Arrests, Cries of Racial Profiling End Feds' China Initiative

Marcia Frellick

March 09, 2022

Early morning federal agents swarmed the home of Gang Chen to arrest him. The commotion woke his family as agents handcuffed him to take him away. The mechanical engineer from MIT was booked on charges that he failed to disclose research funding from Chinese entities and he was placed in a jail cell.

The date was January 14, 2021 and Gang Chen, PhD, pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Dr Gang Chen

At the time of the arrest, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Leo Rafael Reif said in a letter to the university community, "For all of us who know Gang, this news is surprising, deeply distressing and hard to understand."

The year before, Chen had been detained at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts after a trip abroad and his electronics were confiscated.

But in January 2022, the government abruptly changed course and acknowledged in US District Court in Bostonthat it could not prove the charges. US Attorney Rachael S. Rollins said dismissing the case would be "in the interests of justice."

Chen, who has returned to MIT, has shared about what he calls, 371 days of "living hell".

Critics call this one of the highest-profile failures of a program in need of a remake.

The China Initiative started in 2018 was meant to catch scientist spies in the US sharing national security secrets with China, but was met with mounting criticism of racial bias and missteps.

In September, 177 Stanford faculty members from more than 40 departments sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, requesting that he end the China Initiative.

Yale professors followed suit in January of this year. Among the statements in that letter was that "the China Initiative is harming the U.S. science and technology enterprise and the future of the U.S. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workforce."

The US Department of Justice has been reviewing the plan and is opting now to end the China Initiative. Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, announced the change after a months-long review concluded there was merit to criticism of racial bias against Asian Americans and that the effort was potentially harming the United States' competitive edge in scientific research.

Arrests "A Wake-Up Call"

Some say the Chen case and others like it demonstrate the Initiative was not catching the intended espionage targets and the people being arrested were often charged with not following disclosure rules.

Others say the arrests should be a wake-up call and that there must be more scrutiny in collaborations between American and Chinese scientists.

Charles Wessner, PhD, professorof Global Innovation Policy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says cooperation with China within the scientific community should be encouraged "where it is appropriate and there are no national security issues."

He says universities must take a "more thorough and alert" approach to monitoring faculty cooperation with China. While some subjects are benign, he says, others can be dangerous. Wessner says nanotechnology and semiconductors are two important areas that can raise international security threats.

Dr Charles Lieber

Caught in the crosshairs of the international tech race between the U.S. and China is Charles Lieber, former Chair of Harvard University's Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and a pioneer in nanotechnology.

Lieber, 62, was found guilty in December 2021 of lying to federal authorities about his affiliation with China's Thousand Talents Program and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China, as well as failing to report income from WUT.

Harvard Professor Convicted

According to the Department of Justice, Lieber received more than $15 million in federal research grants and without telling Harvard, became a "Strategic Scientist" at WUT and contractual participant in the Thousand Talents Plan from at least 2012 through 2015. The Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent talent recruitment plans designed to recruit high-level scientists to further China's scientific development and economic gains.

Under the terms of the Thousand Talents contract, the DOJ says, WUT paid Lieber up to $50,000 a month, living expenses of up to $150,000 and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.

But Wessner argues the Lieber guilty verdict is actually "a lose-lose".

"Lieber is out of Harvard at least for now and there's been a pall on US Chinese cooperation, which is at one level unfortunate and on another it's about time to wake up to the realities of Chinese multivariate efforts to acquire technology," he says.

Others argue that racial profiling has been a direct result of the China Initiative and Asian scientists have been broadly under suspicion.

According to a December 2021 report in the MIT Technology Review, nearly 90% of the more than 140 defendants charged as part of the China Initiative were of Chinese heritage.

The MIT Technology Review analysis found that only about a quarter of 77 cases were based on economic espionage charges and fewer than one-third resulted in convictions.

Alice S. Huang, PhD, a virologist at the California Institute of Technology, and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the initiative did not work as intended and destroyed the lives of prominent researchers.

"It's not catching the spies that they want to catch. They are in many ways doing racial profiling on every scientist in the US who are ethnically Chinese," she says.

"They have ruined several families and caused the scientists not to be able to support them. When they've been accused and put on leave and trials go on for years, this has caused a lot of personal harm to individuals," Huang explains.

But after the announcement the China Initiative is coming to an end, she added, "It's clear Matt Olsen has heard the various complaints by the Asian-American groups and has listened to us."

However, she says, Olsen's speech indicated "they are proud of having scared the Asian-American academic crowd so it will dissuade them from doing anything that will give China the information it wants."

Prosecution tactics have become an important human and civil rights issue, Huang says, and the community will be watching for proof those tactics will end.

New Program Will Expand Beyond China

Olson announced the new program will broaden to focus on Russia, Iran and North Korea and other countries and will have a higher bar for prosecution.

Jenny J. Lee, PhD, professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says ending the China Initiative is a good start in moving away from singling out researchers of Chinese heritage and stoking fears of collaboration. "That is certainly a welcome step, but it's really unclear what will change beyond broadening the countries that will be examined. Clearly damages have already been done."

Last year, Lee partnered with the Committee of 100, a non-partisan organization of leaders in Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, and the arts, to administer a national survey of scientists' research experience in 83 top US universities.

The survey went to faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students to compare perceptions and experiences of scientists of Chinese and non-Chinese descent.

The survey, taken between May and July 2021, included a final sample of 1949 scientists.

Among the top findings were that over the past three years, 19.5% of Chinese scientists in the US and 11.9% of non-Chinese scientists unexpectedly ended or suspended their research collaborations with scientists in China.

Those who had ended collaborations with China were asked why they pulled away. Most of the scientists of Chinese descent (78.5%) said the distancing was due to the China Initiative compared to 27.3% of the non-Chinese scientists who gave that reason.

Researchers also asked foreign nationals about their intentions to stay in the US. Among the non-US citizen scientists in the sample, 42.1% of the Chinese scientists responded that the FBI investigations and/or the China Initiative affected their plans to stay in the US while only 7.1% of the non-Chinese scientists gave that response.

She says that scientists, as a direct result of the China Initiative, have become less inclined to apply for big federal grants, and less inclined to collaborate with China." Lee adds, "We know these are two areas where breakthroughs happen – when scientists work across borders and they have the resources to carry out their work."

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