announcement “warning organizations researching COVID-19 of likely targeting and network compromise by the People’s Republic of China” and said this could jeopardize how quickly effective treatments become available.

Portman has studied China closely for years.

When he was the U.S. Trade Representative in the early 2000s, he focused so much on the country that he wrote a “Top to Bottom Review” of the U.S.-China economic relationship.

He now chairs the Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and released a bipartisan report last November that concluded: “the federal government has failed to stop China from acquiring knowledge and intellectual property from U.S. taxpayer-funded researchers and scientists.”

“In some cases, this research over the past 20 years has fueled the Chinese military,” Portman said in last week’s interview. “In some cases, it has helped their economy through their technology transfers or through industrial processes, other things. Whatever it is, it’s not fair.”

So now, Portman will soon introduce bipartisan legislation he hopes will help stop this.

It’s called the “Safeguarding American Innovation Act” and it would do five things if it became law:

  1.  Allow the Justice Department to charge federal grant recipients with a crime if they hide their financial ties to a foreign government
  2.  Require the Office of Management and Budget to better track grantmaking between agencies, so taxpayer dollars are accounted for
  3.  Authorize the State Department to deny visas to foreign researchers who are seeking to access sensitive U.S. material in a threatening way
  4.  Require research institutions put safeguards in place so unauthorized people cannot access research
  5.  Make universities report any foreign gift of $50,000 or more from a foreign government, or face fines

I asked Mark Cohen, one of the leading U.S. experts on intellectual property law in China and a current senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, what he thinks of the legislation, based off what Portman has said about it so far.

“What Portman is trying to do is nice — there’s a potential for some harm, and I think we need to be careful in administering it to minimize the harm, but it’s hardly the whole solution to the problem,” Cohen said in a Zoom interview on Tuesday.

Cohen said the bigger picture includes not just blaming China but making sure that, here in the U.S., the government and research institutions build up the infrastructure and management to properly track where these tax dollars are going — in ways greater than Portman’s bill suggests.

Cohen also emphasized the U.S. has to make it more appealing for talented foreign scientists to stay in America.

“Even if we put in all of the visa and other restrictions contemplated by this legislation, people will still change jobs,” Cohen said. “You have a right to change jobs in this country, and if China is a more attractive destination, that will always be a gaping hole in all of our regulations and restrictions.”

Portman said he’s been working with the White House, the State Department, and federal agencies like the National Science Foundation on this legislation, and he said they are supportive.

He told me there is a danger this could burn important bridges between the U.S. and China if the bill becomes law and isn’t well-received, but Portman said having a level playing field between two powerful countries is crucial.

“They have not been playing by the rules in many instances, so we need to be matter of fact about that,” Portman said. “But at the end of the day, we need to have a healthy relationship. Second largest economy in the world. It’s a nuclear power. We need to be sure that we have the ability to have a business-like relationship and a respectful relationship.”

Portman’s office said he plans to introduce the legislation soon with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware).