Educational espionage or mistaken paperwork?
Trial failure spotlights controversial “China Initiative”
A misleading email chain and paperwork errors helped put a former University of Tennessee scientist on trial for allegedly hiding his connections to China. In mid-June, his case ended in a hung jury and a mistrial, raising questions about the Department of Justice’s crackdown on researchers tied to China.
Chinese-born Canadian citizen Anming Hu, a former associate professor at UT, faced charges of wire fraud and making false statements. In 2020, federal prosecutors accused him of excluding work at China’s Beijing University of Technology from a disclosure form to improve his chance of winning a research grant from NASA, which cannot fund Chinese universities.
Hu’s defense painted a different picture, saying he told UT and a NASA contractor about working for the Beijing university, but the pay didn’t meet the threshold for disclosure on the form in question.
The fraud charges followed a nearly two-year investigation looking for evidence of the more serious crimes of espionage and trade secret theft. FBI agent Kujtim Sadiku testified during the trial that he began investigating Hu after a tip from a source he no longer remembers, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported. Sadiku said he placed Hu on the federal no-fly list, surveilled the researcher for 21 months, and showed UT administrators a PowerPoint presentation suggesting Hu worked for the Chinese military, though he acknowledged his information wasn’t ultimately corroborated, the Sentinel reported. Due to the investigation and charges, Hu lost his job and passport.
Hu’s case is one on a list under the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” launched in 2018 to investigate economic espionage and theft of trade secrets with a focus on cases benefitting China. According to the department, about 80 percent of the economic espionage cases it prosecutes are connected to China, and academia is vulnerable to theft.
But the dozen or so China Initiative cases against school-based researchers have not included spying charges, Inside Higher Ed reported. Instead, academics faced accusations similar to those leveled at Hu of working for China’s schools or military, leaving the work off grant and visa applications or tax returns, and lying about it to investigators.
Critics say the China Initiative encourages investigators and prosecutors to target academics based on ethnicity. In January, a collection of civil rights and Chinese scientific organizations argued the initiative’s focus on threats from only one country smacked of racism. Seton Hall University law professor Margaret Lewis pointed out that the initiative’s name may encourage prosecutors and universities to view any Chinese academic as a risk.
“The Department of Justice is not making up a threat,” Lewis wrote in a research paper. “It is, however, framing that threat in a problematic way.” After Hu’s trial, three U.S. representatives asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the FBI made false accusations and engaged in racial or ethnic profiling to justify the investigation.
It is unclear whether the department will try prosecuting Hu again. A juror in the trial, Wendy Chandler, told The Intercept she thought the FBI had pursued the case despite little evidence: “All I saw was a series of plausible errors, a lack of support from UT, and ruthless ambition on behalf of the FBI.”
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