Biden terminates China probe ‘due to impact on science’

Citing the “rise in anti-Asian hate crime and hate incidents” in the United States and the fact that the prosecutions of American scholars of Chinese descent for research grant fraud has created a “chilling narrative for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country”, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen announced the end of the China Initiative on 23 February.

“I want to emphasise,” Olsen told an audience at George Mason University in Washington DC that included members from the National Security Institute, that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) “actions have been driven by genuine national security concerns” about covert influence by China, including theft of trade secrets, cutting-edge semiconductor technology, seeds developed for pharmaceutical uses, malicious cyber activity and transnational repression (of Chinese studying or working in the United States).

“But by grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we have helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country [China] or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently.”

While the Asian Pacific American (APA) Justice Task Force welcomed the termination of the China Initiative, the Virginia-based organisation disagreed with Olsen’s assertion, made after the DOJ’s self-assessment, that there was no racial bias in the China Initiative.

“The work to address racial profiling against Asian Americans is far from over. … The flawed ‘China Initiative’ has caused immeasurable damage to victims and eroded the trust and confidence Asian-Americans and the academic communities placed in law enforcement,” the APA Justice Task Force said in a statement posted on its website.

Trump’s crackdown on China

Announced by then attorney general Jeff Sessions on 1 November 2018, the China Initiative, the nation’s premier effort to thwart and punish industrial and academic researchers who funnelled economic and military research to China, was an essential part of former US president Donald Trump’s crackdown on China.

Eighteen months after the China Initiative began, some 5,000 agents were assigned to the initiative tasked with preventing China from stealing technologies that were vital to America’s economic and military interests. In July 2020, FBI Director Christopher A Wray fairly crowed that the bureau was “opening a China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours”.

Critics of the programme, like Law Professor Margaret Lewis from Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told University World News that prior to the China Initiative, the US government had been prosecuting professors suspected of aiding and abetting China. The creation of the initiative, however, fundamentally altered the law enforcement ecosystem.

“Once you call something and make it an initiative,” the scholar of China says, “you start seeing which officers are doing cases that fit that description. And whether you say it or not, that does put pressure, intended or unintended, to find cases that fit the initiative which is in the spotlight.”

Further, she pointed to the case of Dr Anming Hu, a physics professor at the University of Tennessee, as an example of “anchoring bias”. Hu had been charged with six federal charges before being exonerated by Judge Thomas A Varlan in June of last year.

The term ‘anchoring bias’ denotes the situation when prosecutors are so convinced that they have found a perpetrator that they effectively have put blinders on themselves.

In Hu’s case, “the elephant in the room was that he is originally from China. Both explicitly and implicitly the concerns about his ethnicity and former nationality [Hu holds Canadian citizenship] would play in the perceptions of potential criminality,” she says.

Judge Varlan was scathing in his dismissal of the case. “There was no evidence presented that the defendant ever collaborated with the Chinese university in conducting NASA-funded research, or used facilities, equipment or funds from a Chinese university in the course of such research,” he wrote in his one-page opinion that dismissed the case.

One juror summed up the case to the local paper, The Intercept, as a “big giant nothing burger” and said that the prosecutors were intent on extracting their “pound of flesh”.

“The FBI concocted a crime where one did not exist. They were driven by their desire to arrest a Chinese scientist and struggled to find an argument of criminal activity. There was none,” Hu’s Defence Attorney Phil Lomonaco told University World News via email. After his exoneration, Hu, who had been fired by the University of Tennessee, was reinstated.

Pressure to end mandate

Even before assuming office in late January 2020, the incoming administration of Joseph R Biden was being pushed to end the China Initiative.

A letter signed by the APA Justice Task Force, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice implored the incoming president to end it.

The “consequence of these [investigative and prosecutorial] mandates has been that the FBI and federal agencies have put pressure on grant makers, universities and research institutions to participate in racial, ethnic and national origin profiling, collectively leading to discriminatory and stigmatising investigations of people of Chinese descent,” the letter states.

Further, “the FBI and federal agencies have conducted threat awareness sessions at universities and circulated information singling out the threat from China and labelling students, faculty and researchers as ‘non-traditional collectors’.”

