Friday, June 29, 2018
China goes headhunting for tech talent in Silicon Valley
While the Trump administration is trying to restrict Chinese ownership of some US tech companies, China is tapping into American know-how another way: poaching talent.
China’s government and businesses are trying to attract top-calibre engineers, scientists and other skilled technical workers, particularly US-based Chinese professionals, according to officials, recruiting agents and those being approached. Silicon Valley, with its nexus of big tech firms, research labs and venture investors, is a prime target.
Early this year, a leading Chinese government adviser on technology policy addressed a packed convention centre hall in California to promote the prospects created by China’s demand for cutting-edge technologies and its deep pockets. “We’ve gathered you all here to explore new opportunities for co-operation,” said Ye Tianchun, speaking in Mandarin.
More than 300 people, the majority of them Chinese and Chinese Americans, showed up to hear Mr Ye, who guides China’s research into semiconductors. So many came that the opening banquet did not have enough food and seats, leading Mr Ye to ask the attendees to share.
China is laying ambitious plans to be a technology powerhouse, aiming at dominating the industries of the future, from artificial intelligence to biotechnology and robotics, to make the nation, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a global leader in innovation”.
That effort has the US worried. The Trump administration has prepared new restrictions to block firms with at least 25 per cent Chinese ownership from buying companies involved in what the White House calls “industrially significant technology”, according to people familiar with the plans. President Donald Trump suggested on Tuesday those restrictions may be scrapped, and instead use existing tools to limit access to US technology by Chinese firms.
Recent reports from the Trump administration have pointed to conferences like the one Mr Ye spoke at and the presence of Chinese tech companies in Silicon Valley as channels for talent-poaching and luring start-ups to China. A visa clampdown is also being considered to limit access to American trade secrets posed by Chinese scientists, students and companies in the US.
For now, companies are well positioned to keep recruiting.
Big Chinese tech companies like e-commerce giant Alibaba and search engine Baidu have research-and-development outfits in Silicon Valley. A three- storey building called Z Park, set up by a Beijing government company, was set up to serve as a hub for Chinese tech companies and venture-capital firms.
In an era when computers run everything, computer scientists and engineers are in high demand and tend to job-hop. Employees at some of the biggest US tech firms switch jobs after two years or less on average, according to a survey last year by Paysa, which tracks compensation in the tech world.
After completing her computer engineering doctorate at a prestige university in China, Gu Junli headed to Silicon Valley. She interned at Google’s headquarters, then joined chip maker Advanced Micro Devices, where she worked on big data and AI applications before going to Tesla as lead expert on the autopilot unit.
Twenty months later, in October last year, Ms Gu joined Xiaopeng Motors, a Chinese electric vehicles start-up backed by Ali baba where she is vice- president for autonomous driving, based in California.
Her experience, she said, made her a catch for Chinese companies. “If you’ve participated in creating a product, you’ll know where the pain points and the complexity lie,” Ms Gu said. “If you haven’t done anything about it, you won’t know where to start.”
Recruitment is a priority in a handful of recent Chinese national strategies that map out plans for mastering a dozen cutting-edge fields, including aviation, information networks and new energy vehicles as well as robotics.
“Engineers are about the only thing that can be transferred seamlessly between the US and China,” said Zhou Yunkai, a China native, Google veteran and a co-founder of headhunting start-up Leap.ai, which uses AI to match users with potential jobs.