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FBI spied on Chinese students and scientists, new book reveals

Book jacket for The Scientist and The Spy
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