The US government is ending the China Initiative. Now what?

Completion of the initiative

An investigation by the MIT Technology Review, published in December, found that the Chinese initiative has come a long way from its original mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage, the initiative seemed like an umbrella for China-related affairs. Defendants were often charged with minor offenses such as grant fraud, visa fraud or lying to investigators. But even if the defendants were not accused of espionage, the federal prosecutor’s office still portrayed them as a threat to national security.

Concerns about Chinese economic espionage have been growing among U.S. government officials for years. During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials filed a record number of cases under the Economic Espionage Act, including many against Chinese organizations. It is this department that has charged cyber espionage against five hackers linked to the People’s Liberation Army of China – the first time government officials have been accused of hacking.

But the Chinese initiative, announced by the Trump administration on November 1, 2018, was the first in the history of the Ministry of Justice initiative for a particular country. The announcement came after months of confrontational rhetoric by Trump and administration officials who portrayed China as a threat that required a “whole society” response and recognized all Chinese students at American universities as potential spies.

“While I continue to focus on the significant threat posed by China, I have come to the conclusion that this initiative is not the right approach. And instead, the current landscape of threats requires a broader approach.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen

Our investigation included compiling and reviewing a list of cases known to be part of an initiative based primarily on Justice Department press releases covering activities and successes – although the lack of transparency in the department made it impossible to complete list.

We have identified some cases that fully meet the stated purpose of the initiative, such as accusations of hackers related to China’s state security, which are allegedly behind the massive hacking of Equifax data, or prosecution of a Taiwanese company and three people for theft. a trade secret of an American semiconductor company in favor of a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

But the review found that prosecutors were increasingly focusing on research integrity issues such as grant fraud or “double diving” – seeking funding for the same research from both American and Chinese sources – despite the fact that most scholars have been working on basic research that was planned to be published. openly.

Our data also showed that almost all of the accused – 88% – were ethnically Chinese, including many U.S. citizens or people who had lived and worked in the United States for many years.

After the MIT Technology Review published its findings, Andrew Lelling, a former federal prosecutor who helped shape the initiative as a member of the steering committee, wrote in a LinkedIn report that the initiative “was smart policy” but “happened in some significant ways.” lost focus. ”He continued,“ The Ministry of Justice should update and close parts of the program to avoid unnecessary cooling of scientific and business cooperation with Chinese partners. ”

Country policy

In his announcement of the initiative in 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke of “non-traditional collectors,” pointing to researchers in laboratories, universities and the defense sector who have been co-opted to transfer technology against US interests.

“Non-traditional collectors have been used as a euphemism for ‘spies,'” Gisela Kusakova, a staff lawyer for Asian Americans Promoting Justice, said in an email.

“This blurs the line between the Chinese government and people of Chinese descent. In fact, “fixation on” non-traditional collectors “has the effect of focusing on people of Chinese descent, not on those who commit state-sponsored espionage acts,” she added.

Our investigation has shown that by 2021, cases classified by the federal government as “Chinese Initiative Cases” have evolved into a mix of criminal prosecutions that accuse defendants of a wide range of crimes. The only short line was what Justice Ministry officials vaguely described as “ties to China.”

Many groups and individuals who have called for the initiative to be shut down have said they see some actions by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party as a legitimate threat to the economy or security.

But the same groups and individuals have said the government can address these issues without targeting Americans of Asian descent.

We are moving towards clarity

Part of the problem in many scientific cases was that the guidelines for disclosing foreign supplies and other sources of funding were not always clear. Participation in the Chinese Talent Program, for example, is legitimate, although this participation has been a cause for suspicion and a factor in several cases of the Chinese Initiative.

Collaboration with researchers from foreign institutions has long been an accepted and encouraged part of academic life. But tense political relations between the United States and China, as well as the prosecution of scientists under the China Initiative, have created uncertainty about what awaits future collaboration between American and Chinese researchers.

New White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) guidelines for strengthening the security of U.S. research, released in early January, provide some new clarity as to what types of international cooperation are allowed.

The guidelines are designed to clarify requirements for federal-funded researchers and to develop best practices for federal research agencies.

