March 9, 2022 — Early one morning, federal agents swarmed the home of Gang Chen to arrest him. The commotion woke his family as agents handcuffed him to take him away. The mechanical engineer from MIT was booked on charges that he failed to disclose research funding from Chinese entities, and he was placed in a jail cell.
The date was Jan. 14, 2021, and Gang Chen, PhD, pleaded not guilty to all charges.
At the time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Leo Rafael Reif, PhD, said in a letter to the university community, “For all of us who know Gang, this news is surprising, deeply distressing and hard to understand.”
The year before, Chen had been detained at Logan Airport in Boston after a trip abroad. That time, his electronics were confiscated.
But in January 2022, the government abruptly changed course and acknowledged in U.S. District Court in Boston that it could not prove the charges. U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins said dismissing the case would be “in the interests of justice.”
Chen, who has returned to MIT, has shared about what he calls, 371 days of “living hell.”
Critics call this one of the highest-profile failures of a program in need of a remake.
The China Initiative, which started in 2018, was meant to catch scientist spies in the U.S. sharing national security secrets with China but was met with mounting criticism of racial bias and missteps.
In September, 177 Stanford faculty members from more than 40 departments sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, requesting that he end the China Initiative.
Yale professors followed suit in January of this year. Among the statements in that letter was that “the China Initiative is harming the U.S. science and technology enterprise and the future of the U.S. STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] workforce.”
The Department of Justice has been reviewing the plan and now plans to end the China Initiative. Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, announced the change after a months-long review concluded there was merit to criticism of racial bias against Asian Americans and that the effort was potentially harming the United States’ competitive edge in scientific research.
A Call to Be ‘More Thorough and Alert’
Some say the Chen case and others like it show that the program was not catching the intended espionage targets and the people being arrested were often charged with not following disclosure rules.
Others say the arrests should be a wake-up call and that there must be more scrutiny in collaborations between American and Chinese scientists.
Charles Wessner, PhD, a professor of global innovation policy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says cooperation with China within the scientific community should be encouraged “where it is appropriate and there are no national security issues.”
He says universities must take a “more thorough and alert” approach to monitoring faculty cooperation with China. While some subjects are benign, he says, others can be dangerous. Wessner says nanotechnology and semiconductors are two important areas that can raise international security threats.
Harvard Professor Convicted
Caught in the crosshairs of the international tech race between the U.S. and China is Charles Lieber, PhD, former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and a pioneer in nanotechnology.
Lieber, 62, was found guilty in December 2021 of lying to federal authorities about his affiliation with China’s Thousand Talents program and the Wuhan University of Technology in China, as well as failing to report income from the university.
According to the Department of Justice, Lieber received more than $15 million in federal research grants and without telling Harvard, became a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology, and had a contract to take part in the Thousand Talents plan from at least 2012 through 2015. The Thousand Talents plan is one of the most prominent programs designed to recruit high-level scientists to further China’s scientific development and economic gains.
Under the terms of the Thousand Talents contract, the Department of Justice says, the university paid Lieber up to $50,000 a month, living expenses of up to $150,000, and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab in Wuhan, China.
But Wessner argues the Lieber guilty verdict is actually “a lose-lose.”
“Lieber is out of Harvard, at least for now, and there’s been a pall on U.S.-Chinese cooperation, which is at one level unfortunate and, on another, it’s about time to wake up to the realities of Chinese multivariate efforts to acquire technology,” he says.
Others argue that racial profiling has been a direct result of the China Initiative and Asian scientists have been broadly under suspicion.
According to a December 2021 report in MIT Technology Review, nearly 90% of the more than 140 defendants charged as part of the China Initiative were of Chinese heritage.
The MIT Technology Review analysis found that only about a quarter of 77 cases were based on economic espionage charges, and fewer than one-third resulted in convictions.
Alice S. Huang, PhD, a virologist at the California Institute of Technology, and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the initiative did not work as intended and destroyed the lives of prominent researchers.
“It’s not catching the spies that they want to catch. They are in many ways doing racial profiling on every scientist in the U.S. who are ethnically Chinese,” she says.
“They have ruined several families and caused the scientists not to be able to support them. When they’ve been accused and put on leave and trials go on for years, this has caused a lot of personal harm to individuals,” Huang explains.
But after the announcement the China Initiative is coming to an end, she says, “It’s clear Matt Olsen has heard the various complaints by the Asian American groups and has listened to us.”
But, she says, Olsen’s speech showed that “they are proud of having scared the Asian American academic crowd so it will dissuade them from doing anything that will give China the information it wants.”
Prosecution tactics have become an important human and civil rights issue, Huang says, and the community will be watching for proof those tactics will end.
New Program Will Expand Beyond China
Olsen announced that a new program will broaden to focus on Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other countries, and will have a higher bar for prosecution.
Jenny J. Lee, PhD, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says ending the China Initiative is a good start in moving away from singling out researchers of Chinese heritage and stoking fears of collaboration.
“That is certainly a welcome step, but it’s really unclear what will change beyond broadening the countries that will be examined. Clearly damages have already been done.”
Last year, Lee partnered with the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan group of leaders among Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, and the arts, to do a national survey of scientists’ research experience in 83 top U.S. universities.
The survey went to faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students to compare perceptions and experiences of scientists of Chinese and non-Chinese descent.
The survey, taken between May and July of 2021, included a final sample of 1,949 scientists.
Among the top findings was that over the past 3 years, 19.5% of Chinese scientists in the U.S. and 11.9% of non-Chinese scientists unexpectedly ended or suspended their research collaborations with scientists in China.
Those who had ended collaborations with China were asked why they pulled away. Most of the scientists of Chinese descent (78.5%) said the distancing was due to the China Initiative, compared to 27.3% of the non-Chinese scientists who gave that reason.
Researchers also asked foreign nationals about their intentions to stay in the U.S. Among the non-US. citizen scientists in the sample, 42.1% of the Chinese scientists responded that the FBI investigations and/or the China Initiative affected their plans to stay in the U.S., while only 7.1% of the non-Chinese scientists gave that response.
Lee says that scientists, as a direct result of the China Initiative, have become less inclined to apply for big federal grants and less inclined to collaborate with China.
“We know these are two areas where breakthroughs happen — when scientists work across borders and they have the resources to carry out their work,” she says.