Recently, some renowned American universities and academic societies released letters from scientists criticizing the same thing — the China Initiative, a McCarthy-like scheme launched by the U.S. Department of Justice to address China’s supposed economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. According to the scientists, the initiative is a xenophobic overreaction and is antithetical to an open research environment.
In other words, it’s designed to persecute scientists of Chinese origin on the excuse that they are connected with Chinese academic entities. During the Trump era, the initiative was styled as one of the most useful tools for instigating a new “Red Scare” in the United States and scoring political points in elections.
In the letter titled “Current U.S. Policy on China: The Risk to Open Science,” seven prominent American physicists from the American Physical Society, one of the biggest academic societies in the country, denounced the China Initiative for undermining American advantage in science and technology for years through the unwarranted arrests of some scientists of Chinese origin.
Their letter appeals to scientists and students to work with them to intensify their commitment to research integrity. Sylvester James Gates, Jr., one of the letter’s authors, is president of the APS and served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration.
In September, 177 professors and staff members at Stanford University wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for him to end the China Initiative. The Stanford faculty members expressed concern that the initiative could put virtually any researcher on trial because of various academic connections with foreign countries, including foreign funding and foreign appointments. They also worried about the competitiveness of American science and technology as the China Initiative is increasingly setting higher barriers for recruiting Chinese scholars and postgraduate students.
It is well known that scientists of Chinese origin have made significant contributions to American innovation. For instance, around 30 percent of America’s top artificial intelligence researchers are of Chinese origin. No wonder Steven Chu — the former U.S. energy secretary, a Nobel Prize winner and a professor at Stanford University — asked: “We were the brain gain for half a century. You really want to throw this away?”
Some cases brought under the China Initiative proved that allegations of spying are utter nonsense. Anming Hu, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was accused of an alleged failure to disclose ties to a Chinese university. After a year in custody, Hu was released after a jury failed to reach a verdict.
The case was regarded by the DOJ and some supporters of the China Initiative, as an example of why every scholar of Chinese origin should be treated as a potential spy. Later, an FBI agent named Kujtim Sadiku admitted that he was wrong when he accused Hu of spying for China.
Qing Wang, a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, was charged with wire fraud and false statements. According to the DOJ, Wang deliberately concealed his connection with Central China Normal University and lied to receive more than $3.6 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health.
In July this year, the department moved to dismiss the case against Wang, declining comment when local media asked it to explain its sudden decision.
Apparently, the DOJ found it lacked sufficient evidence to justify its charge against Wang. During his year in custody, Wang was fired by the Cleveland Clinic and his reputation as an American scientist was ruined. Recently, according to a report by WilmerHale, an American law firm, the China Initiative has resulted in seven failed prosecutions, including the cases of Hu and Wang.
A negative legacy from Donald Trump, the China Initiative was not only inherited by Joe Biden but was also upgraded to new high. Some fear the China Initiative will create a new type of injustice that threatens the whole academic community.
The letter from Stanford was soon supported by about 140 faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley. Faculty and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology organized a rally called “We Are All Chen Gang” to support an MIT professor who was arrested by the FBI on allegations of federal grant fraud.
The Chinese-American community has begun to express disappointment over the China Initiative. In late September, the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan organization of Chinese American elites, released a report opposing the new wave of racial discrimination brought by the initiative.
“Publicizing alleged crimes by a racial minority more than similar crimes committed by others risks painting the whole race as more prone to that criminal conduct than others,” the report said.
It seems the DOJ stopped publicly announcing new cases related to the China Initiative on its official website in May. Nevertheless, American academics continue to worry that the FBI may arrest American scholars of Chinese origin at any time unless the Biden administration changes policy direction.
Biden’s misguided China Policy should be held responsible for the wrongs done to scientists of Chinese origin in the United States because it views China as a strategic competitor based on an outdated view of China and the China-U.S. relationship. That’s what led to the China Initiative’s creation in the first place. One hopes the Biden administration will respond positively to the voices of the scholars and return to the right track as soon as possible.