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Aiming at China, hitting scientists

Critics accuse the Justice Department’s China Initiative of racism and hindering research


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa, file

Aiming at China, hitting scientists

Early on Jan. 14, 2021, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen was making coffee in his home when a team of federal agents knocked on his door, awakened his family, and arrested the 56-year-old head of MIT’s mechanical engineering program.

His alleged crime? According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Chen failed to disclose seven affiliations to Chinese universities and government entities when he applied for $2.7 million in U.S. Department of Energy funding for academic research.

But last month, the Justice Department reversed course. Prosecutors dismissed the charges, saying that in light of new information they could “no longer meet our burden of proof at trial.”

The backtracking came after Chen spent half a day in jail, was placed on paid leave from MIT teaching duties, and spent a year fighting the legal charges. His research projects suffered, and the postdoctoral students working with him were moved elsewhere. His headline-making ordeal has not only created fear among the scientific and Asian American communities but might also change how the federal government prosecutes researchers with Chinese connections in the future—and perhaps whether it pursues them at all.

Chen’s case is one of numerous DOJ investigations spurred on by the China Initiative, a program begun in 2018 under President Donald Trump to crack down on Chinese economic and scientific espionage. The case against Anming Hu, also part of the initiative, ended in a hung jury and mistrial in June. There are other documented cases of innocent researchers getting caught in the crossfire when authorities try to keep China from stealing U.S. intellectual property.

The redoubled focus on China makes sense—FBI Director Christopher Wray said this week that the bureau opens a China-related counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours. According to the DOJ, 80 percent of the department’s economic espionage cases involve the Chinese government. But some argue the Justice Department’s approach is heavy-handed and unfairly targets academics, particularly those of Chinese descent.

One part of the China Initiative involves looking through research grant applications, which now require applicants to disclose any connections to the Chinese government. But the applications vary from agency to agency. In Chen’s case, he was accused of hiding Chinese affiliations on a 2017 Department of Energy grant application even though the agency didn’t change its form to require such disclosures until 2020.

Scientist groups argue this part of the China Initiative criminalizes mistakes and omissions on grant application paperwork.

“Instead of catching spies, the bulk of the indictments were over failures to disclose affiliations to Chinese universities, usually when applying to federal research funding,” Union of Concerned Scientists President Johanna Chao Kreilick said during a January meeting of APA Justice Task Force, an Asian American advocacy group.

Other Asian American rights groups note that the prosecutions overwhelmingly target people who are ethnically Chinese. According to an investigation by MIT Technology Review, 90 percent of China Initiative cases involved people of Chinese descent.

“There is a generation of academics and young people who are being deterred from naturalizing, applying for federal grant applications, pursuing STEM studies or a career in federal government, and working and studying in the United States,” said Gisela Perez Kusakawa, a staff attorney at the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Ninety members of Congress last year requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate racial profiling concerns related to the China Initiative. Former Justice officials have added their own concerns. In a November 2021 LinkedIn post, Andrew Lelling, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts who brought charges against Chen, said the DOJ had erred.

“When we created DOJ’s China Initiative in 2018, we were responding to long-term concerns about economic espionage involving an emerging geopolitical rival. This was sound policy, but the Initiative has drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus,” he wrote. “DOJ should revamp and shut down parts of the program to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”

The Justice Department did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but MIT Technology Review reported a department statement that it was “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the [Chinese] government” and anticipates “completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.”


Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.

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