Letter urges US Congress to hold hearings on racial profiling of Asian-Americans

Mark Magnier
·5-min read

Dozens of influential representatives from the scientific, civil rights and Asian-American communities released a letter on Monday urging the US Congress to take steps to end racial profiling and halt unreasonable investigations into researchers and scholars of Chinese descent.

The letter comes as Asian-Americans, emboldened by a change in the administration and the growing electoral power that helped put the new president and lawmakers there, become increasingly vocal about defending their interests and rights as US citizens.

“We cannot continue to be a leader in science and technology if we promote xenophobia and racial profiling within our own borders,” signatories wrote in the two-page letter, addressed to the chairman of a key civil rights committee in Congress. “Immigrants are not a threat. Rather they are a part of the solution to the United States’ global challenges.”

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Congress has held numerous hearings on the espionage threat from China but none fully addressing the rights of Chinese-Americans who have been wrongly targeted, leading to overreach that jeopardises the nation’s cutting-edge research efforts, supporters of the initiative said.

Monday’s letter called on Representative Jamie Raskin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and a Democrat from Maryland, to hold oversight hearings on perceived bias and excesses behind FBI China-influence investigations and National Institutes of Health vetting.

This latest effort to raise awareness over perceived bias against Asians was led by Susan Lee, the Maryland State Senate majority whip. Supporters hope it will lead to laws that attack discrimination against Asian-Americans and other minority groups.

“It’s really upset our community like you wouldn’t believe,” said Lee in an interview, adding that her grandfather was questioned during the 1950s Red Scare era by the FBI for nothing more than reading Chinese-language newspapers. “We’re very serious about this. We’re part of America too. Why are we getting singled out?”

Trump and members of his cabinet frequently referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and the “Kung flu”, helping fuel a rise in verbal and physical attacks against Asian-Americans.

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No hearing has been scheduled, in part because of Raskin’s leading role in preparing the impeachment case against former president Donald Trump. Raskin was himself trapped in the Capitol building when Trump supporters stormed it on January 6, claiming the November election was rigged.

Those signing the letter included former cabinet members, Nobel Prize winners, politicians, representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, National Weather Service, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Stanford University, Committee of 100 and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

This is one of several recent efforts to push back on the “China Initiative”, a Department of Justice programme started in 2018 aimed at countering Chinese influence that has reportedly seen a new investigation opened every 10 hours.

In recent days, supporters have raised nearly US$1 million to help defend three Chinese-American scientists who supporters have said are victims of the China Initiative. And last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order condemning the wave of racism toward Asian-Americans in response to the pandemic.

“We’re wildly happy that he stepped up, but let’s take it another step,” said Lee. “This toxic political environment we’ve been in the past four years with scapegoating has been so irresponsible, destroying people’s lives and careers.”

Supporters of the China Initiative say it has been justified and put Beijing on notice. Critics have countered that it has produced few results and significant collateral damage. Those calling for hearings acknowledge that China’s influence operations and effort to acquire leading edge US technology are real and concerning.

On Monday, the Justice Department announced that former Ohio resident Li Chen, 47, had been sentenced to 30 months in jail for stealing scientific trade secrets related to the treatment of liver fibrosis and liver cancer. According to court documents, Chen, who received support from the Chinese government, conspired to steal and exploit one of the secrets by creating and selling kits through a company she started in China.

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,” Wray said. “We’ll continue our aggressive efforts to counter China’s criminal activity.”

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But Wallace Loh, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park, and a signatory to the letter, warned against the profiling of an entire group of people.

“Any US government response that assumes all students, scientists and scholars of Chinese descent are potential intelligence risks is unfair and unwise profiling that has no place in our democracy,” said Loh.

Added Terry Lierman, an adviser to the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology who was involved in organising Monday’s letter to Congress: “The overzealous, broad, unchecked and overreaching activities fuelled by a xenophobic and toxic political climate have not only led to mistakes in investigations … but also have crippled America’s ability to develop medical innovations that can enhance the quality of and save lives.”

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