US ‘China Initiative’ stymied scientific innovation, study says

·6-min read

The Chinese-American scientific community marshalled more ammunition on Thursday in its bid to roll back the Justice Department’s “China Initiative” with the release of a detailed study aimed at fighting racial bias in national security investigations.

Since the Justice Department launched the initiative in 2018, designed to fight suspected Chinese theft of technical secrets and intellectual property, indictments have risen; so too have stories on the cost of the programme measured in baseless accusations and ruined careers, activists and community members have said. But they have argued that hard data needed to fight against well-entrenched policy in Washington is lacking.

Thursday’s 30-page study by two University of Arizona researchers – quantifying the widespread racial profiling of Chinese scientists in US academia, the high value placed on their contribution and the chill the investigations have on innovation – is meant to help address that gap. And similar findings by at least two other scientific organisation studies are expected soon.

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“The results of the study are not particularly surprising, that this has caused a lot of fear and damage. But the quantification of it, attaching numbers to it, is very important,” said Jeremy Wu, founder of APA Justice, one of numerous groups fighting to end the initiative. “After that, it’s a question of what to do with it. If you want to fight espionage, use a scalpel, punish the guilty, don’t engage in racial profiling.”

Underscoring the challenge faced by the Asian-American community in its campaign to kill the China Initiative, Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Christopher Wray on Thursday doubled down in arguing that the programme was more essential than ever.

Addressing the Economic Club of New York, Wray said Beijing is expanding its use of “non-traditional collectors”, including businessmen, researchers, graduate students and scientists “effectively under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party, all geared towards a common aim of trying to steal our information to put the Chinese government in a way to become the world’s only superpower”.

According to Thursday’s report, funded by the Committee of 100 civic group, more than 90 per cent of 1,949 top Chinese and non-Chinese scientists working in the US said Chinese researchers made important contributions to research and teaching, while over three-quarters from both groups felt the US should strengthen scientific collaboration with mainland China.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Capitol Hill in Washington in March. Photo: AP
FBI Director Christopher Wray on Capitol Hill in Washington in March. Photo: AP

On some issues, however, the views voiced by the two groups diverged widely. Nearly half of Chinese scientists, including Chinese-Americans, felt they were racially profiled by the US government compared to just eight per cent of non-Chinese who said they faced discrimination. And nearly four in 10 Chinese scientists reported trouble getting funding because of their race, nearly three times the level reported by non-Chinese.

Many of the Chinese scientists from top US labs and universities indicated that the FBI crackdown has had a chilling effect, prompting them to limit contact with their Chinese scientist counterparts, shut down joint projects and avoid future collaboration to avoid appearing on the agency’s radar.

Ironically, the stated objective of the initiative – to bolster US competitiveness and frustrate Beijing’s plans to dominate strategic global tech markets – is undermined by vilifying talented Chinese researchers crucial to US innovation, some argued.

“What was interesting is how much this was undermining the ability of the US to be competitive,” said Jenny Lee, education professor at the University of Arizona, one of the study’s authors. “Much of this was fuelled by the idea that we need to be competitive with China, but it’s actually making it more difficult to compete with China.”

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Further complicating the Asian community’s effort to end the FBI investigations and Justice Department indictments are bureaucratic intransigence, the steady deterioration in US-China relations, strong bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Washington and the many agencies directly and indirectly involved, activists have said.

“I keep using the example of rowing upstream; you can’t stop or else you’re falling behind,” said Wu. “It’s up to the Department of Justice to tell the public what they consider China Initiative cases, how much money we’re spending on this, and what they have to show for it. How many spies have they found? So far, all they’re showing is a lot of people who didn’t fill out forms correctly, a gotcha situation.”

While most civic groups acknowledge that economic espionage by China is a very real threat, countering it needs to be done judiciously, rather than going after an entire ethnic group, they argue. And while the FBI programme is a key focus, profiling spans other agencies that fund grants, approve visas, oversee universities and vet projects, civic groups said.

“The Asian-American and immigrant community needs to come together in solidarity to call for an end to the racial profiling of our communities, starting with the ‘China Initiative’,” said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “The racial profiling of Asian Americans is a problem that impacts all Americans.”

APA Justice’s Wu said he estimates the FBI has about 3,000 “China Initiative” investigations under way, as the agency said it is opening a new case every 10 to 12 hours.

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According to the FBI, some 80 per cent of economic espionage prosecutions brought by the DOJ – watchdog groups estimate there are between 70 and 85 cases to date – allege “conduct that would benefit the Chinese state”.

A recent study by Andrew Chongseh Kim, a lawyer with the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Houston, Texas, found that Asians prosecuted under the Economic Espionage Act were punished more severely compared to non-Asians, and may have been falsely accused more often than Western defendants.

Asian-American groups say countering the initiative and its excesses will be a slog involving lobbying Congress and the White House, mounting court challenges, and swaying public opinion.

Authors of the study add that US anti-Chinese sentiment has likely affected its results, adding that if anything the sense of crisis among Chinese scientists is worse than reported.

Lee, who has been carrying out surveys for two decades, said she has never before had individuals contact her personally - in this case to make sure the survey was legitimate and not an FBI ruse to identify those collaborating with the Chinese.

“I’m not sharing this with the FBI, but this is an indication of the climate of fear,” she said, citing higher response rates from non-Chinese than Chinese scientists. “Someone truly worried about being surveilled would not take the survey.”

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

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