U.S. initiative leads to profiling of Chinese academics


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The Department of Justice launched the China Initiative to combat economic espionage. Since then, it has disproportionately charged researchers of Chinese origin.  

Katherine Kealey

A disproportionate number of researchers of Chinese ancestry have been prosecuted as a result of U.S. efforts to prevent economic espionage, leaving a chilling effect on the scientific community and academia as a whole.

In November 2018, the U.S. The Department of Justice, the FBI and other federal agencies launched the China Initiative. While the intent behind the action was to combat IP theft, it has instead targeted academics of Chinese descent with research integrity issues. While no charges were made in 2018, by 2020, 52 percent of cases were relating to research integrity. 

Of those, 92 percent of cases involved a defendant of Chinese descent. Many of these cases have little or no obvious tie to national security, and a significant number of research integrity cases have been dismissed, according to research from MIT on the China Initiative. The study also found that only about a quarter of people and institutions have been charged.

Hongwei Zhang is a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Iowa State University. Within his field of study, he examines cyberinfrastructures such as 5G and rural broadband. While no professors at Iowa State have faced prosecution, Zhang said he fears his field of study will become a target if 5G becomes a politicized discussion. 

“Unfortunately, this is one of the several cases in the U.S, where communities of certain races are targeted in an unjust manner,” Zhang said. “I fear this is against our Constitution and our mission as a country. Today it could target people of Chinese descent, another day it could be another race. It is just not right for the DOJ Initiative to practice what we have seen in the past years.”

The Chinese Faculty and Staff Association Co-Chair Zhengyuan Zhu, the director of the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology and a professor in statistics, said the unjust prosecution of Chinese and Chinese Americans feels like deja vu, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“It seems they have a much higher standard when they are trying to prosecute someone (not of Chinese descent), but when they are dealing with someone of (Chinese descent), they blow the standards,” Zhu said. “It seems inconsistent from our perspective; it has a huge chilling effect on us.”

Of the more than 2,000 Chinese descendant researchers, 51 percent report feeling fear and/or anxiety about being surveilled by the U.S. government as opposed to the 12% of non-Chinese scientists who report such fear and/or anxiety, according to a study from Arizona State University.

Much of the information relating to the China Initiative has consisted of press releases on the Department of Justice’s webpage for the initiative, mostly reporting on arrests, charges and indictments. The MIT study found the Department of Justice has no definition of what constitutes a China Initiative case and fails to list the cases believed to be part of the initiative. 

“As you could imagine we, as professors, the least thing we have is time,” Zhang said. “Whenever someone is there to charge you simply because of your race, you may well lose everything you have. Being involved in a lawsuit takes a lot of time and we just don’t even have that luxury to try to ponder being wrongfully charged.”

Researchers who have been prosecuted report losing their jobs and damage to their reputations because of unfounded charges. Zhu said that researchers who are found not guilty then miss out on months and even years of research. They also risk losing funding and labs, depending on the response and support from the institution professors are at.

Implications outside of their profession, researchers who have been wrongly prosecuted, have also cited the trauma they and their family endured, Zhu said.

“For us who have not gone through that, it is almost impossible for us to really try to imagine what really happened to them,” Zhang said. “All we can really say is what is being reported.” 

All of these outcomes also trickle down to students, Zhang said, and result in the research and education programs coming to a halt.

“These are all very excellent researchers and that impact is much larger in terms of their students, colleagues, their research program,” Zhu said. “Eventually it is very detrimental to the science.”

While national security is a valid concern, Zhang said the government shouldn’t define an initiative based on a group of people or a country. 

“It is bad to put China in the name of the initiative…and it is obviously for political reasons,” Zhu said. “It is not only just the name but they do target people from Chinese origin which is demonstrated in statistics so they should have better training so they are away from this implicit bias.” 

Chairwoman of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Carmen Gomes, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department, presented the mission of the Good of the Order at the December Faculty Senate meeting. 

The Good of the Order is an open letter signed by more than 2,000 university professors to Attorney General Merrick Garland, expressing concerns about the racial profiling resulting from the program. 

“It is becoming more of an ethnicity profile, not really about espionage,” Gomes said. “We understand that there is a major political issue relating to China in the United States but to target one particular ethnic group, that is concerning because there could be another group faculty identity. It could happen to anyone, and that is the concern.”

Zhu informed Gomes of his concerns about the unjust prosecution taking place. The Faculty Senate determined it would be more impactful for them to join in on The Good of the Order petition instead of creating its own.

“You have to treat everybody equally and you have to act based on evidence, not just your suspicion based on your background,” Zhu said.

Individuals in support of the Good of the Order can endorse the Stanford letter to end the China Initiative here.