Another trial begins for the DOJ’s troubled China Initiative

Foreign Affairs

Charles Lieber, the former head of Harvard University’s chemistry department, is now on trial accused of hiding financial ties to China. His is the latest case under the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which has come under growing criticism for creating an atmosphere of fear among Chinese scientists.

charles lieber
Harvard University nanotechnology professor Charles Lieber arrives at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A federal trial began today in Boston for Charles Lieber, the former head of Harvard University’s chemistry department, who was arrested in January 2020 and accused of hiding financial ties to China. Lieber’s is the latest high-profile case in the troubled China Initiative, launched by the U.S. Justice Department in 2018 with a broad objective of “disrupting and deterring the wide range of national security threats posed by the policies and practices of the [P.R.C.] government.”

The China Initiative has come under increasing scrutiny in the years since it began, but especially in the past half year.

  • In June, the U.S. government dropped half a dozen cases without prosecution or any evidence of wrongdoing, and in September, the first China Initiative academic case to go to trial, against Hú Ānmíng 胡安明 of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, ended in acquittal on all counts.
  • At Stanford University, 177 faculty members signed a letter in September saying that the Initiative had “deviated significantly from its claimed mission,” and instead of deterring national security threats, was instead “harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and […] fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
  • Hu later told the New York Times that the trial was “the darkest time of my life,” and scientists and university administrators told the paper that the U.S. government targeting of ethnic Chinese scientists “has slowed research and contributed to a flow of talent out of the United States that may benefit Beijing.”

Two recent media investigations pulled back the curtain on the China Initiative’s record:

  • “Nearly 90% of the defendants charged are of Chinese heritage,” the MIT Technology Review writes, based on a database of 77 cases involving over 150 defendants.
  • “Instead of focusing on economic espionage and national security, the initiative now appears to be an umbrella term for cases with almost any connection to China, whether they involve state-sponsored hackers, smugglers, or, increasingly, academics accused of failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms.”
  • The “climate of fear created by the prosecutions has already pushed some talented scientists to leave the United States and made it more difficult for others to enter or stay,” according to the MIT Tech Review.
  • The China Initiative “has produced few convictions — and lots of complaints about racism and FBI misconduct,” Bloomberg reports today in a separate investigation.
  • Of the largest group of cases, which involve disclosure failures but no accusations of spying, “almost half of those cases have been dropped,” while only “20% of the cases allege economic espionage, and most of those are unresolved. Just three claim that secrets were handed over to Chinese agents.”

After the MIT Tech Review article, one lead architect of the China Initiative, Andrew Lelling, wrote on LinkedIn:

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. DOJ should revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.

Lelling defended part of the intent of the Initiative in comments to The Wire China: “Every major research institution is aware of the problem now, and what the stakes are, and that’s because the government has made them aware.”

Unfortunately, that has also had the effect of creating an atmosphere of fear among Chinese scientists in the U.S.

  • “Around 42.2% of Chinese scientists — people of Chinese descent or heritage, regardless of citizenship — in the U.S. feel racially profiled by the U.S. government, compared to 27% of Asian scientists who are not Chinese, and 8.6% of non-Chinese scientists, including faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students,” University World News reported in October, citing a study from Jenny Lee and Xiaojie Li at the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100.
  • “I’m scared to serve,” Yiguang Ju, a prominent aerospace engineer at Princeton University told the New York Times last month. A decade ago, Ju, a naturalized American citizen, had received a prestigious opportunity to work with NASA, but he said he would decline such an offer today because the “spotlight on Chinese scientists at academic institutions was too great, and the pride of working with the agency not worth the possible risk to him and his family.”