Trump’s targeting of Chinese academics likely won’t last after DOJ review


By Sarah N. Lynch, Nate Raymond and Jane Lanhee Lee

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department is completing a review of an enforcement initiative aimed at cracking down on Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft, a review that former officials and critics say will lead to a move away from its controversial targeting of academic researchers.

The so-called “China Initiative” was launched in 2018 under the Trump administration and led by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Its stated goal has been to broadly counter what the department has called “threats to Chinese national security.”

Previous administrations have probed academics for allegedly sharing confidential information with China. However, Trump’s Justice Department has expanded its efforts by investigating professors at American universities to find out if they disclosed financial ties to China when seeking federal grants and by vetting visiting Chinese scholars. military-affiliated universities.

But following the collapse of several cases against researchers and backlash from civil rights groups and some lawmakers who said the program fueled racial profiling of Chinese scientists, the Justice Department of Biden launched a review of the initiative.

Former officials and stakeholders say they expect the Justice Department to move away from prosecuting professors, cases that university professors say have chilled research and spooked academics Chinese-Americans.

They also expect the ministry to drop the word “China” from the program’s name, amid fears the label could fuel anti-Asian rhetoric.

“The lawsuits they filed against professors had nothing to do with espionage or espionage,” said U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California. “It was just racial profiling.”

Matthew Olsen, who heads the department’s national security division, has reviewed the initiative and is expected to complete the effort “soon,” a Justice Department spokesman said.

Lieu and other members of the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus met with Olsen last month to discuss the initiative as part of the review.

“He certainly understood our concerns,” Lieu said.

But the program’s supporters and critics say the department is unlikely to abandon the initiative entirely and instead refocus on state-sponsored investigations of espionage and theft of trade secrets, potentially leaving some critics unsatisfied. .

“For us, certainly, any sort of renaming of the China Initiative and just removing the name China from it wouldn’t be enough for us,” said John Yang, director of the Asian American Justice Center.

The China Initiative continues to enjoy the support of key Justice Department officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, who in a recent speech said the bureau had more than 2,000 active commercial theft cases and was opening a new case involving China every 12 hours.

“There is simply no country that poses a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China,” Wray said.


The Chinese move has led to some high-profile cases, including its bank fraud case against Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Other notable cases include one accusing Chinese officials of hacking into American companies and the department’s Operation Fox Hunt case alleging that Chinese officials traveled to the United States to harass dissidents to return home to face charges.

However, controversy surrounding the cases in academia cast the program in a negative light.

At least 20 university researchers have been charged, including Charles Lieber, a Harvard University professor convicted in December of concealing his ties to China in federally funded research.

But nearly half of academic cases were based on faulty evidence or premises, leading at least nine out of about 20 prosecutions to be dismissed before trial or end in acquittals.

More recently, the department last month dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after prosecutors admitted they could not prove he had hidden ties to China during the seeking federal grants.

Additionally, a November investigation by a Chinese-American advocacy group 10.28.pdf Committee of 100 and the University of Arizona found that about 42% of non-US citizen Chinese scientists now say they are willing to leave the US due to the China Initiative and FBI investigations.

Andrew Lelling, the former US attorney from Massachusetts under Trump, said he supported the China Initiative but now agrees the department should move away from targeting academics.

“All universities now focus more on transparency,” he said, adding that the program has affected how academics share information about their relationships.

“All researchers in international collaborations are now afraid of not disclosing them.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, DC, Jane Lanhee Lee in Oakland, California and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chris Sanders and Aurora Ellis)


Comments are closed.