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AIST Tech Leak: Are Some Newspapers Better Aware than Others?

Despite the serious risks associated with technology leaks, Japanese newspapers showed varying levels of urgency in their coverage of the AIST incident.



The AIST technology leak was covered on the front page of The Sankei Shimbun on June 16.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department's Public Security Division has arrested Quan Hengdao, a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). The Chinese national is accused of leaking confidential data to a Chinese company and was arrested on charges of violating the Unfair Competition Prevention Act.

The suspect allegedly emailed research data on fluorine compound synthesis technology from AIST to a Chinese firm. AIST is a state-funded research and development institution in Japan.

The incident came as a surprise to me, because I had just been discussing the risks associated with information leaks to China at AIST.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters in Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda, Tokyo.

The Seven Sons of National Defense

According to reports, Quan is a graduate of Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The university is one of China's "Seven Sons of National Defense." The "Seven Sons" refers to a collection of universities that maintain close connections with China's People's Liberation Army. They play a significant role in China's research and development programs for modern weaponry. Quan reportedly also held a teaching position at Beijing Institute of Technology, also within the "Seven Sons" group.

Suspect Quan Hengdao being taken to the Kanda Police Station, Metropolitan Police Department on June 15. (© Kyodo)

In fact, the United States government has included all seven universities on its list of entities prohibited from conducting transactions with the US. This means that US companies and universities are generally forbidden from engaging in joint research and development projects with any of the institutions belonging to the group.

In Japan, however, national universities and private universities have collaborated with "Seven Sons" institutions. Some have even conducted personnel exchanges with them. 

The reason behind this is the relatively low awareness among Japanese universities regarding the potential diversion of academic research for military purposes. Consequently, transfers of confidential information from Japan to China are likely to occur without our knowledge.

Need for a Security Clearance System

The AIST falls under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. On top of that, the suspect had been employed there for over 20 years. This makes the implications of the data breach exceptionally serious. It raises questions as to why a state-funded research facility would employ an individual with ties to China's "Seven Sons." Why didn't AIST properly scrutinize the suspect's background?

In light of these events, the Japanese government is contemplating the implementation of a security clearance system for the private sector. It is crucial to expedite the adoption of such a system to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo.

Varying Degrees of Media Attention

Newspapers had varying approaches in covering the recent data leak case. On June 16, The Sankei Shimbun and The Yomiuri Shimbun featured the incident prominently in their printed editions. However, Nikkei, The Asahi Shimbun, and The Mainichi Shimbun reported the incident in their society sections. Asahi provided the least coverage, presenting the facts of the incident in an indifferent tone. It is interesting to observe the different perspectives of the print media in assessing the gravity of the Chinese researcher's espionage activities.

The late Shigeo Hiramatsu, renowned for his analysis of publicly available information on China, including the People's Daily, shared his insight. He said, "On the internet, it's difficult to know which articles are important. Printed media, on the other hand, have to select and publish information within limited space. Therefore, articles appear in different sections for editorial reasons. They may appear on the front page, second page, lower sections, or in smaller sections."

However, this is different when it comes to news websites, which have become the primary platform for news reporting. Online versions of Sankei and Asahi may appear to be providing similar coverage of the AIST incident. But in the realm of print media, the varying degrees of importance attributed to this issue by each newspaper are evident.



(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Ken Kotani

Ken Kotani is a professor at the College of Risk Management at Nihon University.

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