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The Ill-conceived China Initiative Backfires

Oct 03, 2022

The hounding of scientists and scholars in the U.S. based on knee-jerk notions of loyalty and hidebound stereotypes of ethnic behavior is not new; but the re-emergence of what otherwise seemed to be an ugly habit of the past has made an unwelcome comeback in this supposedly enlightened day and age. Since the days of the Russian revolution, and the Chinese revolution that followed in its footsteps, Jews, especially of Russian descent, and Chinese in general have been subjected to questions of loyalty in the U.S., in part because their respective homelands “went communist.” 

The China Initiative, a case of Department of Justice over-reach spurred on by the Trump administration’s jeremiad against China was wisely closed down earlier this year, but individuals caught in the maw of the initiative’s machinery continue to suffer. 

U.S.-based scientists from China are still feeling the heat of torch-and-pitchfork fires lit during the intemperate rule of President Trump whose hostility to immigrants was neatly encapsulated in his “Build the Wall” rhetoric against Mexico. Trump's animus about “foreigners” extended far beyond his pointed complaints directed south of the border and extended across the Pacific as well. 

Trump’s infamous “Kung-flu” jab was just one of many crude statements made by a crude man, but it won’t be easily forgotten. His careless habit of tarring entire categories of people with a single brushstroke was echoed by his subordinates such as Mike Pompeo and Stephen Miller who made moves to halt Chinese student inflow to the U.S. 

The Trump administration also introduced the much-trumpeted “China Initiative,” led by the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD) and supposedly responsible for countering nation-state threats to the United States. 

In its mission statement, the China Initiative was described as being tasked with “identifying and prosecuting those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage, the Initiative focuses on protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises, as well as combatting covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency.” 

That’s a fancy bureaucrat cover for what became a racially tinged witch hunt against scholars from China. 

Chinese scholars who maintained regular ties with people in China (is it not natural to have plentiful family ties in the country of one’s birth and upbringing?) or who traveled to China too often or who gave an unconvincing answer on a questionnaire or who failed to fully cooperate with investigating authorities could find their careers derailed and lives turned upside-down. And those are the lucky ones who didn’t face detention and jail time as well. 

Chemical engineer Feng “Franklin” Tao, one of the first scholars targeted, was in the news this week for winning a major acquittal. He had been arrested under the China Initiative for hiding ties with China and put on unpaid leave at the University of Kansas. One-by-one the charges were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. He still faces a minor technical charge for not declaring work he did for Fuzhou University on a conflict-of-interest form, but there is no evidence of wrongdoing associated with his failure to mention that association. 

The Department of Justice also saw a setback in its case against Southern Illinois University mathematician Xiao Mingqing, when an Illinois judge refused to impose the prison sentence requested by the DOJ on the grounds that he had filed incorrect tax returns and had not disclosed a foreign bank account. 

In a similar move to drop what were probably trumped up charges, Hu Aiming at the University of Tennessee was acquitted after spending a year under house arrest. 

It doesn’t come as a great surprise then that the Wall Street Journal recently bemoaned the looming loss of talent and reverse brain drain in a September 22, 2022, article by Sha Hua and Karen Hao: “U.S.-China Tensions Fuel Outflow of Chinese Scientists From U.S. Universities.” 

Actions have consequences, and the unjust hounding of individuals is always wrong. 

This is not to say that people never spy – they do, globally – but counter-intelligence has to be carried out intelligently and in line with laws and legal norms. It is simply unacceptable in the United States, where ‘innocent till proven guilty’ is a bedrock concept, to punish the many on account of a few. 

In the myopic paranoia of the 1950s McCarthy trials and red-baiting that followed, it was conveniently forgotten exactly which countries the U.S. was allied with during World War Two, but China and Russia were both firmly on the Allied side. Furthermore, participation in the American Communist Party was not only not a crime, but relatively popular in the wake of the economic dislocation of the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

Of all the Chinese scientists who historically came under unwelcome scrutiny for activities construed as too “friendly” to China, or for minor discrepancies in their paperwork, the most famous case is that of MIT-trained scientist and Manhattan Project veteran Qian Xuesen. 

After a trip to Shanghai to see his family and get married, Qian returned to the U.S. in 1947 to take up a teaching position. Upon his return he had replied “no” to the perennial question on the U.S. immigration form asking if he had “ever had been a member of an organization advocating overthrow of the U.S. Government by force.” 

Qian may have felt he was telling the truth, but his name was discovered on a document produced by the American Communist Party and that technicality contributed to his downfall. He was also accused of associating with known “communist sympathizers” most of whom were Jewish, such as Frank Oppenheimer (whose famous sibling Robert was head of the Los Alamos bomb project) and a Pasadena Communist Party organizer named Sidney Weinbaum who was born in Russia and later imprisoned on perjury charges. 

Qian Xuesen’s colleagues at Caltech were supportive, but after five years of house arrest and harassment, the by-then disgruntled Qian returned to China and vowed to never return to the U.S. 

"It was the stupidest thing this country ever did,” said former Secretary of the Navy, Dan Kimball, who had hoped to keep Qian, who he regarded as a man of genius, in the U.S. “He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go." 

Qian’s contributions to China’s fledgling Chinese nuclear program were significant if not game-changers. His ballistics expertise left its mark on the design of the Dongfeng missiles and Long March rockets which are in use today. The “Father of Chinese rocketry” retired quietly in Beijing and lived long enough to see his rocket design propel Chinese astronauts into space. He died in 2009. 

It may be hard for politicians to see clearly beyond borders, but academics and scholars are trained to view the world in factual terms. It is a testament both to contributions and character of Qian Xuesen and his American friends and supporters at Caltech that he was granted a Distinguished Alumni Award long after his controversial return to China. His award was presented to him at his home in China in 1979 by his old Caltech colleague and friend Frank Marble. 

Echoing the famous case of Qian, the U.S. has continued to lose excellent Chinese scholars and academics due to the repercussions of the China Initiative and the further tensions it brought to the China-U.S. bilateral relationship.

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