Calls are growing to abolish a controversial Trump-era initiative that looks for Chinese spies at US universities, which critics say has resulted in racial profiling and harmed technological competitiveness.
In a letter sent to the Department of Justice, 177 faculty members across 40 departments at Stanford University asked the US government to cease operating the “China Initiative”. They argue the programme harms academic freedom by racially profiling and unfairly targeting Chinese academics.
The letter follows the acquittal last week by a US federal judge of a researcher accused of concealing ties with China while receiving American taxpayer-funded grants.
“We understand that concerns about Chinese government-sanctioned activities including intellectual property theft and economic espionage are important to address,” the Stanford academics wrote. “We believe, however, that the China Initiative has deviated significantly from its claimed mission: it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fuelling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
On Thursday, a federal judge in Tennessee acquitted Anming Hu, an ethnic Chinese nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, who had been accused of concealing his ties to Beijing while applying for research funding to work on a Nasa project. The judge said the US government hadn’t proven its case.
“Given the lack of evidence that defendant was aware of such an expansive interpretation of Nasa’s China funding restriction, the court concludes that, even viewing all the evidence in the light most favourable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud Nasa,” US district judge Thomas Varlan wrote in a 52-page ruling.
Responding to the decision, the Department of Justice said “we respect the court’s decision, although we are disappointed with the result”, according to US media. Hu’s attorney, Phil Lomonaco, said the academic was focused now on recovering his tenured position at the University of Tennessee.
“Many universities should have learned from the experience that professor was forced to endure,” Lomonaco said. “The Department of Justice needs to take a step back and reassess their approach on investigating Chinese professors in the United States universities. They are not all spies.”
‘There’s a better way’
The high-profile trial came after a series of arrests of US-based researchers who had been accused of not properly disclosing their work in China in recent years. After a jury deadlock, Hu’s case ended in mistrial in June. An FBI agent admitted that he had “used false information to justify putting a team of agents to spy on Hu and his son for two years”, according to local news reports.
The Trump-era China Initiative began in 2018. In justifying such an operation, Department of Justice said on its website: “The Department of Justice’s China Initiative reflects the strategic priority of countering Chinese national security threats and reinforces the president’s overall national security strategy.” It also publishes a list of successful prosecutions – with the latest one on 14 May.
But critics say while it is necessary for the US to protect its national security, such a programme that targets an entire ethnic group would end up in discrimination against Asian Americans – in particular those who are of Chinese origin.
On 30 July, 90 members of the US congress urged the Department of Justice to investigate what they called “the repeated, wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage”, in a letter to attorney general Merrick Garland.
Last week, Democratic congressman Ted Lieu demanded the Justice Department apologise to Hu. “You should stop discriminating against Asians. You should investigate your prosecutors for engaging in what looks like racial profiling. If Hu’s last name was Smith, you would not have brought this case,” he wrote.
The recent round of calls came in the wake of growing violence against Asians in the US. According to an FBI annual report last month, the number of reported crimes against people of Asian decent grew by 70% last year, totalling 274 cases.
Margaret Lewis of Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, who has been calling on the US government to rethink its approach to research security, said: “I understand the need to be concerned about the Chinese government’s behaviour that incentivises violations of US law, but the US should first not engage in rhetoric that fuels xenophobia and racism.
“It worries me that people with certain characteristics might fall under suspicion,” she said. “Let us not pretend there’s no concern about Beijing, but there’s a better way to do it. Getting rid of the name is the first step.”