They set the goal of standardized disclosure requirements and forms for researchers seeking federal funding, and provide more information on when researchers should uncover potential conflicts of interest and participate in overseas programs such as Chinese talent plans. The guide also anticipates the possible consequences of violations, including the possibility of criminal prosecution.

And while the instructions do bring more clarity, it’s unclear exactly what impact they will have.

The OSTP directly condemned xenophobia and called for the recommendations to be implemented without negatively affecting scientific cooperation and recruitment.

“The research security challenges we face are real and serious: some foreign governments, including the Chinese government, are making every effort to illegally acquire our most advanced technologies. This is unacceptable, ”former OSTP Director Eric Lander wrote in a report outlining the guidelines.

“At the same time, if our policies to combat these actions significantly reduce our superpower of attracting global scientific talent – or if they incite xenophobia towards Asian Americans – we have done more harm than any competitor or adversary. That’s why we need a well-thought-out and effective approach. “

Many experts who suggested written contributions to the rules recommended that the guidelines contain some kind of “amnesty” mechanism, a way for people involved in talent programs and other affiliates to reveal these ties without fear of punishment – although if the idea is out of the question. first released in early 2021, Republican lawmakers quickly beat it.

Asked how researchers should act in the absence of an amnesty provision, the OSTP official cited wording in instructions instructing research agencies to “ensure that disclosure corrections exist, are clear and simple and straightforward.” OSTP rules encourage researchers to speak out to uncover past violations, but language may not be enough to reassure researchers after China’s three-year initiative.

“The Chinese initiative has been looking for problems in academia that academics haven’t even figured out yet,” said Emily Weinstein, a Chinese policy analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and New Technologies who was one of the experts recommending some forms of amnesty.

“There has to be some type of olive branch,” she says. “Just fixing the disclosure requirement is just putting on a bandage.”

A moment of celebration and the need for reflection

But even after the initiative is over, there is “palpable fear” in academia, says Rory Trueks, a professor at Princeton University who wrote about the impact of the initiative on American science.

Notably, hundreds of people from academia have come together to oppose the government’s actions, including many non-ethnic Chinese researchers, Truex says.

“Scientists and scientists in general rarely act collectively,” Truex says.

Changes in the initiative may not fully solve the problems of the Asian American community.

“The end of the Chinese initiative of the Ministry of Justice is a huge step towards stopping the racial profiling of Chinese scientists,” wrote Jenny J. Lee, a professor at the Center for Educational Policy Research and Practice at the University of Arizona, in an email to the MIT Technology Review. to Olsen’s announcement.

“However, antagonistic views on China, including those related to China, are likely to continue,” she added. “Negative stereotypes and discrimination against the Asian community are spreading far beyond the courtroom.”

“China’s initiative and the wider rhetoric around it have damaged our country’s competitiveness, ruined the careers of innocent scientists and severely damaged the government’s relationship with Asian-American communities,” said Linda Ng, national president of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates. in an e-mail following the announcement .. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the revision of the Justice Department’s program, it should not be rebranded. Attorney General Garland and Assistant Attorney General Olsen should commit to reforms that are substantial and focused on preventing an unjust racial attack. National security interests should never be used as a pretext for the systematic deprivation of civil liberties of Asian Americans and scholar-immigrants from Asia. “

And for scientists who have been prosecuted by the government, the trials also continue – sometimes for years – after they have been acquitted.

The cases of hydrologist Sher Chen and physics professor Xi Xiaoxing were both dated by the Chinese Initiative – charges against them were filed in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But they took similar paths when prosecutors dropped charges in court. Years later, both are still ongoing lawsuits and damages against the federal government.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, who was accused of fraud, false allegations in a tax return and non-disclosure of a foreign bank account, was eventually acquitted in court because the government could not withstand the burden of evidence.

He is back in his lab and back in class. He is confident he will continue his work, but will not apply for federal grants in the future, despite the fact that government grants make up a significant portion of the money available to fund research. “I don’t know yet how I’m going to do it,” he said in an interview with the MIT Technology Review a few days after his dismissal. “I have to figure it out.”

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