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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios; Credit: Riverhead

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, the FBI began collecting information on thousands of Chinese scientists and students in cities across the U.S. The Scientist and the Spy, a book publishing in February, reveals the existence of this former program for the first time.

Why it matters: Recent FBI indictments and investigations, targeting Chinese researchers in the U.S. and aimed at stemming the unauthorized flow of science and tech secrets to China, have raised fears among Chinese-Americans that another period of racially tinged suspicion is upon them.

In The Scientist and the Spy, out Feb. 4, former China correspondent Mara Hvistendahl traces the history of China's theft of trade secrets through the case of a Chinese scientist imprisoned in 2016 for stealing corn seed from Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

In the process, Hvistendahal exposes a classified FBI program that tracked Chinese scientists and science students in the U.S. beginning in 1967 and at least through the 1970s.

  • A letter sent to FBI agents in 1967 "ordered agents to cull names of ethnically Chinese researchers including, implicitly, U.S. citizens from the membership records of scientific organizations," Hvistendahl writes.
  • The result: A "rolodex of an estimated four thousand ethnically Chinese scientists under surveillance."
  • Chinese science students were also targeted. In New York City, 200 students were surveilled; in San Francisco, up to 75.
  • "In their haste to follow orders, some offices followed shaky leads," writes Hvistendahl. Some scientists targeted by the program had only loose ties to China; others were repeatedly interrogated by the FBI. Hvistendahl spoke with the family of one such Chinese-American scientist, Harry Sheng, who was permanently shut out of his career despite never being charged with a crime.

Background: Chinese scientists in the U.S. have faced several extended periods of suspicion and surveillance. Some of their cases offer cautionary tales.

  • In the 1950s, Qian Xuesen, a Chinese scientist who helped the U.S. develop the world’s first atomic weapon, was accused of harboring communist sympathies and spent five years under house arrest. After he was released, he fled to China, eventually helping develop China’s nuclear weapons program.
  • In 1999, a Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was indicted on 59 counts for alleged theft of state secrets and held in solitary confinement for 278 days — until 58 of the 59 charges were dropped entirely. The federal judge responsible for the case apologized to Lee for the harsh conditions of his confinement, and President Clinton later publicly expressed regret for how the case was handled.

Our thought bubble: The spate of investigations and indictments is a response to a real problem.

The bottom line: “If China is shaped by the dueling forces of copying and innovation,” Hvistendahl writes, “America is locked in its own internal struggle, between openness and security.”

Go deeper: The stakes of a China-U.S. decoupling

Go deeper

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The U.S. is now vaccinating an average of 2 million people a day, up from 1.3 million in early February.

Why it matters: That puts us on track to hit President Biden's goal of 100 million doses a month ahead of schedule.

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Harris breaks tie as Senate proceeds with lengthy debate on COVID relief bill

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The Senate on Thursday voted 51-50 — with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie — to proceed to debate on President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, likely setting up a final vote this weekend.

The state of play: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is forcing the Senate clerk to read the entire 628-page bill on the floor, a procedural move that will likely add 10 hours to the 20 hours already allotted for debate.

4 hours ago - World

Netanyahu campaigns against Biden's plan to save Iran deal

Netanyahu campaigns at a gym last month. Photo: Pool/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indirectly criticized the Biden administration for its intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal and told his supporters he was prepared to "stand against the entire world" to stop it.

Why it matters: This is a major change of tune for Netanyahu, who had been careful in his statements on the Iran deal and avoided publicly criticizing President Biden. The statement was part of Netanyahu's attempt to rally his base ahead of Israel's election on March 23.

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