University scientists and civil rights groups in the United States are offering qualified praise for the federal government’s decision last week to rename and revise the China Initiative, a controversial, 3-year-old law enforcement campaign intended to prevent the Chinese government from stealing U.S.-funded technologies.
“Dropping the name is good,” says Steven Pei, an electrical engineer at the University of Houston who has been a prominent advocate for reforming an initiative critics say has unfairly targeted U.S.-based scientists of Chinese origin and improperly subjected researchers who made paperwork errors to criminal prosecution. “But the real issue is how the new policy will be implemented.”
But Pei and other observers worry the China Initiative has already done lasting damage to international research collaborations. The same suspicions that fed the initiative, they say, are driving Congress toward adopting tougher disclosure rules for U.S. researchers working with foreign partners and banning certain collaborations altogether.
Since its launch in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, the China Initiative has resulted in criminal charges against some two dozen academic scientists, typically for failing to tell U.S. funding agencies about their financial ties to Chinese institutions. Most of the defendants were of Chinese origin. Although several pled guilty and were sentenced to prison terms, prosecutors dropped other cases and only one scientist, Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber, has been convicted by a jury.
Both that checkered record and sharp criticism from many quarters led to a review of the initiative by President Joe Biden’s appointees at the Department of Justice (DOJ). Last week, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, who took over DOJ’s national security division in November 2021, announced the initiative will now be called “a strategy for countering nation-state threats.” The new name, Olsen explained during a 23 February speech at George Mason University, recognizes that the biggest danger to U.S. national security comes from foreign governments, not individuals or a particular ethnic group.
China stands at the top of that list, Olsen said, pointing to its ongoing cyberattacks and silencing of dissent as well as several explicit acts of economic espionage. He cited a recent speech by FBI Director Christopher Wray that described China’s behavior as “more brazen and threatening than ever before.”
In another change, Olsen said federal prosecutors will look more carefully at whether academic scientists accused of disclosure violations should face criminal charges. Science advocates have argued that most such lapses should be treated as a form of scientific misconduct and addressed with civil or administrative penalties. Olsen appeared to tacitly agree, referring to statements from academic leaders that DOJ’s “pursuit of certain research grant fraud cases … can lead to a chilling atmosphere … that damages the country’s scientific enterprise.”
Olsen also acknowledged criticism from civil rights advocates that the Trump-era label had “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias.” But he did not apologize for any missteps that might have occurred, a silence that rankles many scientists.
“If you don’t admit that you’ve done something wrong, then how can you prevent it from happening again?” asks Pei, a co-organizer of the nonprofit Asian Pacific American Justice Task Force, which has highlighted the plight of scientists it believes have been unjustly prosecuted. Pei and others would like DOJ to conduct a blanket review of all pending cases. “That would go a long way toward winning back the trust of the Asian and scientific communities,” Pei says.
In his speech, Olsen said the new strategy would be applied “going forward” and not used to review existing cases. Even so, the government has agreed to a 3-month delay in the case of physicist Zhengdong Cheng, a tenured professor who was fired by Texas A&M University, College Station, after the government accused him of defrauding NASA by not disclosing ties to China in a 2013 grant application. The trial of Cheng, who was detained for 1 year after his August 2020 arrest, was supposed to start on 4 April. But 2 days after Olsen’s speech, Cheng’s lawyer filed an unopposed motion for delay. It states the government and Cheng “have now entered into good-faith negotiations to resolve the prosecution … so that justice may be done.”
Olsen also promised to exercise greater oversight over FBI-conducted investigations. Michael German, a former FBI special agent now at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, says the China Initiative emboldened FBI agents to target anyone with ties to China rather than following the traditional practice of gathering evidence of wrongdoing before pursuing a full-blown investigation. “If your boss calls it the China Initiative, then you focus on anyone with connections to China,” German says.
That strategy backfired in the prosecution of Anming Hu, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was acquitted in September 2021 in a trial in which FBI agents admitted they had found no evidence of economic espionage. German hopes FBI will now put a priority on cases where it suspects espionage or the theft of intellectual property. Pei suggests using a simple metric for determining whether DOJ is following through on its reforms: “Fewer knocks on the doors of academic scientists by FBI agents.”
But Margaret Lewis, a China scholar and law professor at Seton Hall University, worries the new policy may do little to protect valuable collaborations with China given the abundant “anti-China rhetoric in Washington.” She notes that both the Senate and the House of Representatives have voted to prohibit any scientist supported by China’s foreign talents programs from receiving federal research dollars—a consensus that makes the ban likely to be included in a massive pending bill aimed at strengthening the ability of the United States to compete with China. If that happens, Lewis fears universities could create administrative “buffer zones” that cover other kinds of interactions with China, in order to make sure that faculty don’t violate the ban.
That prospect troubles Peter Michelson, a physicist at Stanford University. Last year, he helped organize a faculty petition asking Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the China Initiative that has become a template for similar letters from many U.S. campuses. “I’m afraid that university administrators have become increasingly gutless in standing up to government research agencies because they are so dependent on federal funding,” he says. Chinese students—who represent a significant fraction of U.S. graduate students in many technical areas—are increasingly wary of coming to a country they believe doesn’t want them, Michelson adds. “This year [at Stanford] there was a significant drop in the number and quality of Chinese applicants to some of our graduate programs,” he says.
Such thorny issues are a big reason many scholars see DOJ’s announcement as only a first step. The name change “recognizes that our concerns were legitimate,” says John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an advocacy group. “But there is a lot more work to be done.”