Jul 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

DOJ drops cases against 5 Chinese researchers

Photo of the DOJ seal with an eagle on it
Photo: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Justice Department on Friday dropped individual cases against five Chinese researchers accused of hiding ties to the Chinese military.

Why it matters: In the last few years, the DOJ has stepped up efforts to root out Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft. The China Initiative has raised concern about racial profiling of Asians, however, and led to calls for investigation into the DOJ's conduct.

What they're saying: Prosecutors will no longer pursue visa fraud and other charges against the researchers, biomedical and cancer scientists as well as a doctoral candidate studying artificial intelligence.

  • "In all of our prosecutions, the Department of Justice evaluates the merits of a case as it prepares for trial.  Recent developments in a handful of cases involving defendants with alleged, undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have prompted the Department to re-evaluate these prosecutions, and we have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them," DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told Axios in a statement.
  • "The Department continues to place a very high priority on countering the threat posed to American research security and academic integrity by the PRC government’s agenda and policies," Hornbuckle said, adding: "We remain fully committed to enforcing the criminal laws that protect the intellectual property, critical and emerging technology, and other national assets essential to our nation’s security and prosperity."

Driving the news: The academics were arrested last July after another researcher told law enforcement he had lied about his military service on his visa application and had been instructed to bring back information.

  • Defense lawyers argued their clients were collateral of the U.S.-China rivalry for power. Some FBI analysts also expressed doubt about the merit of the five cases, according to court papers filed this week.
    • "The step comes after the defense called on Monday for the case to be dismissed, based on recently disclosed evidence of a report by FBI analysts that questioned if the visa application question on 'military service' was clear enough for Chinese medical scientists at military universities and hospitals," according to Reuters.
  • Judges had already dismissed parts of two cases after it was revealed FBI agents hadn't properly informed them of their rights against self-incrimination.
  • The trial for Tang Juan, one of the researchers, had been set to begin on Monday.

The big picture: An FBI agent’s recent admission that he baselessly targeted a Chinese Canadian researcher in an economic espionage probe has led to a flood of criticism.

  • Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Advancing Justice-AAJC, argue the China Initiative has led to fear and scapegoating of Asian researchers in the United States.
    • Joined by scientists, they have urged the Biden administration to end the program and pursue alternative methods for securing intelligence.
  • Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called for an investigation into FBI conduct following the agent's admission, citing "unfair and unjustified suspicion of those who are of Chinese descent."
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