On 13 September, a website called Winds of Freedom — set up by Stanford faculty members — published an open letter dated 8 September and signed by 177 faculty members, calling for US Attorney General Merrick Garland to terminate the “China Initiative” introduced in 2018. These academics raised criticisms that the programme has “deviated significantly from its claimed mission: it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
Reuters reported that the letter is now being supported by about 140 University of California, Berkeley professors.
Before this, on 19 August, over 20 Asian-American advocacy groups jointly sent an open letter to US President Joe Biden, saying the China Initiative “subjects Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists and others — particularly those of Chinese descent — to racial profiling, surveillance and wrongful prosecutions”, and should be paused. And on 9 April, Asian Americans Advancing Justice sent to the White House a petition signed by 29,318 directly impacted individuals calling for the president to “put an end to the racial profiling of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants and end the Justice Department’s ‘China Initiative’”.
It is worth noting that unlike the previous letters from the Asian American organisations, just looking at the names of the 177 faculty members who signed the Stanford letter, many of them are non-Asian.
Why are these academics opposed to the China Initiative? And from the perspective of the US government, why continue the programme?
How the China Initiative began
The China Initiative was a national security policy launched under the former Trump administration. In the National Security Strategy report released in December 2017, the White House clearly defined China as a “strategic competitor” of the US, claiming that China threatened US national security and interests, and accusing China of violating US intellectual property.
On 1 November 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the China Initiative, along with investigations and prosecutions of companies and individuals engaging in activities including theft of trade secrets and economic espionage, countering China’s intelligence activities, and responding to the threat posed by China’s overseas investments.
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) website, the goals for the China Initiative include identifying priority trade secret theft cases, developing an enforcement strategy concerning “non-traditional collectors” (e.g., researchers in labs, universities and the defence industrial base), and educating colleges and universities about potential threats to academic freedom and open discourse from influence efforts on campus.
The DOJ website also lists examples of “China-related cases”, including the case of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s financial fraud, without explaining if/how these cases were uncovered through the China Initiative.
US academics criticise three flaws of China Initiative
In their open letter, the Stanford academics acknowledged the importance of protecting both intellectual property and information essential to the US’s national and economic security, but said the programme has deviated from its claimed mission, and called to replace it with an appropriate response that avoids the flaws of this initiative.
The academics felt that the China Initiative suffers from three fundamental flaws. First, it disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese origin, where “investigations are often triggered not by any evidence of wrongdoing, but just because of a researcher’s connections with China”. Such racial profiling has discouraged many scholars of Chinese descent from coming to or staying in the US.
Second, the academics noted that “in most of the China Initiative cases involving academics, the alleged crime has nothing to do with scientific espionage or intellectual property theft. Most prosecutions are for misconduct such as failure to disclose foreign appointments or funding. While such problems should be addressed, they should not be confused with national security concerns.”
Third, the academics felt that the China Initiative was “harming the US science and technology enterprise and the future of the US STEM workforce”. They said that since World War II, the US has ”benefited from an influx of many of the most talented scientists from around the world, including a large number from China“. The China Initiative has created “an increasingly hostile atmosphere”, which seriously hampered US efforts to recruit the best Chinese students and postdoctoral scholars.
Finally, the open letter made the criticism that some cases in the China Initiative showed “a significant misunderstanding of how scientific research works”, where “normal academic activities that we all do, such as serving as referees and writing recommendation letters, are adduced as evidence of ‘extensive dealings with the PRC’”. The academics felt such actions were detrimental to international collaboration and harmed the US’s ability to innovate.
...the DOJ naming an initiative after a country was itself discriminatory, went against the spirit of justice, and “criminalised” China and scientists of Chinese descent. - Professor Margaret K. Lewis, Seton Hall Law School
Reuters quoted Peter Michelson, an organiser of the letter, who said: “I think what the FBI's done in most cases is to scare people — investigating people and interrogating them. And it's harmful to the country.”
Another organiser, former US Energy Secretary and Nobel prize winner Steven Chu, a professor at Stanford, said in the same Reuters report that rather than helping to protect US advantages in technology and understanding, the programme risked undermining America’s lead in science. ”We were the brain gain for half a century. You really want to throw this away?”
A recent journal article titled “Criminalizing China” by Professor Margaret K. Lewis of Seton Hall Law School said the main aim of the China Initiative was not any specific person, but “general deterrence”. She felt that the DOJ naming an initiative after a country was itself discriminatory, went against the spirit of justice, and “criminalised” China and scientists of Chinese descent.
