Joe Biden expected to sign executive order countering Asian-American discrimination

Mark Magnier
·5-min read

US President Joe Biden was expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday aimed at countering discrimination against Asian-Americans as the community made an all-out push to end the Trump administration’s controversial “China Initiative”.

The initiative, launched in 2018 by the Justice Department, aimed to blunt Chinese influence. Supporters have said it has put Beijing on notice, but critics have countered that it has produced few results and significant collateral damage, including a chilling effect on scientific exchange and the demonisation of Asian-Americans.

“The community is reacting to the immediate threat before them. They feel besieged because of the mass investigations … Trump’s rhetoric and the spike in hate crimes,” said Aryani Ong, an Asian-American rights activist and former civil rights lawyer. “This organising represents an effort to stand up and announce that Asian-Americans belong in the US and deserve to have their rights protected.”

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Biden’s expected executive order aimed at countering Asian-American racial discrimination will be part of a themed “Equity Day” scheduled for Tuesday. Other executive orders were expected to establish a commission on policing and limiting transfers of military-style equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

Behind the bid to eliminate the China Initiative is the growing confidence and political power of a community that traditionally steered clear of politics or confrontation as a so-called “model minority”, its members have said.

A record 21 Asian-American and Pacific Islander lawmakers were elected to Congress in November. The country has its first vice-president of Asian descent. And the number of Asian-Americans who voted for the two Democrat candidates in this month’s Georgia Senate runoff was enough to push them into the win column, giving the party overall control in Congress.

Efforts to kill the China Initiative are taking several forms. Susan Lee, a Maryland state senator, is working with Democrat US Representative Jamie Raskin on holding congressional hearings as a first step toward tougher laws and regulations, said sources.

Raskin is chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, in Washington in 2019. Photo: Reuters
Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, in Washington in 2019. Photo: Reuters

“It’s not whether a hearing will take place but when, and how to make it successful,” said one Asian-American who has been conferring with congressional staff.

This follows a letter sent January 5 to Biden urging the incoming administration to end the initiative and mount a complete review of all prosecutions and investigations targeting Asian-Americans and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers and students.

The letter, signed by community organisations, advocacy groups, science associations, and prominent individuals, also called on the incoming administration to investigate and combat racial bias against Asian-Americans in law enforcement, intelligence and scientific research.

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And in recent days, the community had launched fundraising campaigns aimed at raising awareness and helping to defend three Chinese-American scientists who supporters have said are victims of the China Initiative.

That effort has raised over US$750,000 with GoFundMe campaigns for Gang Chen, a 56-year old Massachusetts of Technology professor charged earlier this month with grant fraud for allegedly hiding his relationship with China; University of Kansas chemist Feng ‘Franklin’ Tao, charged with fraud and making false statements stemming from his research work with China; and Texas A&M University professor Zhengdong Cheng, charged with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud.

In a November press conference on the second anniversary of the initiative, FBI director Christopher Wray and Justice Department officials gave themselves high marks for investigating and prosecuting trade secret theft and economic espionage, countering threats posed by Chinese foreign investment, exposing supply chain vulnerabilities and building public awareness on dangers posed by Beijing.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s theft of sensitive information and technology isn’t a rumour or a baseless accusation,” said FBI director Christopher Wray. “We’ll continue our aggressive efforts to counter China’s criminal activity.”

But critics point out that few charges filed as part of the initiative have involved espionage, with most involving mistakes on forms and misfiling. Of 61 charges announced under the programme to date involving researchers and scientists, none appears to involve economic espionage or trade-secrets theft by some counts.

The issue – and the anger engendered by Trump’s derogatory use of such language as the “China virus” and “Kung flu” during the pandemic – has united the often divided Asian-American community.

Last year, Asian Americans reported over 2,600 hate incidents during a period of a few months, compared with a few hundred in most years going back to 1999, said Ong, who met a senior FBI official in late 2018 to raise concerns about bias.

Those trying to end the initiative, however, acknowledge that it will be difficult. There is strong bipartisan support for a tougher line on China as Washington struggles to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness, intellectual property theft and diplomatic chest-thumping. That makes it difficult to take a softer line on any policy with “China” in the title, they have said.

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And even if the programme is officially halted, it is likely to continue in some form given bureaucratic momentum. There are currently an estimated 2,500 FBI investigations under way and a new one is reportedly opened every 10 hours on average.

Asian-American activists said individuals who break the law should be punished. But blanket prejudice against a community that is over-represented in vital science and technology fields, with the language and cultural skills important in diplomacy, government, intelligence and the military is counterproductive and unfair, they added.

“There is a growing and broad sense that Asian-Americans are not perceived to be fully American, even now,” said Ong. “It’s in the US’ best interest to leverage all its people’s assets, and Asian Americans play a key role.”

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