Jan 25, 2022 - World

DOJ's China Initiative under scrutiny as cases fall apart

Illustration of a gavel
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The tide of public opinion may be turning against the Justice Department's China Initiative, as more cases fall apart and more of the researchers charged are speaking out.

The big picture: Chinese government-linked economic and industrial espionage in the United States is a real concern, but the China Initiative's flaws may be overshadowing the problem it was intended to address.

Driving the news: A high-profile China Initiative case fell apart last week when prosecutors dropped all charges against Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Gang Chen.

  • "For 371 days, my family and I went through a living hell," Chen wrote in an essay published last week by the Boston Globe, referring to the number of days between his arrest and the charges being dropped.
  • “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges,” Chen said in a statement.

Catch up quick: Chen's arrest in January 2021 on grant fraud charges followed a string of similar arrests of researchers of Chinese heritage, but it generated a wave of public indignation the previous arrests had not.

  • Chen's colleagues immediately took to Twitter to contest and even ridicule the charges against him.
  • More than 170 MIT professors signed an open letter declaring their support for their colleague, and MIT backed him and covered his legal costs — unlike scientist Anming Hu, whose employer, the University of Tennessee, fired him after his arrest in February 2020 for wire fraud, reinstating him after a judge dismissed the charges against him.

A growing number of lawmakers, Asian American organizations and civil rights groups have demanded a probe of the China Initiative for what they say is racial profiling of Chinese American researchers.

  • "The news about Dr. Chen's case is a promising development," said Patrick Toomey, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.
  • "We have seen the damaging effects of this discriminatory program and hope this is the beginning of the end. ... Under President Biden, the Justice Department must fundamentally reform its policies that enable racial profiling in the name of national security," Toomey said.

The China Initiative has resulted in several guilty verdicts, sometimes involving clear cases of economic espionage and tech theft, but in other cases for what appear to be relatively minor administrative infractions.

  • Harvard chemist Charles Lieber was recently convicted of lying to the FBI about his China ties and for not reporting income from a Chinese university on his tax returns.

What they're saying: The Department of Justice should separate actions aimed at preserving research integrity from those targeting espionage, Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology analyst Emily Weinstein wrote recently for Foreign Policy magazine.

  • "Lumping together cases such as Lieber’s under a broader espionage umbrella does more harm than good."

Go deeper: The DOJ's China Initiative could be problematic for civil rights

Go deeper