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Monday, September 20, 2021

Explained: Why academics are urging US to end initiative looking for ‘Chinese spies’ in universities

The Department of Justice introduced the China Initiative in November 2018, under former President Donald Trump, with the aim to counter “Chinese national security threats”.

Written by Sonal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 16, 2021 8:39:20 am
People at a Rally Against Hate to end discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US. (Reuters)

A letter by a group of 177 Stanford University academics has expressed concerns over racial profiling “fueled” through the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which actively looks at Chinese “spies” at the US universities.

The professors have stated that though activities such as intellectual property theft and economic espionage – sanctioned by the Chinese government – must be addressed, the Department’s initiative has “deviated significantly from its claimed mission”.

“…it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling,” the letter argues.

What is the China Initiative?

Then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced the program in November 2018, under former President Donald Trump, with the aim to counter “Chinese national security threats”.

In his announcement speech, Sessions had stated that the China Initiative will help “meet the new and evolving threats to our economy”.

“Today, we see Chinese espionage not just taking place against traditional targets like our defense and intelligence agencies, but against targets like research labs and universities, and we see Chinese propaganda disseminated on our campuses,” he said.

Among the 10 goals identified under the Initiative, one involves the application of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which mandates any foreign entity working in the interest of foreign powers to register as such, to “unregistered agents seeking to advance China’s political agenda.”

To address espionage in universities, the program insists on an enforcement strategy to address “non-traditional collectors” such as researchers in labs or universities who engage in unsanctioned transferring of US technology.

It also aims to create awareness at campuses about certain influences posing a threat to academic freedom and open discourse in universities and colleges.

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Have there been any cases under the China Initiative?

Last week, a US federal judge acquitted Anming Hu, a former nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, accused of hiding Chinese ties in his NASA research grant application.

The government had alleged Hu knowingly concealed his affiliation to the Beijing University of Technology in order to “defraud NASA”, causing it to act contrary to the restrictions against funding any work involving collaboration or participation with China in any way.

However, acquitting Hu of the charges, the judge stated in his ruling that there was “no evidence presented that defendant ever collaborated with a Chinese university in conducting his NASA-funded research, or used facilities, equipment, or funds from a Chinese university in the course of such research”.

In July, the Department of Justice had moved to drop cases against five visiting researchers, who were arrested last year for hiding their ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army. The case of one of the arrested researchers, Tang Juan, was granted dismissal the following day. The department ascertained that she had essentially served her time since the visa fraud charges entail a maximum sentence of a year or less, and Tang and the other four defendants had been imprisoned or restricted in other ways for that period as they awaited trial.

A report by The New York Times states that according to officials over 1,000 researchers affiliated with the PLA left the US, following these arrests last year.

In a year-end review, the Department of Justice stated that under the initiative, it had obtained three guilty pleas in the period 2019-20 out of the 10 cases of alleged “trade secret theft” with Chinese connections. Similarly, it had obtained three convictions out of the 10 cases brought against academics for fraud, smuggling or other charges.

What is the criticism against the China Initiative?

In its letter, the group of Stanford University professors stated, “the China Initiative disproportionally targets researchers of Chinese origin. Publicly available information indicates that investigations are often triggered not by any evidence of wrongdoing, but just because of a researcher’s connections with China.”

The letter went on to accuse the department of “misleading the public” that these prosecutions are an effort to combat national security threats as “most prosecutions are for misconduct such as failure to disclose foreign appointments or funding.” The letter added that these problems should not be equated to “national security concerns.”

Lastly, it argued that the Initiative has hampered the recruitment of Chinese scholars by creating a “hostile environment” for Chinese-origin immigrants or Chinese-Americans.

This isn’t the first vocal criticism of the China Initiative. Among other calls for action by various organisations, a joint letter by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and Stop AAPI Hate in August had also urged US President Joe Biden to pause the program, asking for an independent review into its work.

“In practical effect, the Initiative, which formally began under the previous Administration, subjects Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists and others — particularly those of Chinese descent — to racial profiling, surveillance and wrongful prosecutions, where no evidence of economic espionage or trade secret theft exists,” the letter stated.

The letter was signed by 22 other Asian and Pacific Islander organisations.

Why is it important to address these concerns?

The calls for review or end of the China Initiative come amid the Biden administration’s growing concerns over China’s threat to national security.

In its recent annual intelligence report, the US laid emphasis on China’s push for “global power”. The report stated that it “presents a prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat, possesses substantial cyber-attack capabilities, and presents a growing influence threat.”

“China will remain the top threat to US technological competitiveness as the CCP targets key technology sectors…and allied companies and research institutions associated with defense, energy, finance, and other sectors,” the report added.

Consequently, responding to criticism against the China Initiative, Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle told news agency Reuters that while the government takes the concern of discrimination against Asian Americans seriously, it was “dedicated to countering unlawful (Chinese) government efforts to undermine America’s national security and harm our economy.”

The racial profiling of Asian Americans poses a serious challenge as the US witnessed a rise in Asian-American hate crime following the Covid-19 pandemic, which was accompanied by allegations that it was created at a research lab in China.

This prompted Biden to sign an executive order against the “acts of anti-Asian bias, violence, and xenophobia,” the White House said in a statement in May this year.

The order acknowledged, “Long before this pandemic, AA and NHPI (Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders) communities in the United States — including South Asian and Southeast Asian communities — have faced persistent xenophobia, religious discrimination, racism, and violence.”

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