In early September 2021, 177 professors at Stanford University signed an open letter condemning the China Initiative.

Two months later, Jenny Lee and Xiaojie Li, researchers at the University of Arizona in the US, and the staff at Committee of 100, an organisation of Chinese Americans in business, academia, government and the arts, released a report titled Racial Profiling Among Scientists of Chinese Descent and Consequences for the US Scientific Community.

They showed that between May and July of 2020, the number of scientists of Chinese and non-Chinese descent investigated by the US government varied greatly.

As University World News reported on 29 October 2021, only 8.6% of non-Chinese scientists (faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students) feel they have been racially profiled by the US government. By contrast, 42.2% of scientists who were of Chinese descent or heritage, no matter whether they had or did not have US citizenship, felt that they have been racially profiled.

Fully, 50.7% of scientists of Chinese descent feel considerable fear and-or anxiety that they are being surveilled by the US government, compared to only 11.7% of scientists of non-Chinese descent.

The China Initiative, the report showed, chilled relations between US scientists of Chinese descent and Chinese scientists. Over the three years that the initiative had been in force, Lee and Li found that 40.6% of scientists of Chinese descent, as compared to 12.8% of non-Chinese scientists, had limited their communication with collaborators in China. The figures for deciding against involving China in future projects or working with researchers in China were equally stark: respectively 23.8% vs 5.8% and 23.2% vs 9.7%.

The report included anonymous statements by professors of Chinese descent that personalised the fear and trembling engendered by the initiative.

“Even though I do not work in a sensitive field, nor do I deal with any privileged or proprietary information, I am increasingly hesitant to interact or collaborate with scientists from China for fear it may be misconstrued by overzealous authorities as a conflict of national interest,” said an American-Chinese associate professor of biophysics.

A Chinese-American professor of mathematics appealed to the Enlightenment dream of the Republic of Letters, “We don’t do anything wrong. Science has no borders. International collaborations should be encouraged. But under the DOJ China Initiative, who knows what will happen?”

Scant results from initiative

The China Initiative consumed an extraordinary amount of law enforcement manpower with amazingly few results.

In “Addressing the China challenge for American universities”, a working paper released last year, Rory Truex, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, presented the maths: “Given that there are about 107,000 Chinese citizens in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at US universities at the graduate level or above, current charges imply a criminality rate in this population of .0000934, less than 1/10,000.”

Put another way, as of last September, federal prosecutors had charged 28 researchers under the China Initiative. Of these, there had been about a dozen convictions or guilty pleas. Of the dozen or so Chinese professors or professors of Chinese descent, the government had convicted only four – none for espionage or theft of trade secrets or intellectual property. (Charles Lieber, a Harvard University chemistry professor, was convicted last month on six counts, including two about making false statements to the FBI when he denied that he was part of the Chinese Thousand Talents Program.)

In addition to retiring the name ‘China Initiative’, Assistant Attorney General Olsen said that its functions would be folded into the DOJ’s national security division. It will be informed by three strategic imperatives, including:

• Defending the nation’s core national security interests and protecting its most sensitive information and resources.

• Protecting economic security and prosperity, including key technologies, private information, supply chains and industry.

• Defending democratic institutions and values to ensure that the promise of freedom remains a reality in the face of rising authoritarianism.

Olsen also underscored the fact that he had started his career as a trial attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. He assured his listeners that the DOJ is committed to protecting the civil rights of everyone in the country.

He said the ill-thought-out China Initiative led to an “erosion of trust in the department [that] can impair our national security by alienating us from the people we serve, including the very [American] communities that the People’s Republic of China targets as victims”.

“Our reputation around the world for being a country dedicated to civil rights and the rule of law,” he declared, “is one of our greatest strengths.”

Speaking for the Committee of 100, the organisation’s president, Zhengyu Huang, welcomed the demise of the China Initiative, which he characterised as “a failed programme that has fuelled racial animosity, xenophobia and suspicion towards the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community and Chinese Americans in particular”.

He also said that while the cancellation of the initiative is an important first step, “much work needs to be done to ensure that all cases being prosecuted are based solely on evidence and not on perception”.