Sep 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Chinese researcher accused of spying under China Initiative acquitted of charges

Photo of the Department of Justice building with green leaves in the foreground

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday acquitted Chinese Canadian researcher Anming Hu of all fraud charges, bringing to a close the government's controversial first trial under the Justice Department's China Initiative.

Why it matters: The case drew attention after it ended in a mistrial and heightened the scrutiny surrounding the DOJ initiative, which faces accusations that it leads to racial profiling against Asians in the U.S.

Context: The FBI spied on Hu and his family for nearly two years. Even though agents implicated Hu as having ties to the Chinese military in meetings with Hu's bosses at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, they could not confirm claims of spying.

  • The nanotechnology specialist was instead charged with fraud for allegedly concealing part-time work for a Chinese university to secure federal funding, though UTK officials testified that they knew of the connection.

What they're saying: "[E]ven viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA" in failing to disclose his affiliation with the Beijing University of Technology to UTK, U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Varlan wrote in the decision.

  • The judge added "there was no evidence presented that defendant ever collaborated with a Chinese university in conducting his NASA-funded research, or used facilities, equipment, or funds from a Chinese university in the course of such research."

"We respect the court’s decision, although we are disappointed with the result," DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle told Axios. Hornbuckle did not answer questions about the future of the China Initiative.

Asian American civil rights groups and lawmakers praised the acquittal.

  • "Dr. Hu is finally free to return to his life and be reunited with his family," John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, said in a statement. But the "scars of the prosecution and investigation on Dr. Hu and his family are deep and long-lasting."
  • Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has led efforts calling for a probe into the China Initiative, addressed the DOJ on Twitter: "You should stop discriminating against Asians ... If Hu’s last name was Smith, you would not have brought this case."
  • "We must work vigilantly to ensure that what happened to Dr. Hu and his family does not happen again to anyone," Yang added.
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