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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

Updated 47 mins ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

60 mins ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

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