“Some will complain that (the prosecutions) might have a chilling effect on collaboration with the Chinese… unfortunately this kind of response is needed.” - Andrew Lelling, former US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts
Washington’s considerations and typical case studies
In response to criticism of the China Initiative, Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle told Reuters that the US government was “dedicated to countering unlawful (Chinese) government efforts to undermine America’s national security and harm our economy”. But he also acknowledged the threat of hate crimes against Asian Americans, saying, “We take seriously concerns about discrimination.”
A more straightforward official response was given on 6 February 2020 at a China Initiative Conference conducted by American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. An organiser of the event and then US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said, “Some will complain that (the prosecutions) might have a chilling effect on collaboration with the Chinese… unfortunately this kind of response is needed.” Now that everything is made public, the academic community would know that the federal government is serious about enforcement in this area, Lelling added.
On 12 November 2020 at an event marking the second anniversary of the China Initiative, then US Attorney General William Pelham Barr said, “In the last year, the Department has made incredible strides in countering the systemic efforts by the PRC to enhance its economic and military strength at America’s expense.”
While academics seem to oppose Washington’s position, they are actually looking at the problem from different perspectives. In fact, public cases showed instances of individuals who have either been proven innocent or guilty after investigation.
Hu Anming, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was charged by the federal government for failing to disclose his ties with a Chinese university in conflict-of-interest forms he submitted to the University of Tennessee in February 2020. His charges included wire fraud and making false statements. Hu was later acquitted of his charges on 9 September local time.
But in another case, Zheng Song Guo, a rheumatology professor and researcher at Ohio State University, was charged for hiding his relationship with a Chinese university, receiving overlapping funding from the Chinese government, and using approximately US$4.1 million (S$5.5 million) in grants from the National Institute of Health to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology in what prosecutors called a “sophisticated” scheme. Zheng pleaded guilty last November and was sentenced to 37 months in prison in May this year.
“Given that there are about 107,000 Chinese citizens in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at US universities at the graduate level or above, current (Justice Department) charges imply a criminality rate in this population of .0000934, less than 1/10,000.” - Rory Truex, Assistant Professor, Princeton University
While cases that reach the sentencing stage are rare, such cases do exist. Perhaps academics think that such an elaborate and “carpet bombing” style of investigation is flawed. Foreign Policy reported that “the FBI’s thousands of investigations under the initiative have not unearthed widespread IP theft among researchers”.
In the same report, Rory Truex, an assistant professor at Princeton University, explained that over the 20 months of investigations in 2019 and 2020 under the initiative, personnel from ten US universities or research institutions had been formally charged, but only three of the cases involved evidence of espionage, theft, or transfer of IP. He explained, “Given that there are about 107,000 Chinese citizens in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at US universities at the graduate level or above, current (Justice Department) charges imply a criminality rate in this population of .0000934, less than 1/10,000.”
On the other hand, the DOJ might think that the few cases that had concrete evidence and achieved a formal sentence happened because of the China Initiative. Because when cases involve national security, it is reasonable to expect that no effort should be spared. As described on the DOJ’s website, preventive measures are also an important part of the China Initiative. That is, these investigations would deter and prevent the occurrence of espionage and other crimes.
The China Initiative was launched in Trump’s era when he was attacking China in all areas. It is likely that the future direction of the initiative and the people’s evaluation of it will be closely tied to how precise and targeted the initiative is.
Competition and openness
The China Initiative was launched amid escalating China-US competition. If not properly managed, negative perceptions of the US’s academic environment generated by the initiative could spread to countries apart from China. And this would certainly impede the innovation and development of the US’s scientific research, leading to a loss of competitiveness.
On 31 August at the 2021 World 5G Conference, Global 5G Science and Technology Cooperation Forum, Professor Zheng Yongnian, founding director of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, said that if competition between China and the US is inevitable, then the key determinant of that competition will be the extent to which each country is more open and not more closed, as he believes that the future belongs to the country that is more open.
He thinks that if Trump had imposed a “total blockade” on China, then Biden is currently imposing a “precise blockade” on China. The China Initiative was launched in Trump’s era when he was attacking China in all areas. It is likely that the future direction of the initiative and the people’s evaluation of it will be closely tied to how precise and targeted the initiative is.
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