Former Democratic Colorado governor John Hickenlooper directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants to technology companies to conduct business in China, including a company that said it would work with participants in a Chinese government program that U.S. officials have linked to economic espionage.
Colorado grant applications obtained by the Washington Free Beacon through a public-records request show Hickenlooper’s administration directed at least $222,000 in state funding to technology companies that were looking to expand their business operations in China. One of these companies, the Denver-based Intelligent Imaging Innovations, received $47,300 in state funding in 2017 and 2018. The company cited a Chinese government foreign-scientist recruitment program called the Thousand Talents Plan—which U.S. officials say has been used as a front for Chinese spy and trade-secret theft operations—in its 2017 funding application that was approved by the Hickenlooper administration.
Hickenlooper, who is running for Senate against Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, has faced criticism from his opponent for his position on China. On a recent Zoom call with supporters, Hickenlooper praised China as a "great nation" and said the country is not seeking global domination, the Free Beacon reported earlier this month.
Gardner, a staunch China hawk, recently blasted Hickenlooper as a "propaganda tool of the Communist Chinese Party."
In its 2017 grant application, Intelligent Imaging Innovations indicated that it could market its microscope technology to participants in the Thousand Talents Plan.
"Many of our stakeholders are post-doctoral fellows in the US returning to populate positions in [the Asia Pacific region]. The Chinese government, for example, has created the 1000 Talents Plan that encourages repatriation of US experts to the PRC," wrote the company in a section explaining why it believed its microscope technology would be a good fit for the Chinese market.
The Thousand Talents Plan was established by the Chinese government in 2008, with the aim of recruiting foreign-trained scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs to the country. The FBI has said since at least 2018 that China uses the program for economic espionage.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, the Chinese Communist Party has used the program to steal American trade secrets and carry out military and economic espionage operations in the United States.
"Through its talent recruitment programs, like the so-called Thousand Talents Program, the Chinese government tries to entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China—even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating our export controls and conflict-of-interest rules," said FBI director Christopher Wray in a July speech to the Hudson Institute. Wray said the program was "targeting research on everything from military equipment to wind turbines to rice and corn seeds."
In recent months, federal prosecutors have brought high-profile cases against numerous individuals for economic espionage and intellectual theft, including scientist Hongjin Tan, who was convicted earlier this year for stealing more than $1 billion in trade secrets from an Oklahoma oil company where he worked.
"These individuals are not ‘spies' in the traditional sense of intelligence officers, but they are nonetheless collecting information sought by the Chinese government," said John Brown, assistant director of the FBI counterintelligence division, in a statement to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last November.
In total, the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade approved funding for at least nine companies looking to expand into China while Hickenlooper was governor.
The Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade operates under the direction of the governor’s office, and its director is appointed by the governor.
Hickenlooper, who served as Colorado governor from 2011 to 2019, has been a vocal advocate for U.S.-China partnerships for years. In 2015, he led a trade mission to China where he pushed for expansion of ties with the country.
"The pace of innovation in China is breathtaking," Hickenlooper told China Daily, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, in 2018. "China is becoming, or already is, one of the global forces in the global economy. We are always trying to refine how we relate to outside investors, especially large investors."
Hickenlooper has continued to voice support for Beijing during his Senate campaign.
China does "not want to rule the world," Hickenlooper told supporters on a Zoom call earlier this month. "They don't want to dominate. They want to be safe and be respected as one of the great nations of the world, which they are. And we should—I think that's what we should recognize."
Gardner has taken aim at the former governor for his stance on China. "If John Hickenlooper wants to be a tool for China, we don’t need him for Colorado," he said.