Scientists and civil rights organizations are ramping up pressure on Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration to examine whether the U.S. government has been unfairly targeting Chinese-American researchers in an effort to protect government-funded research from foreign influences.
This week, they asked a prominent member of Congress to hold a hearing on a U.S. law enforcement initiative that has resulted in criminal or civil charges against prominent U.S. academic scientists engaged in work with Chinese institutions. They see the hearing—which could occur as early as next month—as a possible first step toward satisfying a second request, directed to Biden last month, to reform or dismantle the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) China Initiative, begun in 2018.
The 1 February letter from a coalition of individuals and scientific organizations asks Representative Jamie Raskin (D–MD), who leads a civil rights oversight panel in the House of Representatives, to hold a hearing that addresses “the racial profiling and investigations of scientists and scholars of Chinese or Asian descent by the Department of Justice, the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and other science funding agencies based on misguided fears of economic espionage and intellectual property theft.”
Some of the same signers joined a 5 January letter to Biden asking him to end the China Initiative “and take further steps necessary to combat the pervasive racial bias and targeting of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers, and students.”
Biden has yet to respond to that letter. But opponents of the China Initiative and related government investigations have been galvanized by last month’s arrest of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering professor Gang Chen on charges that he failed to tell the Department of Energy (DOE) about his ties to Chinese entities and didn’t report a Chinese bank account. The charges against Chen result from a “deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT,” more than 200 of the researcher’s colleagues asserted in a letter to MIT President Rafael Reif. Although the letter to Raskin doesn’t mention Chen by name, it warns that “overzealous, broad, unchecked, overreaching scrutiny” of scientists is “ruining the lives of innocent Americans and crippling America’s ability to advance scientific and medical innovations.”
DOJ officials say allegations of racial profiling are unfounded. “Decisions [on what cases to pursue] are not being made using race or ethnicity as a factor,” says Adam Hickey, a senior career official within DOJ’s national security division. He notes that charges have been brought against several researchers who are not ethnic Chinese, citing the January 2020 arrest of Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber. Nor has the China Initiative singled out academic scientists for additional scrutiny, he says.
“My goal is not to rack up the most prosecutions, but to help federal agencies achieve the greatest possible transparency,” Hickey says. “The statutes [on defrauding the government and failing to disclose material information] apply to anyone receiving federal funding. And if you lie, that’s against the law.”
A heavy financial burden
Activists hope a hearing will also expose what they see as prosecutorial overreach in the case of Franklin Tao, a University of Kansas (KU) chemical engineer. He was arrested in August 2019 and faces charges involving incomplete reporting of his ties to Chinese entities.
The government alleges that Tao “was hiding the fact that he was working fulltime” at Fuzhou University—through a national program aimed at recruiting top-notch scholars, many of them born in China as Tao was—while doing research at KU funded by DOE and the National Science Foundation. In a motion to dismiss the charges, Tao’s lawyer writes: “Dr. Tao never accepted a teaching position at Fuzhou or anywhere else … and therefore had no obligation to make any disclosure to KU.” The motion also says the government is trying to “transform what is at best a garden-variety employment dispute … into a string of federal fraud offenses” that carry sentences of up to 50 years in prison.
Tao says he wants to clear his name by going to trial. If that happens, it could be the first such public airing of a China Initiative case. (Others have been settled through plea agreements or are still in progress.)
Tao’s wife, radiologist Hong Peng Tao, says legal costs have exhausted the couple’s savings and put their family deeply in debt. A solicitation on social media has brought in more than $250,000, but she says most of that money has already gone to pay for legal services. A trial would require an additional $500,000, she notes. Franklin Tao has been on unpaid administrative leave since last summer, and Hong Peng Tao is working three jobs as an ultrasound technician.
Chen’s employer, MIT, is paying for his legal defense. That’s not the case for Tao, nor for Lieber, who has sued Harvard for not doing so. Lieber maintains that his status as a faculty member entitles him to such support; Harvard has declined to comment.
“Best interests of the United States”
Sources say Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, is sympathetic to the concerns raised in the letter. He declined to comment, however, with staff noting he is busy leading the effort to impeach former President Donald Trump. But sources say a hearing could occur as early as March.
The hearing would be the first time the Democrat-controlled House takes a critical look at the China Initiative, launched by then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November 2018. The Senate, which was under Republican control until last month, has in recent years held hearings and issued reports that emphasize the growing threat from China and accuse U.S. universities of insufficient vigilance. Congress has also tightened federal oversight of research in annual bills providing policy guidance to the Department of Defense. In addition, days before leaving office, Trump issued a memorandum listing steps that federal research agencies should take to uphold “American values” in monitoring foreign interactions by grantees.
Any congressional review of the initiative should adopt a broader definition of national security that recognizes the importance of open scientific discourse, says Stanford University physicist Steven Chu, a former secretary of energy who signed the 1 February letter.
“I’d start by asking what is in the best interests of the United States,” says Chu, a Nobel laureate. “I think that the proper response [to China] is to build on our strengths, including the ability to attract and work with scientists from around the world. The United States is still the best in the world at teaching people how to be creative and fostering innovation, and we don’t want to undermine that by restricting collaboration.”
Yasheng Huang, an MIT business professor who also signed the letter to Raskin, says the prosecution of Chen and Tao has become a rallying cry for critics of the government’s actions. They are particularly incensed that DOJ officials have cited common academic activities, such as reviewing grant proposals for Chinese funding agencies and advising Chinese students, to bolster the claim that Chen and others have sided with China in a global competition for scientific supremacy that imperils U.S. national security.
“Many of us do these things on a daily basis,” Huang says. “In that sense, we are all Chen. It’s a fundamental attack on academia. We need to seize the opportunity to demonstrate that this is government overreach, and to turn the tide.”
Chu and Huang feel that Biden’s election has improved the political climate for investigating their concerns about civil liberties. And Susan Lee (D), a Maryland state senator who worked with Raskin in the state legislature before he was elected to Congress in 2016 and who helped organize the letter, says she and others are simply seeking “some balance” in how the China Initiative is carried out.
“Everyone agrees that we need to protect our research from attempted espionage and that there are rules about the disclosure of any foreign ties that must be followed,” Lee says. “But there haven’t been any hearings on civil rights violations and the need for greater transparency, and that’s what we want to see.”
In the meantime, DOJ continues to bring cases under the initiative. On 3 February it charged Lin Yang, a former bioinformatics professor at the University of Florida, with concealing support from the Chinese government in annual reports to NIH, which was funding his work. The government says he also started a company that has advertised its connection to his NIH grant.
Yang resigned in the summer of 2019 after the university began an investigation into his ties with China, according to a university spokesperson. The indictment says Yang moved to China in August 2019.